Thursday, November 30, 2006

Pride and Prejudice - Jane Austen

Costume dramas. Mr Darcy. Bonnets, crinolines and frustrated posh girls searching for a rich husband. Bridget Jones. You'd think that by now, Pride and Prej would have been popular-cultured to death. However, despite its apparent status of Regency chick-lit, this is still a cracking read - Austen's reputation as a sly social commentator is well justified. Any society so precisely layered and codified is of course a ripe target for satire; Austen's humour is more subtle than scathing, but it's clear that the broader social issues are just as important to the novel as the central love story.

By now, I'd imagine that everyone knows the story. Miss Eliza Bennett is a young lady of modest fortune and high intelligence, who nonetheless overestimates her ability to judge people's characters. Mr Darcy is an eligible, rich bachelor, who thinks rather too much of himself, and disdains all society less exalted than his own. He particularly despises Eliza's provincial friends and insufferable relatives, to the extent that he deliberately breaks up the happy relationship between his best friend and Eliza's sister. Of course, as with all star-crossed lovers, true love conquers all and it all ends happily ever after. It's a deceptively simple formula that forms the core of the book and lets Austen do what she likes with the rest of the characters.

Eliza and Darcy are not actually that interesting as character studies - while she is undoubtedly a fine and feisty heroine, who does a good job of disliking Darcy to start off with, it's hard to blame her for her initial prejudice, as he does come across as a prize arsehole. His character development, too, is not great, and seems rather contrived - our subsequent discoveries of how nice he really is sit uncomfortably with his character as it's originally portrayed, and this looks more like a plot device than a genuine "misunderstood gruff guy with heart of gold". Instead, it's the minor characters that provide us with most of the entertainment.

From cameo appearances to snippets of conversation to Eliza's own observations, the social mores of the time are mercilessly exposed, ridiculed and lamented, via the members of Eliza's family and social circle. Her mother and younger sisters are particularly dreadful - empty-headed gossips who abdicate all responsibility for their actions - as is their odious cousin, the snobbish and servile Mr Collins, but even the less important characters are deftly sketched with a sharp eye for detail. Sir William Lucas, a well-meaning but pompous old bore obsessed with his knighthood; his poor unattractive daughter Charlotte, marrying Mr Collins because she knows she'll never get another offer; spiteful Miss Bingley, trying to attract Mr Darcy's attention by disparaging Eliza... and of course, Eliza's father, Mr Bennett, whose main purpose in life seems to be watching and laughing at the fools around him. All these caricatures show a fascinating picture of pre-Victorian country society, and are also usually very funny.

Don't be put off by the dated language. And certainly don't be put off by the Colin Firth hype and the chick-lit reputation. This book is deservedly a classic, and if you like witty banter and the pricking of pomposity you can't go far wrong here.


Friday, November 24, 2006

Jitterbug Perfume - Tom Robbins

The role of the humble beet in humanity's pursuit of eternal life is not a common subject in modern literature - but then again, neither is the matter of hitchhiking cowgirls with enormous thumbs, and Robbins did pretty well with that one. The beet here takes the place of the thumb as the prosaic object in a poetical world, and frankly does a much better job of it. Beets we can relate to. Also flung into the mix we have perfume galore, the rise of Christianity, the decline of the god Pan, tips on how to avoid death (and what happens when you don't), some nymphs, some monks, and a swarm of bees; the settings range from ancient Arcadia to the Himalayas, from mediaeval Paris to modern New Orleans...

As with Only Cowgirls Get The Blues, Robbins's plot comes a distant second to his style - I would try to give a brief idea of the story, but, divorced from the prose, it looks rather silly. Mostly it alternates between the distant past, where King Alobar is seeking to avoid the inconvenience of death along with his incense-dealing wife Kudra, and the present, where three perfumiers are trying to replicate the glorious smell from a mysterious old perfume bottle embossed with a picture of Pan. From time to time, people talk about beetroot.

I know, I'm not selling it well, but if you've read any of Robbins's other work you don't need me to tell you what a joy his writing is. If you haven't, then this is as good a place to start as any. Its glorious insistence on simply enjoying life makes this hard to read without a smile, and even though the plot's pretty weird, you don't really care. There are fewer vaginas in this one, too.


Thursday, November 23, 2006

The Lyonesse Trilogy - Jack Vance

Suldrun's Garden
The Green Pearl

The definition of High Fantasy is not something I'd considered until recently, beyond a vague feeling that it had something to do with princesses and wizards. Apparently the "height" of fantasy depends on how much magic is involved - low fantasy would just be, for example, a straightforward tale of military or political tactics with a quasi-mediaeval setting. The Lyonesse trilogy has been billed as Vance's "high fantasy masterpiece"; alongside the blurb's promises of wizardly rivalries, tragic princesses and the machinations of power-hungry rulers, that creates quite a daunting prospect. But, as ever, Vance's blurb-writers have done him a disservice. This is no worthy tome of ponderous prophecies and humourless heroes; it's a gleefully irreverent epic fairytale, replete with dashing rogues, dastardly ogres and all the trimmings.

"Bah!" muttered Casmir, already bored with the subject. "Your conduct is in clear need of correction. You must throw no more fruit!"
Madouc scowled and shrugged. "Fruit is nicer than other stuffs. I well believe that Lady Desdea would prefer fruit."
"Throw no other stuffs either. A royal princess expresses displeasure more graciously."
Madouc considered a moment. "What if these stuffs should fall of their own weight?"
"You must allow no substances, either vile, or hurtful, or noxious, or of any sort whatever, to fall, or depart from your control, toward Lady Desdea, Dame Boudetta, Lady Marmone, or anyone else. In short, desist from these activities!"
Madouc pursed her mouth in dissatisfaction; it seemed as if King Casmir would yield neither to logic nor persuasion. Madouc wasted no more words. "Just so, Your Majesty."

If Jane Austen ever wrote fairy tales, they'd probably look like this. Kings trade mortal insults with courtly decorum, wayfarers banter with dishonest innkeepers, and supernatural bargains are conducted with scrupulous care over the phrasing. However, there's more than a dash of Vance's dark mischief here too, and alongside the sly banter the details are often dark and gruesome. Captured enemies are casually disembowelled and hung up for display; minor characters suffer various unpleasant deaths at the hands of trolls or other monsters, and others simply pass away unremarked from pneumonia, dropsy or one of the many other hazards of mediaeval life. This is no sanitised Merrie Englande representation of the time - apart from all the magic, you get the feeling that the Dark Ages really looked like this.

There is certainly magic a-plenty here, more than enough to justify the High Fantasy tag, but it's treated in a very commonplace way and hardly affects the plot at all. The main story is in fact a very low-fantasy tale of rival kings plotting to conquer the whole of the Elder Isles, currently divided into several kingdoms; this is largely achieved via the normal means of disputed successions, diplomatic manipulation and outright war.

The first book takes a little while to get going. The opening chapters about Suldrun and her garden are quite slow and mostly serve for background - the real story is elsewhere, as her father King Casmir makes his coldly ambitious plans to unite the isles under his rule. However, once we meet her secret lover Aillas, the story takes off and becomes a lot more interesting. His quest to find their son Dhrun, and Dhrun's own search for his parentage, take up most of the rest of the book, and take in many of the tropes of fairytale quests. A witch with a fox's face and a chicken's feet guards the ford; an amulet protects Dhrun from fear; Aillas is given a walnut shell which always points towards his son. With a style that cleverly implies a patchwork of collated oral tales, full of footnotes, inconsistencies and snippets of history from repeated retelling, it feels like the view of a fairytale from the inside.

The second book is much more focused on the politics, as Aillas struggles to tame his growing empire and defy Casmir's machinations. The pace is much faster and more satisfying, despite a strange interlude towards the end where a couple of characters are transported to a parallel world for a few chapters. Book three returns to the fairytale style, and mostly follows Princess Madouc, a fairy changeling who was swapped for Dhrun at birth but who most believe to be Casmir's granddaughter. This is probably the frothiest and least dark of the books, but it still has its share of casual violence and tragedy.

While magic rarely has any major effect on the main political story, there is a side-plot that reeks with it. Master magician Murgen, with his one-time apprentice and scion Shimrod, are trying to thwart the wiles of the sorcerer Tamurello; unfortunately, they don't know what those wiles are, but they probably have something to do with the deceased witch Desmei and her beautiful creation Melancthe. This plot is less successful than the non-magical one; it doesn't get a lot of screen-time, and while Shimrod's efforts to romance Melancthe are entertaining, Melancthe herself is a very empty character. Deliberately so, maybe, but she's still pretty boring to read about.

Lyonesse is an absolute classic of Vance's work. The dialogue is pointed and witty, the worldbuilding is superb and the descriptions are lavish - the banquets of mediaeval fare are almost enough to make your mouth water. It may not be perfect, but it's a fantastic read that conjures up a real sense of the exotic, with more than a few laughs along the way. This is one of my favourite series to reread and I can't recommend it highly enough.


Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Alien Influences - Kristine Kathryn Rusch

I wasn't expecting to enjoy this at all. There's something about the word "alien" that's irredeemably naff, even more so than "spaceship" - maybe it has too many overtones of barking abductees wearing tinfoil beanies. The first few pages didn't increase my confidence much, either, with a painfully obvious murder "mystery" that had clearly started life as a short story. However, once that was out of the way, some original ideas trickled in and the book suddenly became interesting.

An expert in extraterrestrial psychology is called in to a rich drug-farming colony to investigate a series of murders. The murders seem to mimic the coming-of-age rituals of the local alien species (the Dancers), which involve removal of the heart, lungs and hands - several children have been found dismembered in this way. Of course, it's not as simple as all that, but the culprits are uncovered in fairly short order, much to the relief of the investigator, whose poor judgement had previously led to the virtual extermination of another alien species in similar circumstances. As his guilt is relentlessly laid on with a trowel throughout this section, the conclusion was quite a relief to me, too.

The rest of the book follows the fortunes of the surviving children, separated and scattered across the galaxy, and the aftereffects of the Dancers' influence. This was very interesting for a while, as it's not that often that you get to see the "what happened next?" of a concluded murder investigation, and there were a lot of intriguing mysteries about the aliens' behaviour. Unfortunately, it soon became clear that there wasn't very much of a plot; the introduction of the evil art collector was rather clumsy and contrived. It was disappointing, too, to find that the answers to the mysteries were not that great either, and their resolutions seemed rather makeshift and hurried.

Overall, the book seemed like just a few short stories cobbled together with no real arc-plot for coherence. The idea was interesting, but really not that well developed; for all the hints and mysteries, the revelations were either anticlimactic or unconvincing. The best thing I can say about it is that it's quite short, and it's better than its title.


Monday, November 13, 2006

From the Beast to the Blonde - Marina Warner

There's something very special about fairy tales. Once you scrape off Disney's saccharine coating, you find the dark and organic result of centuries of storytelling, with deep roots in a time when brides were bartered, children abandoned, and real beasts roamed in the woods. Most people are vaguely aware that the tales had darker meanings before the blood was squeezed out for today's child audience, but their actual evolution is less well-known. The obvious answer, "the Victorians did it", is not good enough for Warner, who has taken a long look at the hows and whys of the changing tales; this book examines the relationship between the tales and their tellers, and how their values and their status in society have affected the stories' development.

This sounds like a really interesting topic, which is why I bought the book, but unfortunately it is marred by the vague and directionless style of argument. After not very many pages, I gave up trying to find any consistent line of reasoning, and surrendered myself to the current, which swirls through the book in eddies and whirlpools, going round and round the topic like the mulberry bush of yore. Warner often seems to be arguing with herself, paragraphs change tack halfway through and separate discussions are muddled together in very confusing ways; it's easier in the end to just go with the flow and pick up what information can be gained on the way.

The research is meticulous, and though the sources are not directly referenced, there's a huge bibliography at the back, and it's clear that a whole lot of work has gone into this. Again, though, it's let down by the structure; the facts are just shoved into the pages in no logical order. Though the book is ostensibly divided up into two sections, Tellers and Tales, the information about each is strewn across the whole book with little regard for either the purported structure or the ignorance of the interested layman, who is probably the book's target audience. In early chapters we hear things like "It's clear that [obscure French authoress X]'s own background affected her treatment of this story" - but who this woman is, and even what her treatment of the story is, is not mentioned until several chapters later. As you might imagine, this rather hampers comprehension.

The depth of the research to some extent disguises its lack of breadth, but it's quite clear that Warner is pursuing a particular agenda. Her choices of fairytale to analyse are specifically the ones that illustrate the roles and expectations of women - for the most part, this includes the mainstream ones like Cinderella, Snow White, Little Red Riding Hood and Bluebeard, but she also examines more obscure ones such as the incest fable Donkeyskin, and ones with less historical significance such as The Little Mermaid, ignoring hundreds of others that don't quite fit into her narrow mandate. Of course, it would be hard to cover every single one of these, but it seems rather suspect to be evaluating an entire genre and extrapolating about societal changes from such a narrow selection of tales. The name "Freud" also appears rather too many times to be able to take her analysis entirely seriously.

To be fair, there are some absolutely fascinating nuggets of information concealed here - not just the older versions of the tales with Sleeping Beauty's cannibal mother-in-law and a sticky end for Little Red, but also some of the hidden meanings that have been lost as society has developed. For instance, Bluebeard's multitude of dead wives harks back to a time when many women died in childbirth and almost all widowers remarried, and Beauty and the Beast was a genuine protest against the very real dangers of arranged marriages. But, it waffles, it rambles, it blathers, and ultimately it doesn't really go anywhere. Damn shame.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Abarat - Clive Barker

Say you're a successful horror author, famous for dark S&M-themed tales of Hell and their successful movie adaptations. You have an idea for a book, but it's just a bit too... well, silly for the mainstream horror shelves. Seems a shame to waste it, so why not make it into a children's book? It can't be that hard to do, surely...?

Like many of my recent reads, Abarat is a hand-me-down from friends clearing out the shelves. And, like many others of similar provenance, there's a reason why the original owners no longer wanted it. This is a patronising, bowdlerised mess of a novel, full of clichés and bland characters, with no plot to speak of; only the setting stood out as something original, and even that looked rather contrived. I only finished it because it was short, then discovered to my horror that it was just the first book in a series and I didn't even get a complete story out of it.

Candy Quackenbush of Chickentown, Minnesota, walks out of school because the grown-ups are being so unfair, and finds herself flung into the magical world of the Abarat. This is the interesting idea - the Abarat is an archipelago where each island is a different hour of the day, and it is populated by all kinds of zany and wacky creatures. Of course, the island of Midnight is ruled by your standard cackling cartoon villain, Christopher Carrion, who wishes to bring about perpetual night, but is still cowed by his much scarier grandmother. There is also a more modern type of bad guy ruling the island of 3am - Rojo Pixler, the technocrat who wishes to control the world in the name of Progress. You can see where this is going. If, in later books, Candy does not align herself with Carrion against Pixler then I will be very surprised.

The "story" largely consists of Candy getting into trouble, getting out of trouble, and getting into trouble again, which is usually a sign that the author hasn't spent much time on the plot. She visits a few of the islands (doubtless the rest will come into later episodes) and is helped by various creatures, who believe she may (of course) have some super powers or destiny that can save the islands. There is also a more intriguing side-plot involving Candy's original Abarat friend John Mischief, on the trail of a legendary dragon-killer, but this is rather hampered by the unlikely physical appearance of Mischief himself - apparently he has antlers, on the prongs of which are the heads of his brothers, which each have their own personality. I could never get this mental image to work.

Some of the ideas are entertainingly surreal, especially the darker parts, but these are often ruined by the impression that they've been deliberately toned down for the younger audience, like a film badly overdubbed with "muddy funster" where the swearwords ought to be. I will give marks for the logo, which impressively looks the same upside-down, but other than that, it's pretty bloody awful.