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But Serezha could not sleep: he was only pretending to be asleep. Outside, the whole house was moving through the twilight into the evening. To the material slave-song of the floors and buckets, Serezha was thinking how unrecognizable everything would become in the light when all this movement was over. He would feel as if he had arrived a second time and, what was more important, well rested into the bargain.
Ah the Russians! What a people. The hallmark of a would-be teenage intellectual is a dog-eared copy of Dostoyevsky – though of course the French also have Sartre and Camus on offer, but really to my mind Notes from the Underground is required reading for the budding existentialist. The Russians nailed this philosophy of distancing oneself from life itself as an unromantic process before Frenchmen had even begun to enrage clerics with their secular pontifications (while donning the necessary turtle neck, puffing on a Gauloises and simpering in impressionable girls’ ears as well!).
As Lydia Slater points out in the introduction to this novel, Russians have the same word for pity as they do for love – zhalet, which may provide a clue as to why Russian literature enjoys such a reputation for philosophical depth. While I was reading the introduction I was alarmed at the degree of emotion expressed regarding the international reception of Pasternak‘s work following the phenomenal success of Doctor Zhivago. It was only later that I realized the introduction was written by the author’s sister.
Where family is concerned, perhaps it is difficult even for Russians to maintain that literary hauteur.
The story of The Last Summer concerns Serezha’s reflections on the events of the previous year in Moscow. The war is still ongoing. His mother has passed away and numbed with shock, he has only just managed to complete his university exams. He travels to visit his sister Natasha and her family. Exhausted from his journey an too tired to indulge his sister’s curiousity about events in the war, he falls into bed and thinks back on the summer just gone.
Following the completion of his studies, Serezha was hired as a private tutor to the son of a family named Fresteln. He is given a room at their mansion, is well-paid and finds the work not to taxing. In the evenings he joins the family for dinner and afterward wanders the city streets till well into the morning. Serezha is a curiously intense and romantic sort. He spends most of his evenings with prostitutes, even developing an obsession with them, convinced that it falls to him to ‘save’, them by dispersing large sums of money to each of the Muscovite street-walkers.
Of course, work itself is not the solution. Work enslaves and provides small financial reward. He hits instead upon the scheme of writing a play for an acquaintance, Kovalenko and with the proceeds liberating these women with whom he feels a kindred spirit.
However, the main focus of Serezha’s romantic interest is a fellow employee of the Fresteln household, a Danish maidservant named Anna Arild Tornskjold. Though she is referred to as the ‘companion’, of Mrs Freteln, when Anna speaks to Serezha she complains that she was recruited under false pretences. Her husband had only just died during a stay in Berlin when she accepted the notice and travelled all this way to discover the role was more menial than described. The two converse in a mixture of German and English, with the intimacy of their talks encouraging Serezha’s interest in the widow.
I have squeezed what little plot there could be said to be found in these pages, but do not take from that that this is a slight novel. Pasternak’s prose is a revelation of descriptive power and private musings. A morning start is described as ‘tangled threads of sultry heat, as nightmarish as crumbs in the beard of a corpse’. This is more poetry than prose, with heavy hints of semi-autobiographical reflection.
Pasternak appears to be describing the death-throes of romance itself in the wake of The Great War. His desire to save not just the prostitutes, but Anna herself, indeed all women, speaks to a peculiar messianism. Serezha’s concerns are far too bound up with his own thoughts. There is a beautiful moment when, having propositioned Anna, she finds him at the appointed meeting time furiously writing a draft of his proposed play. Quietly she retreats, leaving him to his private enthusiasms.
A master of language, beautifully written.
When civilians finally became aware of the unit they had wholeheartedly endorsed it, but the publicity had brought condemnation from naturally secretive government officials. A new generation of number-crunchers had come forward to insist on regulations being followed to the letter. The concept of an agency run on principles of instinct and experience was anathema to them.
Saturday night in Bulli was firmly established as ‘television night’, during Stephanie and my first stay in Australia together as a couple. The evening would begin with Iron Chef, move on to Rockwiz and then be wrapped up with New Tricks. It’s a lovely show about a group of retired coppers solving crimes.
The Peculiar Crimes Unit (PCU) was founded in post-war London to handle cases that remained stubbornly unsolved. Driven by detectives Arthur Bryant and John May, the unit is known for its success in concluding a string of investigations, but also the ability of its lead detectives for upsetting the top brass. In fact having uncovered some embarassing secrets linked directly to the Home Office, the PCU has been unofficially disbanded.
The eccentric Bryant has taken to forced retirement with little grace, pouring over mountains of obscure literature and refusing to leave his home. His partner May has been left dismayed by the abrupt change in their fortunes and is pondering becoming a private eye. The rest of the team resigned in protest at the treatment of Bryant and May to ensure no further action could be taken against them.
Then a series of sightings of an unusual figure dressed in a stag costume in the King’s Cross area provide May with an idea. The location of these appearances is politically sensitive, as much of the development is tied up with a strict government timetable designed to renovate the outer sections of London in time for the 2012 Olympics. When a decapitated body is found in the vicinity, May has just the leverage he needs for the PCU to be reinstated. Except this time they are to receive no assistance from the Home Office, or the Met and their investigation is to be conducted in secret.
Having been forced to accept such a compromise, May needs no reminding that this is the PCU’s last chance. Everything has to be done by the book and within official guidelines. So when Bryant starts ranting about psychogeography, occult rites, chaos theory and pagan sacrifice, May can see that bright light at the end of the tunnel receding ever further away.
It turns out this is the seventh book in Christopher Fowler‘s Bryant and May series. Nevertheless I had no problem getting up to speed, as each of the characters in the PCU is sketched quickly in the opening chapters, even as the business of unfolding the plot begins in earnest. Bryant’s holistic approach to crime-solving draws groans from his colleagues, but their obvious affection for him overrides any concerns with the state of his sanity. The rest of team each have their own quirks and personal relationships to be dealt with, including a Home Office mole who becomes increasingly sympathic to the unorthodox methods of the group.
Fowler enjoys indulging in London esoterica, while also reminding the reader that this is not just another police thriller concerned with naff ancient conspiracies. Cleverly the plot reveals that mundane reality has many a quirk of fate that makes it more interesting than it first appears. The events that unfold are shown in the opening chapter to be connected to the London Blitz; the unidentifiable murder victims’ lives are revisited through a judicious use of flashbacks; environmental activism and a loophole in property law throws up much confusion in the PCU’s path; and finally the eventual culprit does not measure up to Bryant’s desire for a Holmesian nemesis, but is no less dangerous.
This is simultaneously a dry procedural mystery that concerns itself with some strikingly unusual events. There is a sly intelligence behind Fowler’s plot contortions, as well as a love of bad puns. Looking at his blog there’s also an evident interest in London history and popular culture. At one point a character is described as having passionate views vis-à-vis Star Trek versus Battlestar Galactica.
An amusing murder mystery with great characters and fascinating historical detail. Great fun.
She tried to call Conor once she left the store, but all she got was a cheery robot directing her to leave a message: he hadn’t even bothered to put his own voice into the system. She told him that he should wake up, she was on her way home right now, and understood what a pointless message it was as soon as she finished speaking. Her voice seemed to echo back at her and she imagined some vast warehouse where they stored all such unwanted messages, a black space filled with the ceaseless murmur of unheeded questions and complaints and pleas.
I have had the beginnings of an idea for a yarn tickling the back of my mind for days now. It is frustrating me because I feel this flush of resentment that so much of my time is occupied by reading and writing for this blog instead of working on my own ideas – until of course the realization hits that this blog is the best thing that ever happened to me in terms of sticking to a writing routine. I am exposing myself to authors I never would have read before, becoming inspired by the constant immersion in stories that rest outside my comfort zone of reading material.
I have to remind myself just how lucky I am.
Security is one of those modern novels that introduces a number of different protagonists to the reader and then interweaves their stories, building to an eventual climax where they all cross paths. Amidon includes a number of scenes in a creative writing class, where the students debate the value of ‘truth’, in a memoir. I was reminded of Todd Solondz‘s Storytelling which also features a creative writing class where truth is an early fatality in the quest for shock value, the real meat and potatoes of non-fiction confessionals.
Edward Inman is a solid, well-intentioned family man who runs a security company in the progressive college town of Stoneleigh. Suffering from recurring bouts of sleep deprivation he finds himself driving late at night instead of sleeping in his own home. His relationship with his wife Meg has cooled and his work excuses him from the marriage bed. Early one morning he passes the son of a former flame, staggering drunkenly home. He gives the boy a lift to his home and upon meeting Connor’s mother Katherine wonders whether his calm and ordered life took a wrong turn.
Katherine herself is at her wits end with her increasingly silent and feckless dropout son. Connor never tells her where he goes at night, sleeps off his drunk during the day and becomes aggressive when she asks him to find work. She is tired of being a mother to a young man who treats her with so little respect. Katherine remembers how she used to have passion and dreams before her spirit was crushed.
Angela is a college student secretly having an affair with her writing instructor Stuart. She shares the class with Mary Steckl, daughter of the town drunk who was accused by Meg Inman of indecent exposure. What began as a police complaint led to Meg’s growing political career, inspired by the charges against Steckl being dropped. Mary has had to live with the reputation of her father ever since. She is vulnerable and isolated, with only Angela feeling the smallest measure of sympathy for her in the classroom pecking order.
When a young woman is assaulted, the perception of Stoneleigh as a safe town is finally shattered. Accusations are levelled and paranoia runs rampant. The debate started by Mary Steckl in the writing class is shown to be a microcosm for the concerns of the town at large – discover the truth, or invent a lie salacious enough to entertain the mob.
Stephen Amidon‘s story has a light Ballardian touch, showing how the close-knit lives of this small community exist in isolation from one another courtesy of technology. The structure of the family unit itself is at stake, with the ambiguous climax symbolically representing the threat posed to it. Thematically the book addresses the compulsive need in modern society to protect families from the outside world, even at the expense of any real engagement with others.
Amidon perfectly captures the uses of fear in political discourse, as well as the fragility of the family structure itself. The story is gripping with the competing narrative strands woven together convincingly.
I remember when the circus used to come each year to Rathcool, the town I grew up in. The posters would appear days before the arrival, with images of laughing clowns and acrobats performing death-defying feats. Then the big day itself would come and my much-pestered parents would accompany me to the opening show. Only for a sense of disappointment to set in almost immediately.
I remember when during the knife-throwing act there was a call for volunteers. My aunt, who had herself been volunteered by my parents to join me on this occasion, had to physically restrain me from throwing up my hand. Then I noticed the man who was chosen was a stage-hand. I had seen him hanging around with the performers before the show. My poor aunt tried to pretend otherwise – I think adults always appreciate the importance of childish illusions, which is why Santa Claus has survived for so long – but I already knew the truth.
This story begins with a man dressed in an acrobat costume voiding his bowels before leaping into his own legend – illustrated by a woodcut of his prowess and two pages of sheet music describing his feats – only to land in his death-bed, drained by a fatal case of smallpox. By his bedside are colleagues and friends arguing over his estate. His nephew Etienne arrives, whose job at the circus was to clean up elephant dung. He is the beneficiary of the great Leotard’s estate, which turns out to be a gnomic riddle, an empty journal containing a fake moustache. Etienne understands his uncle’s dying wish. He is to become Leotard and continue the legend of his uncle.
Unfortunately for Etienne, the troup is still stuck in Paris while it is under siege by the Prussian army. The company’s animals have all been eaten by the starving city inhabitants. Without any animal acts Etienne’s troupe is at a loss as to how they are to continue on. Their new young leader proposes that they become a circus of the stange and wonderful. They are after all strong-men and contortionists, tattooed ladies and bear-impersonators. Etienne is a young man with big dreams, which do not match reality. During their first show a human cannonball sets the famous Paris Cirque de Hiver on fire, burning it to the ground.
Etienne and his fellow artistes have an unerring knack for landing in trouble, becoming embroiled in the infamous Jack the Ripper murder investigation; theft of the Mona Lisa; the sinking of the Titanic; even a catastrophic bloodbath involving nineteen dwarves and a beast known as a ‘Ti-lion’. Through it all success avoids Etienne, leaving him impoverished in old age, despite inventing such implements as fantastical as ‘spring heeled shoes’.
Campbell and Best have fashioned a breezy and romantic counterpoint to the nihilism of that other historical epic, From Hell. Split into a series of episodes, The Amazing Remarkable Monsieur Leotard is a winning evocation of a lost vision of popular entertainment. There are even hints that the circus is an ancestor of sorts to the comic book superhero. Campbell introduces the amusingly titled Le Quartette Fantastique and has the creators of Superman witness Etienne’s final show.
The work as a whole has a rich Pynchonian feel to it. When we discover the romantic leanings of Pallenberg, the man disguised as a bear, it is a fine comic moment that is later revealed to be a set-up to the climactic adventure on board the Titanic. History and whimsy are married together to great effect, with Campbell’s febrile art stylings lending an uncanny edge to the proceedings. Best and Campbell even intrude upon Etienne to discuss the progress of the book so far. It is just that kind of book.
Beautifully illustrated, with a rich comic tone and a lurking sense of tired tragedy, this is a wonderful effort by Campbell, an Australian master of the medium.
What’s real, Danny? Is reality TV real? Are confessions you read on the Internet real? The words are real, someone wrote them, but beyond that the question doesn’t even make sense. Who are you talking to on your cell phone? In the end you have no fucking idea. We’re living in a supernatural world, Danny. We’re surrounded by ghosts.
I love ghost stories and the more I think about it – I think all of you do too. Look at the success of Stephen King? Does that not demonstrate that the modern world, far from deleting the need for supernatural fiction, still yearns for tales of things going bump in the night. Unfortunately there is this perception that ghost stories are historical anachronisms, fragile and quite absurd when exposed to contemporary sensibilities. Exceptions to this rule are Mark Z. Danielewski and Koji Suzuki, who both have managed to introduce fear of the unknown in between the cracks of our scientifically defined modern world.
Readers of ghost stories not only enjoy being scared – they like to acknowledge just how scared they already are.
I was exasperated by the beginning of Jennifer Egan‘s novel. Here was yet another street-wise New Yorker, lost in the middle of Europe somewhere, travelling up to a castle that he could not even find on a map. The language spoken by the locals is alien to him and he has already been told that the location is one of those fluid georgraphical points that could fall under German or Czech rule.
Danny has been invited out to this decrepid castle by his cousin Howard, whom he has not seen since they were children together. His far more successful relation has bought the property to mount an ambitious project, recreating a pre-technological space within the centre of Europe, where guests will be invited to immerse themselves in the peace and quiet that has been lost. To give themselves over to the sense of the imagination that can be atrophied by media overstimulation and virtual experiences.
As far as Danny is concerned his cousin is nuts. He can’t live without mobile phone coverage, or internet access. Those points of contact matter to him, networking online having almost as much importance as his need to attach himself to powerful people in the real world. Unfortunately for Danny his keen interest in power, and in those who possess it, has brought him to the attention of some very dangerous men in New York. This one-way ticket to Europe has given him a means to escape a very nasty situation back home.
He has another, deeper, motivation for coming though. A secret he and Howard share, over what happened between them when they were kids, an event that may well have shaped both their futures from that point onwards. Now Howard is a wealthy businessman with a wife and two children, whereas Danny has nothing to his name except the scars on his body that tell many a story about scams gone wrong. When he begins to see unusual things around the old castle grounds, hints of troubled phantoms and glimpses of an eccentric Baroness who lives in the keep and refuses to leave, he begins to suspect his cousin had ulterior motives for inviting him to the site. Perhaps even a desire for revenge for what he did to Howard years ago.
Of course none of this is real. It’s all the invention of a prisoner named Ray who is taking part in a creative writing class with other convicts and trying to gain the sympathy of the teacher, Holly, by writing about ghosts, conspiracies and dark family secrets. A neo-gothic fable about a clueless yank lost in a land where no one speaks English.
Then again, maybe all of this has happened. Maybe it is all real and Ray was witness to the tragedy from beginning to end.
This story is a delightful mish-mash of genres, psychological thriller, prison confessional and existential nightmare. The Baroness seems to have emigrated from an Edgar Allan Poe tale. When Danny tries to escape the castle it feels like a parody of Patrick McGoohan‘s The Prisoner, complete with a village populated by eerily polite inhabitants. Ray’s prison writing class is captured brilliantly, setting up yet another protagonist to cast a different light of the events already described.
I was pleasantly surprised and thrilled by the inventive narrative leaps and bounds. Riveting stuff.
Freedom! Jane thought. She rocked back on her heels and imagined Stilt flapping off clumsily into a bronze-green autumn sky. Her thoughts soared with him, over the walls and razor-wire and into the air, the factory buildings and marshalling yards dwindling below, as he flew higher than the billowing exhaust from the smokestacks, into the deepening sky, higher than Dame Moon herself. And never, oh never, to return!
I have had the good fortune to experience that age-old cliché of ‘escaping into a good book’. It is a rare occurence, but it does happen. To be completely transported away into a world conjured up by an author’s imagination is a delicate and wondrous thing.
Over the course of this challenge I have experienced this only two or three times. Geoff Ryman provided one such diversion, as did David Mitchell. As I write each entry for this blog, I become more eager to feel the sensation of sinking into another imaginary world once more.
The opening pages of Michael Swanwick‘s novel promised just that. Jane Alderberry has been raised in a factory that supplies the Elven kingdom with dragons. She is human, but just as much a slave as the other workers, elves, shapeshifters and other examples of fey kind, owned and controlled by the factory itself. Jane is persuaded to help the roguish Rooster sabotage the factory in an attempt to murder their overseer the disgusting Blugg. The assassination plot fails and its mastermind loses an eye for his troubles, but Jane returns to her bunk with the means to her own escape. A grimoire detailing the making of dragons.
As her knowledge of the workings of these incredible metal sky-destriers grows, she becomes aware of a voice compelling her to the factory yard. There she meets the dragon No. 7332, who enmeshes her with promises of freedom from the suffering of the factory. However, she soon realizes she has exchanged one master for another and the indiscriminate havoc he wrecks on the factory claims the lives of both her enemies and those few friends she had.
What follows is a broadly Dickensian narrative of Jane’s rise through Elven society, a cruel and callous pagan universe that nonetheless is fuelled by industry. The various races of the ‘fey and the weird‘, share in a society based on domination and exploitation. Jane begins her schooling disguised as an ordinary wood-nymph in order to learn how to repair No. 7332, discovers a love of theft and through her scheming wrangles a scholarship to university studying alchemical sciences. With each elevation through society she finds herself trapped in the same narratives, love triangles and bitter emnities. Faces and names reoccur with such frequency that she comes to doubt the reality of her existence. Beneath it all, she knows the dragon is controlling her, moving her forward in a game of cosmic strategy that she cannot comprehend.
Swanwick serves up a delicious gumbo of fantasy and steampunk tropes that revolves around two poles of cosmic nihilism and alchemical transformation. The Iron Dragon’s Daughter is a perversely mischievous book, unrestrained in scope and possessing a wicked sense of humour. There are touches of Dickens strewn throughout, including a reference to the breaking of a barrel of wine as a sign of the building foment in Paris during A Tale of Two Cities. The naming conventions also resemble Dickens’ whimsical malapropisms, but Swanwick also includes allusions to Welsh mythology to remind us that this is ostensibly a fantasy novel. The scenes of ritualistic sex magic, the mating habits of gargoyles, elves snorting lines of coke and Jane consulting a witch on methods of birth control do add to the categorical confusion.
For it has to be said this is a profoundly twisted vision of fantasy, a weird psychodrama that far outstrips the likes of China Miéville, cleaving perhaps closer to the likes of Samuel R. Delany and M. John Harrison.
To say more would, I fear, only spoil the experience of reading this book for yourselves. Writing this review has been as much a pleasure for me as reading the book that informs it. A revelation, whimsically profound and delightfully twisted. Another roaring success for Gollancz’s Fantasy Masterworks series.