20 March 2012

Angelmaker (Nick Harkaway)

OK, so I didn't love Nick Harkaway's second novel, Angelmaker, as much as I did his debut, The Gone-Away World. But since the later asploded my mind right out of my face, across the room, and into a bucket, and I've never been the same, it's almost a relief, you know? To have my socks rocked off only three-quarters of the way?

Here is what did the sock-rockin': Angelmaker is the tale of Joe Spork, son of legendary London gangster Matthew Spork, who's chosen to follow not in his father's footsteps but his grandfather's by repairing clockwork. It's a quiet life, until underworld buddy Billy Friend brings him a commission from a mysterious client: a book of sorts, with punch-card edging on the pages, and an assortment of spare parts that somehow trigger the mechanism. As to how it's done, or what the apparatus does? No idea. But some alarming folk badly want to find out, and they're willing to destroy Joe Spork's peaceful, tinkering existence to do it.

The client, as it turns out, is Edie Banister, elderly but still formidable ex-spy--more lady-Bond than busywork LeCarre (and one wonders what the latter, Harkaway's father, thinks of the over-the-top espionage hijinks of her past)--and she knows what the machine is meant for, who built it, and for whom it was originally designed. I doubt it's much of a spoiler to say its activation could prove apocalyptic.

I suspect every positive review of Angelmaker will necessarily make analogies to clockwork, but it's terribly hard not to, as the baroque plot clicks away towards clarity with the inexorable beauty of well-fitted gears. There's action and romance and dry, loose-jointed humor, and a belligerent blind pug dog who's one of the greatest animal characters I've ever read. Oh, and wee but sinister robot bees! Many, many delights to discover.

18 March 2012

Briefs: To Wed a Wild Lord (Sabrina Jeffries), Pink Smog (Francesca Lia Block), The Thief (Fuminori Nakamura)

Three books I don't have much to say about, but deserving of mention nonetheless:

To Wed a Wild Lord, Sabrina Jeffries: Decent Regency pairing up a reckless horse- and carriage-racer, Gabe Sharpe, with Virginia Waverly, who blames him for the death of her brother in a race years before. Fourth in a series wherein Sharpe's grandmother, worried about him and his siblings, gives them all a year to marry or be disinherited. There's an overarching plot here about their parents' deaths: conventional wisdom holds that their mother shot their father when she mistook him for an intruder and then turned the gun on herself (I KNOW, HEAVY), but their recent investigations point to an even darker truth. I liked the mystery aspect, and Gabe and Virginia were eventually a sweet couple, but I think my lack of interest in horses (yup, never went through that phase as a little girl) kept me from really digging it.

Pink Smog, Francesca Lia Block: I've been regularly disappointed by Block over the past decade, but I couldn't resist this Weetzie Bat prequel because, hey, Weetzie Bat prequel. Here, she's thirteen years old, still Louise, suffering the departure of her father, Charlie, and her mother's increasing retreat into alcohol. It seems to be set in the 1970s (Block herself was thirteen in '75), but it never quite places itself explicitly in time despite the cultural references being dated, which is somewhat confusing. And Louise/Weetzie's conflict with a witchy black-haired neighbor is pretty derivative of her later/previous (prequels to 23-year-old books make temporal adjectives difficult!) clash with Vixanne Wigg (their names are even similar). Too, the prose just isn't as dynamic as WB's, which inspires me to wear boots with skirts to this very day. The novel has a vulnerable, aching heart, however, and I imagine it'll resonate with girls of that age. Probably the ones who read Rookie. Those lucky, lucky girls.

The Thief, Fuminori Nakamura: Japanese thriller about a pickpocket whose participation in a seemingly simple robbery pulls him into an underworld far crueler than his own. It's a dispassionate noir without a lot of twists, but well done. And I adore that it won the 2009 Kenzaburo Oe Prize: not a mystery/thriller award at all, but one given out by the Nobel-winning author to the best "literary" novel of the year! Perhaps there's more genre fluidity in Japan than there is Stateside?

The Duke is Mine (Eloisa James)

So I'm finishing up Eloisa James's "Princess and the Pea" riff, The Duke is Mine, and our orange tabby kitten (Brains is her name! Middle name Amelia, after fellow ginger Pond) starts chomping on the back cover! "NO," I admonish. "Books are not for eating. Undaunted, she takes another bite, leaving delicate little fang marks on the last few pages. The thing is, Little Miss Feisty has never chewed on a book before. Can't blame her, though--I sort of wanted to eat it up myself. This book is yummy.

The ingredients:
  • Olivia Lytton, reciter of dirty limericks, overindulger in meat pies, betrothed from her childhood to the son of her father's friend, the Duke of Canterwick. She's rebelled at every step by her parents' lifelong quest to make a perfect duchess out of her.
  • Said betrothed, Rupert, brain-damaged by lack of oxygen at his birth and hence not exactly the mate Olivia dreams of. (Rupert is a really risky character, especially for the genre, and especially during an early scene where the two's respective parents more or less force them to attempt intercourse to cement their engagement. It's a sign of James's talent that he's ultimately a nuanced and sympathetic character, though he's not the official hero.)
  • Olivia's twin sister, Georgiana, who took to heart the "duchification" lessons of their youth, and is sweet, polite, and struggling to make men notice her. Her lack of family and fortune will be remedied by Olivia's marriage--at least that's the plan.
  • Tarquin, Duke of Sconce (sconce sconce sconce! I wonder if there's a Duke of Wainscoting or an Earl of Crown Molding lurking about), wounded by his first wife's infidelity and the death of their son. He's allowing his formidable mother (ah, the formidable mother trope! I loves 'em. Not in real life) to choose his next spouse--she believes Georgiana will fit the bill, but Quin has immediate hot pants for Olivia, who shows up on his doorstep in a rainstorm.
And those hot pants just get hotter. There's a scene in a treehouse that I started reading over lunch at work--I was interrupted by back-to-the-salt-mines duties and was ever so distracted at the register that afternoon! The passion is paired with a lot of torment, of course, as Olivia risks her engagement and her sister's love, and Quin worries that her tempestuous nature and unwillingness to toe the lines of polite society warn that she'll be a repeat of his disastrous first marriage. These obstacles have satisfying conclusions . . . and there's a scene in a meadow of bluebells that makes the treehouse look positively prim.

13 March 2012

Hide Me Among the Graves (Tim Powers)

So here I am, halfway through Tim Powers' Hide Me Among the Graves, just loving the heck out of it and its unique vampire-y mythos. I tweet something to that effect, and a friend responds, "Oh yeah, I've only read his The Stress of Her Regard. Pretty unique vampires in that one, too." Intriguing, since I'm digging my second Powers read (first being The Anubis Gates, one of the greatest time-travel narratives I've ever read, right up there with Connie Willis's Oxford novels)! I look up Stress of Her Regard, and am somewhat flabbergasted to discover that Hide Me is more or less a sequel to said novel, participating in the same mythos a human generation later. Which fact is mentioned NOWHERE on the cover, nor in online publicity. Bizarre, to say the least!

This is not to say that the sequel status of Hide Me lessens it as a story in the slightest--it stands solidly on its own, and while I'm happy there's another book out there that takes place in the same fantastic alternate history (but with fictionalized Lord Byron! I love fictionalized Byron), I don't think they'll suffer being read in reverse chronological order. Still, William Morrow could've taken the back-cover real estate used to tell us who starred in the Pirates of the Caribbean sequel sort-of based on Powers' On Stranger Tides to mention this is a follow-up to an earlier book, yes?

Hide Me begins in 1845, when 15-year-old Christina Rossetti (yes, that one--poet, sister of eventual pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel) is given a small black stone statue by her father, an artifact he views as both a blessing and a curse--and not quite not alive. She begins to suspect that it somehow holds the soul of her uncle, John Polidori, who was Byron's physician, and whose contribution to the ghost-story composition that produced Mary Shelley's Frankenstein was the novella The Vampyre, which introduced the handsome, brooding archetype of the monster we now take for granted. And that Polidori, who supposedly committed suicide in 1821, has lent his physical appearance to an immortal and malevolent creature, who craves not only human blood but human devotion, and who lends the gift of poetry to its acolytes. Christina feeds the statue and becomes possessed by this being, too late panicking at what she's done and attempting to destroy it with a half-pagan, half-Christian ritual.

Which, unsurprisingly, has less than perfect results--seventeen years later, we pick up the tale of Adelaide McKee, former prostitute and seller of songbirds, and veterinarian John Crawford. Their history is tied up with each other (Crawford is shocked to learn McKee bore him a daughter from a single encounter years previously) and with the creature who haunts the Rossetti family, whom the two seek out in an effort to stop an apocalyptic team-up between the spirit that wears Polidori's face and a female counterpart still more dangerous.

While the baddies here have plenty in common with everyday vampires--drinking blood, being repelled by garlic--they're much more complicated; Powers brings in elements of succubi, Greek lamia, the pre-Adamite giants known as the Nephilim, and several powerful touches of his own, creating a seductive adversary of truly terrifying power, in a shadow London where ghosts hover on the surface of the river Thames. He writes action scenes every bit as well as he weaves in historical figures, and he's as adept with the emotional as he is with the supernatural. And after reading only two of his novels, he's carved out a niche as one of my fave speculative fiction writers.

08 March 2012

A House and Its Head (Ivy Compton-Burnett)

I came perilously close to giving up on Ivy Compton-Burnett's vicious family drama A House and Its Head, published in 1935 and set fifty years earlier. It's probably 90% dialogue, with sparse unspoken segues, and the characters talk over each other and the topic at hand in such a stilted, forced-chipper register that it's sometimes difficult to follow who's in the room or where the action is taking place. I pushed on, however, and once the simmering subtext moves closer to the surface (though it never boils over), I better understood what she was doing, and then I was fascinated.

Also? It helps to imagine the whole thing acted out by the cast of Downton Abbey. There's even a Sibyl! Of course, she's a sociopath. But they kind of all are.

At the helm of this whole sick crew is Duncan Edgeworth, cold patriarch, inflicter of constant verbal cruelties as abusive as a punch to the face and possibly even more wounding. He lives with his two daughters, witty Nance and surface-sweet Sibyl; his wastrel nephew and presumptive heir, Grant; and meek wife Ellen, whose death several chapters in sets off a chain of horrifying events, participated in and covered up by the family and a village network of hangers-on and gossips.

Once crazy shit starts happening, the novel accelerates. What Compton-Burnett pulls off, though, necessitates the sometime-tedium of the first half. Because whether they're discussing being late for breakfast or accusations of murder, no one's demeanor changes. These people are so skilled at mannered dissembling that they've become capable of anything. And as I became more adept at reading between the lines, I grew more chilled by what I found there. In the end, it's practically a horror novel in Victorian fancy-dress--but one that, like the ghost in the Edith Wharton story, only reveals itself afterward.

07 March 2012

Outlander (Diana Gabaldon)

Astute observers will remember that Diana Gabaldon's Outlander was part of Romance February Part Deux. Astute observers will also note that it is now March. Ehn, I read it anyway. It was pretty great

This was my first time-travel romance: heroine Claire Beauchamp Duncan, on a belated post-WWII honeymoon with her husband Frank, walks through a split standing stone in the Scottish countryside and finds herself in 1743. So it's also my first Highlander romance! (I mean, not counting the movie Highlander, which I also just watched recently, and which was also pretty great.) And oh, what a hero! Jamie Fraser is red-headed and brave and sweet and virginal and seriously, I'm all swoon-y, I'm gonna stop with the adjectives. I love his relationship with Claire--she's trained as a combat nurse and keeps patching him up; with her sexual experience, this gives her a physical dominance of him that's very novel and very erotic. They have adventures and English-Scottish-intrigue and whatnot, but really, it's about their Love That Transcends Time *shiver*. And no, Claire doesn't forget about Frank. Her emotional turmoil at being trapped away from him and outside of her own time is very real. In fact, all the emotion is very well-drawn, and the sprawling cast of characters is smoothly handled. Even at 845 pages in mass-market format, it's a quick and enjoyable read.

Two things I didn't care for, though--but they are so very, very spoilery I'm gonna hide them in white text. You should read the book anyway.

One, the villain of the piece--Frank's ancestor, Captain Jonathan Randall, didn't really have to be from the *Depraved Homosexual school of character, did he? (Warning: that asterisk leads to a TV Tropes link. Which, as they say, will ruin your life.) I mean, I understand that sadistic, villainous gay men exist--but it makes me uncomfortable when a fictional character's violence and cruelty is so inextricably linked to his same-sex desires. (Although it's kind of a nice change of pace that the hero gets raped. I mean, not "nice," but interesting from a "consumer of narrative" viewpoint. Also, that TV Tropes link claims it's averted in later books in the series. Hmmmm.)

Also, it's LAME that the book ends with Claire pregnant, when she was having trouble conceiving in the 20th century. Babies are boring in sexytimes books, so there.
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