Wednesday, 19 March 2014

What I've been reading: The Calcutta Chromosone, The Ghost Hunters, The Resurrectionist

I seem to have been having something of a 'horror' bent lately. Hooray!Less worthy of celebration is that my reading speed appears to have slowed. Less yay. Let's see if I can stay within the word limit this time.

So, The Calcutta Chromosone by Amitav Ghosh is technically a reread. This should immediately come as an endorsement. Ghosh's writing is beautiful, if at times a little confusing. The narrative is essentially a literary thriller, and it does this well, but the book is more concerned with providing a history from the fringes, a rebuttal of Western arrogance regarding science, the Enlightenment and Empire. The plot device of the chromosome itself perhaps owes more to magical realism than biological reality, but I am not a scientist, and I also wonder if that is not - on some level - the point.

The only bad note in this wonderful book is the fact that, published in 1996, it shows a 'near future' where we have holograms and almost-A.I., but where internet is still dial-up internet and mobile phones are scarce. This isn't Ghosh's fault, but it can jar one out of the narrative, especially when the latter two world-facts are used to advance the plot.

Neil Spring's The Ghost Hunters is a fun little book and compelling, too. What I didn't realise at the time was that it is based on the real investigation of the haunting of Borley Rectory (kicking myself), and although Spring's account is fictionalised, I think this accounts for some of the books flaws. While, in the main, his inclusion of historical figures and real-time events was carefully done, the need to maintain that carefulness, that balance led to some off-putting pacing, and the odd narrative 'jumps'. I applaud, however, the care with which he worked, and the decision to have both a narrator and a 'plot' that were not slavishly referential to historical reality.

In short, good stuff. Not a heavy read, and while not the best ghost story out there, it's worth a look if you like the genre.

Now, here's a challenge. Can I review The Resurrectionist by James Bradley without using the word 'brooding'?

Well, let's start with: this is the kind of book I'd like to write. Although short, it isn't a quick read, the language is intricate and occasionally breathtaking. It is the story of Gabriel Swift, apprentice to a surgeon in 19th Century London, and his gradual undoing. It deals with class, with gender, with isolation, with the way the need to record, to understand makes us tear apart that thing would know. Skilful, it is a remarkably skilful work, but harrowing, gory, sad. I could write at length about this book, about what it might be saying, but I think it's focus is predestination, redemption, judgement.

Not a 'light' horror, not one those upset easily, and probably not a 'weekend' read, but it's definately worth your time.

Wednesday, 5 March 2014

What I've been reading: 'Prodigal Summer', 'Gone Girl' and 'Song of Kali'.

Because of how long the articles on here take me to write, I'm going to try and write 50-100 words about every book I'm reading. Not reviews, per se, just impressions and notions. They should go up once a week or so. There should be a cover shot, but the internet is currently defeating me.

So - Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver.

My husband picked this up (in the first edition) for a quid at a book sale at a Whole-food shop. To be honest, it's the sort of place I'd expect to find a Barabara Kingsolver novel. I expect her to be popular with the politically aware, generally hippy crowd that frequent the place. After all, I exist on the fringes of that particular clique myself.

I do like Kingsolver's work. She is a gentle writer, but an unflinching one. Her concerns in this novel are similar to Atwood's in Oryx and Crake, but rather than a bleak, dystopian vision, we are presented with a tender novel of hope. Still, there is no sentimentality here, simply warmth and perspicacity written with great beauty and skill.

This is probably my favourite of her books since I first encountered her work in Animal Dreams. Powerful and convincing, it has a maturity that her earlier works (The Bean Trees) can lack, while returning to that American soil and political intensity that I have always thought lends her work its greatest impact. Yes, this is a moral book, but its morality is of a distinctly secular flavour. 

The story tells of the coming of the coyote in mountains where the native red wolves were hunted to extinction centuries before. It is a novel about the subtleties of ecology, of pesticides, of people and  cultures at odds with each other, of invasive species and keystone predators. Her themes are wonderfully interwoven, her symbolism elegant. As I have come to expect from her, she is careful and sympathetic when portraying views other than her own, but she has a commitment to what might be called a 'left-wing agenda'- one with which I can only agree, being generally left wing myself.

I do wonder how it would play out for a person less steeped in Permaculture, less than convinced of evolution, or mankind's destructive impact on the environment than myself, but I would say without hesitation that it is the best novel I've read so far this year.

That's  a lot more that 50-100 words, isn't it? Damn.

Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl was rather less wonderful. The concept is clever, the writing sharp and clean, but much of the 'message' and many of the assumptions left something of a bitter taste. To avoid spoilers, I shan't go into too much depth, but the implication seemed to be that false accusations of rape are common, respecting your children turns them into sociopaths, and that neglectful man-boys who don't listen to what you say really are the best partners heterosexual women can find. Bollocks to it.

Song of Kali, sadly, is another dud. A pity, because the Fantasy Masterworks series that published it also introduced me to the inimitable John Crowley. In its favour, this contained a few moments of delightfully done horror, and Dan Simmon's prose was generally elegant. Unfortunately, I was mostly battered by the flagrant orientalism, the blindingly obvious 'horror twists!' and the fact that it should have ended about six chapters before it did. I had a similar problems with Drood, which I didn't realise was by the same author until afterwards.

If I get a chance, though, I might return to Song of Kali in a longer post.