Hello, friends! It is time for book things again! This month was alright, although I had hoped to read one book more – but no matter. Spring is usually a time of reading slumps for me, so considering, this is pretty well. And look, not a single romance novel! What on earth is going on?
Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day
It is the summer of 1956. Stevens, an ageing butler, has embarked on a rare holiday – a six-day motoring trip through the West Country. But his travels are disturbed by the memories of a lifetime in service to the late Lord Darlington, and most of all by the increasingly painful recollection of his friendship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. For the first time in his life, Stevens is forced to wonder if all his actions were for the best after all…
The Remains of the Day is a sad and humorous love story, a moving and witty meditation on the democratic responsibilities of the ordinary man, and a poignant tale of thwarted idealism. Characterized by the grace and subtlety for which Kazuo Ishiguro’s work has been acclaimed, it is his finest novel so far.
(Back cover of Faber & Faber 1989 hardcover)
A friend has recommended Ishiguro to me, and therefore I was delighted to see him on our reading list – nothing forces you to finally pick up an author than requirement! And I must say, I am by no means displeased.
Ishiguro’s style is amazingly beautiful and graceful, and his command of language is superb. There is very little action in this novel, but it is still very compelling and grabs you. Dignity is a big issue, and I found it fascinating to watch it discussed by the first-person narrator Stevens, who seems to have lost himself in his strive to be dignified and as good a butler as possible. And I disagree with the back cover’s description when it comes to “humorous love story”; to me, it seemed simply tragic. Perhaps the task of writing an essay on the book affects me in this, but I saw the relationship to Miss Kenton as a strong example of how out of touch Stevens is with his own emotions and normal interaction on a personal level.
I recommend this book, although I will have to read more Ishiguro to determine how much I actually like him. The Remains of the Day is, however, without a doubt excellent.
Peter Ackroyd: Chatterton
In this remarkable detective novel Peter Ackroyd investigates the death of Thomas Chatterton, the eighteenth-century poet-forger and genius, whose life ended under mysterious circumstances. Fusing themes of illusion and imagination, delusion and dreams, he weaves back and forth between three centuries, introducing a blazing cast of Dickensian eccentrics and rogues, from the outrageous, gin-sipping Harriet Scrope, an elderly female novelist, to the tragic young poet, Charles Wychwood, seeker of Chatterton’s secret… They find more riddles than answers from their search.
This entertaining comedy is at once hilarious, and a thoughtful exploration of the deepest issues of both life and art.
Let’s get this straight at once: I think that blurb rather misleading. I would not call Chatterton a detective novel: rather than following any conventions of that genre, it offers layers and layers of lies, misconceptions, delusions, forgery, fakes and pretention, and ties the whole lot together with a bit of the supernatural in a nice tribute to the Romantics. I also would not agree that it is an “entertaining comedy”; I certainly didn’t read it as such. I was left feeling rather uncomfortable and grim, although also found myself nodding sombrely by the end of the novel.
Ackroyd explores the whats and whys of forgery and plagiarism in a rather nice way, offering points of view. Unfortunately, I didn’t take to the supernatural aspect of this novel quite like I took to it in The Fall of Troy by the same author; in Chatterton, I felt it overused and a little too guiding.
If you pick this up and your copy doesn’t have a colour picture of Henry Wallis’s painting, Chatterton (1856), look it up. It not only features rather prominently in the story but is also actually a very nice painting. It is also in the painting, I think, that the layers of fakeness lie the heaviest.
Toni Morrison: A Mercy
In the 1680s the slave trade was still in its infancy. In the Americas, virulent religious and class division, prejudice and oppression were rife, providing fertile soil in which slavery and race hatred were carefully planted and took root.
Jacob is an Anglo-Dutch trader and adventurer, with a smallholding in the harsh North. Despite his distaste for dealing in ‘flesh’, he takes a small slave girl, in part payment for a bad debt from a plantation owner in Catholic Maryland. This is Florens, ‘with the hands of a slave and the feet of a Portuguese lady’, who can read and write and might be useful on his farm. Florens is hungry for love, at first from the older servant woman at her new master’s house; but later, when she’s sixteen, from the handsome blacksmith, an African, never enslaved, who comes riding into their lives…
And all of them have stories: Lina, the native American servant, whose tribe was decimated by smallpox; their mistress Rebekka, herself a victim of religious fervour back in England; young Sorrow, daughter of a sea captain, who’s spent too many years at sea to be quite… normal; and, finally, there’s Florens’s own mother back home in Maryland.
This is their blight – men and women inventing themselves in the wilderness. A Mercy reveals what lies under the surface of slavery, and the opening chapter of the story of sugar, that great maw which was to eat up millions of lives. But at its heart, like Beloved, this is the ambivalent, disturbing story of a mother and a daughter in a violent ad-hoc world – a world where acts of mercy, like everything else, have unforeseen consequences.
(Dust jacket of Chatto and Windus 2008 hardcover)
I don’t really get Morrison. She’s an alright author and I recognise that she discusses important issues, but somehow the books always elude me. I have read The Bluest Eye and Beloved before, and especially the latter completely escaped me. I don’t know why; perhaps the ideas run so deep I can’t see them.
But boy, do I appreciate the way A Mercy is put together. I went in expecting to read from the point of view of maybe two characters – easy mistake to make, I’d say, when there is first a focalised third person narrator and then a stylistically very distinct first person narrator – but turns out there are many focalisers. It’s always delightful when all characters are accounted for! The central character is Florens, whose story we follow from her on perspective throughout the novel, with the other characters getting their space around her chapters. I haven’t quite pieced together what this does, and perhaps I will reread the book at some point (you know, when I’m a little older and hopefully wiser) and see if it makes more sense.
Generally speaking, I like A Mercy much better than I liked Beloved, although I believe the latter is more hyped. I think A Mercy is more feminist, about women and their interactions and worldviews and changes, and that at the moment appeals to me.
Elizabeth Bear: Undertow
A frontier world on the back end of nowhere is the sort of place people go to get lost. And some of those people have secrets worth hiding, secrets that can change the future – assuming there is one…
André Deschênes is a hired assassin, but he wants to be so much more. If only he can find a teacher who will forgive his murderous past – and train him to manipulate odds and control probability. It’s called the art of conjuring, and it’s André’s only route to freedom. For the world he lives on is run by the ruthless Charter Trade Company, and his floating city, Novo Haven, is little more than a company town where humans and aliens alike either work for one tyrannical family – or are destroyed by it. But beneath Novo Haven’s murky waters, within its tangled bayous, reedy banks, and back alleys, revolution is stirring. And one more death may be all it takes to shift the balance…
(Back cover of Bantam Spectra 2007 paperback)
Let’s see. Political intrigue? Check. Assassin? Check. Awesome ladies? Check. Slightly confused? Check. So basically Undertow has a lot of things I really really like. Yes, even the confusion is nice. Being confused means you need to think a bit. I took this book with me to the country for a holiday and therefore didn’t push myself as much as I should have, and I’m disappointed in myself because of that, but we’ll let that be and call it a perfect excuse to reread the book.
Much of the confusion is because of my unfamiliarity with SF and not by any means because of Bear. She writes in a way that explains without dumping lots of technical detail (something I’m always afraid of when I start an SF novel) and she engages you from the beginning. I particularly love the shifts and twists in the story: the beginning made me expect things and then it turns out nothing is what I expected it to be. And let me tell you, I love Cricket. So much. I can’t even explain how much I love her.
While not my favourite book ever, Undertow is definitely an excellent read. It keeps you on your toes and your brain active, even if you’re merely pleasure reading like I was. It doesn’t let you off easy, I can promise you that!
Hannu Rajaniemi: The Quantum Thief
Jean de Flambeur is a post-human criminal, mind burglar, confidence artist and trickster. His origins are shrouded in mystery, but his exploits are known throughout the Heterarchy – from breaking into the vast Zeusbrains of the Inner System to steal their thoughts, to stealing rare Earth antiques from the aristocrats of the Moving Cities of Mars.
Except that Jean made one mistake.
Now he is condemned to play endless variations of a game-theoretic riddle in the vast virtual jail of the Axelrod Archons – the Dilemma Prison – against countless copies of himself.
Jean’s routine of death, defection and cooperation is upset by the arrival of Mieli and her spaceship, Perhonen. She offers him a chance to win back his freedom and the powers of his old self – in exchange for finishing the one heist he never quite managed…
(Back cover of Gollancz 2010 paperback)
Finally got around to rereading Quantum Thief, and boy, am I glad I did! The first time I was tripped up by the physics and other science things; this time it was much easier to keep an eye on the details and to follow the plot and its implications. And I love it, even better than I did before. The craft is beautiful, and the ease with which Rajaniemi uses all the hard SF stuff is magnificent and lulls you into its pull whether you actually understand it or not.
Catherynne M. Valente: Silently and Very Fast
Fantastist Catherynne M. Valente takes on the folklore of artificial intelligence in this brand new, original novella of technology, identity, and an uncertain mechanized future.
Neva is dreaming. But she is not alone. A mysterious machine entity called Elefsis haunts her and the members of her family, back through the generations to her great-great-grandmother—a gifted computer programmer who changed the world. Together Neva and Elefsis navigate their history and their future, an uneasy, unwilling symbiote.
But what they discover in their dreamworld might change them forever . .
This novella gave me so much trouble. Part of this is because it’s fairly complicated in structure; part, because I consider it rather hard science fiction; and part, because I read it for class where I knew I would be expected to say something intelligent about it. (I didn’t manage that, in case you were wondering.) The narrative is not linear, there are retold fairy tales between the story of Elefsis the AI, and I just got very confused, trying to analyse it during the only reading I had time for. I recommend you read this twice; once to see what’s going on, another time to see how the parts actually play together.
But occasionally frying your brain is healthy, and I really want to try some of Valente’s novels!
Hannu Rajaniemi: The Fractal Prince
On the edges of physical space a thief, helped by a sardonic ship, is trying to break into a Schrödinger box.
He is doing the job for his patron, and owner of the ship, Mieli. In the box is his freedom. Or not.
The box is protected by codes that twist logic and sanity. And the ship is under attack.
The thief is nearly dead, the ship is being eaten alive.
Jean de Flambeur is running out of time. All of him.
And on earth, two sisters in a city of fast ones, shadow players and jinni contemplate a revolution.
There are many stories that can be told even in a thousand nights and one night, but these two will twist, and combine. And reality will spiral.
In Hannu Rajaniemi’s sparkling follow-up to the critically acclaimed, international sensation The Quantum Thief, he returns to his awe-inspiring vision of the universe and we find out what the future held for Earth.
(Back cover of Gollancz 2012 paperback)
I like Fractal Prince even more than I like Quantum Thief. It is truly a compelling story that twists and turns and I think I may need a third reading to really explain it to myself. All I can say is, read it. Read them both. I promise you, it’s amazing. Just now I said I’m not good with hard sci-fi. Well, Rajaniemi is exactly that. And I still love these books. They are written so well it doesn’t even matter if you understand everything or not; it’s a damn good ride in any case.
As an extra incentive, the last book in the trilogy is coming out this summer, so now’s a good time to pick them all up!
So that’s all for April! School has more or less ended, so I hope to get to a good reading pace soon (unless glorious online friends distract me, which they will, bless them) and hopefully this will be a bookish summer!
To finish this off, the usual things.
The Boy with the Porcelain Blade by Den Patrick
Shoggoths in Bloom by Elizabeth Bear
Without A Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal (third in the Glamourist Histories series, loving it so far!)