Saturday, January 02, 2010

Books read in December

A final look back at 2009 may follow later. For now, here's the usual monthly book blog.

The City & the City, China Mieville
Library book. A murder mystery spread across two cities that happen to occupy the same physical space. At first it seems as though we're expected to infer some fantastic reason for the separation of Beszel and Ul Qoma, notwithstanding the real world references – people and buildings in the other city are described as if they're ghosts, not really there at all, and certainly the sudden appearance and disappearance of the shadowy agents of Breach, who police the separation of the cities, comes across as supernatural. But it gradually becomes clear that in fact the cities really do overlap in the same physical space, and all this ghostly business is just down to the rigorous schooling of the citizens, training them to “unsee” anyone who walks or dresses in the style of the other city, any foreign-looking architecture, etc etc. Citizens are only allowed to travel between cities through a single central checkpoint with special authorisation and after intensive training in how to see the foreign city and “unsee” their own during their stay. All of this becomes relevant to a Beszel policeman when he investigates a murder that was committed across cities, but in such a way that Breach aren't required to intervene. Another imaginative and engaging book by Mieville, quite a bit more satirical and quite a bit shorter than his previous novels.

M is for Magic, Neil Gaiman
Library book. An American anthology – I think about half of the contents were published in the UK in Fragile Things. Stories I didn't recognise include a lovely piece about a pensioner finding the Holy Grail in a charity shop, the roguish “How to Sell the Ponti Bridge”, and a hard-boiled detective story based around nursery rhymes that apparently pre-dates Jasper Fforde by several years...

Why Read the Classics?, Italo Calvino (trans Martin McLaughlin)
Library book. Not the treatise the provocative title suggests, but a collection of essays (reprinted forewords, in some cases) in which Calvino waxes lyrical about his favourite authors from classical times right up to Raymond Queneau. I know pretty much nothing about most (or possibly all) of the Italian authors on Calvino's list, and I don't feel powerfully moved to learn more (strictly for the native Italians, I feel), but there's plenty of good, thought-provoking material in here on authors that I do recognise and on several of “the classics”.

On the Origin of Stories, Brian Boyd
Library book. And by a New Zealander, too! An attempt to explain fiction in terms of evolutionary theory. Roughly the first half of the book is taken up with an explanation of evolution itself and of behavioural evolution, and this part of the book is somewhat repetitive and probably unnecessary for anyone who doesn't need convincing about the concept. (And let's face it, if you're not convinced about evolution, how likely are you to read this book?) To be honest, I'd recommend reading the introduction and then skipping this bit. Boyd then progresses through the instinct to form religious beliefs and mythological explanations for natural phenomena, to the specific topic of fiction, to his two chosen case studies: Homer's Odyssey, and Horton Hears A Who by Dr Seuss. Overall, persuasive.

Fat, Rob Grant
Ex-library book, bought for a dollar along with a few others in Wellington Central Library's annual stock sale. More of these anon.
It wasn't just Doug Naylor that went downhill after the split, then. My first taste of Grant's solo (non-Red Dwarf) fiction, and I'm not tempted to try more. The triple story of a marketeer hired by a faddy, New Labour style government to promote health camps to tackle “the obesity crisis”, a fat TV chef (although it doesn't become clear that he's a TV chef until well into the book) forced into being a celebrity guinea pig in the first health camp, and a bulimic teenager. The message, spelled out for you in gigantic, pulsing, eye-searing neon capital letters: there is no obesity crisis, there's a far more serious crisis in weight-obsessed kids making themselves ill, and the author doesn't like interventive governments. The first of these points being arguable, the second frankly obvious, the third a large bone of contention between the author and me, because I hate people who prattle on indignantly about the “nanny state” far more than I hate the idea of this supposed “nanny state” itself.
The real problem for me with this book, however, lies in the handling of point one. Having got his hands on some very interesting, very compelling medical research into obesity, Grant creates a secondary character whose entire purpose is to spout the stuff in unreconstructed chunks. Even while the marketeer is seducing her, she babbles on. It's infodump of the worst kind. The content is eye-opening, certainly, but stylistically it belongs in a 17th century dialogue, not in a modern comedy novel. And that's another point, where's the flipping comedy? My other objections: the characters are one-note, the ending glib and flimsy, and just like that Christopher Moore book last month, it takes the first 200 pages just to get going, before wrapping up in a single bound. I suspect this may be my last brush with the modern comedy novel.

Finch, Jeff Vandermeer
There is an online store based in NZ that gives out tiny, tiny increments of credit for customer reviews on hitherto unreviewed products. When I found this out, my mission for the week became immediately clear. And so it was that, after a week's intensive hunting and reviewing of books that I'd read and no one else had reviewed yet, I managed to accrue enough credit to cover an entire book plus postage – mmm, there's that warm, smug feeling again. The new Jeff Vandermeer novel was my prize.
It's a hard-boiled detective story set in Ambergris, the City of Saints and Madmen, in the aftermath of the Rising – the mushroom-like gray caps have taken over the city and now rule through brutality and terror, all the while building two gigantic fungal towers out in the bay. Finch, an unwilling policeman, is told by his gray cap masters to investigate an apparent double murder, and ends up discovering the gray caps' plans for the city. Answers, at last. Compared to its predecessors, City of Saints and Madmen and Shriek, this novel is a fairly straight-up action story that explains the mysterious Ambergris and its inhabitants in strictly science fictional terms. It doesn't diminish the other books, it just shifts the frame of reference a bit. Poor old Finch suffers a lot – in keeping with the hard-boiled theme – and the least of it is dealing with what happens to his partner, Wyte, who's slowly turning into a monstrous fungal hybrid. It probably helps to have some familiarity with Vandermeer's earlier books – I can't see this working out too well as a stand-alone novel. But as a major part of the Ambergris series, it's excellent.
Interested readers may also want to check out the soundtrack for the novel that Vandermeer got a band of his acquaintance to compose. Very nice.

The Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
Library book. The concept is that the afterlife is a kind of facsimile of the real world in which people “live” for as long as someone still living remembers them. When everyone who remembers them dies, they vanish (or possibly move on to an unspecified next stage of the afterlife). What happens when the human race becomes extinct? Alternating chapters of this end-of-the-world yarn follow the citizens of the afterlife and the last handful of people alive in Antarctica as they slowly figure out what's going on. It's thought-provoking, in the sense that your humble reviewer found himself thinking through the mechanistic details of Brockmeier's afterlife, and coming up with a surprising number of snags, flaws and omissions. (Just where do the birds come from, anyway? And why is it just birds? But I digress.) On the plus side, Brockmeier's put a fair amount of thought into the relationships between people who meet up again in his afterlife, or who overlap in particular ways, or who don't. And while inevitably melancholic, the novel isn't maudlin and manages to steer clear of syrupy sentimentality. Belongs somewhere in the middle of the scale of this month's reading.

A Fall from Grace, Robert Barnard
Library book. Having admired Barnard's non-fiction, I decided to dip into the library's large selection of his detective fiction. Inspector Peace, apparently a recurring character, moves to a small village with his wife and unpleasant father-in-law. When the father-in-law is killed, it seems as though a gang of local drama students is involved. Entertaining enough, albeit straightforward in its presentation, and it hangs together well. If I have a complaint, it's that the local bobby, with whom Peace of course clashes, is depicted almost too simply as a bad lot, and not by his own words or actions but by other characters' descriptions of him. Still, I may yet read more Barnard. Tempting to wonder just how tongue-in-cheek is his portrayal of the father-in-law as an egotistical minor novelist.

The Act of Roger Murgatroyd, Gilbert Adair
Ex-library book. I've had this one on the “track it down at some point” list for a while now, so for me it was worth what I spent at WCL's book sale for this item alone. And yet not quite what I was expecting – despite the title, the protagonist (Evadne Mount, a transparent spoof of Ariadne Oliver, Agatha Christie's own self-spoofing sleuth) and a few other sly references, this is not a Christie parody or some kind of meta-fictional runaround but a straightforward murder mystery. (I understand that Adair's third Evadne Mount novel is a bit more what I have in mind – maybe in another year or two WCL's copy will come up for sale?) Worth a read, with an outrageous/ingenious solution and several funny lines.

The Winter Queen, Boris Akunin (trans Andrew Bromfield)
Ex-library book. I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but Russian literature in general isn't in the healthy condition it once was. It went through a bit of a rough patch a couple of decades ago, most notably in the area of crime fiction. A major problem at the time I was studying the language was the fashion for – one might even say the plague of – ultra-violent knock-off pulp gangster novels, which obviously struck a chord with a lot of Russians and dominated the shelves of Russia's bookshops for several years, even though no self-respecting Slav would ever admit in public to reading the things. Boris Akunin has made it his mission to do something about this, and has written (by now) a large number of high quality, literate detective novels, at least half a dozen of which have been quite recently translated into English. Most of them feature Erast Fandorin, a 19th century police clerk turned detective.
In this first volume, Fandorin gets his career break investigating an apparent suicide that leads him to uncover a terrifying global conspiracy. James Bond-esque shennanigans are the order of the day. The prose has a very “classic” feel to it, but I don't know if that's Akunin's intention or down to the translator. It takes a bit of getting into, but it's definitely worth a look. I look forward to reading the murder mystery set on board an airship at some point.

Company, Max Barry
Ex-library book. I'd previously read Barry's Jennifer Government, so decided to give this a chance. It starts out pretty much as Dilbert: the Novel, then after about 100 pages it gets more interesting. Then it gradually settles back into being Dilbert again. Anyone who's ever sat in a management presentation is bound to get a kick out of this book, but I wouldn't describe it as revelatory. A good way to pass a few hours is how I'd describe it. A damn sight better than the Rob Grant book.

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