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Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

Black Swan, 2014, 622 p.

 Life After Life cover

Preamble:- I wanted to read this because its premise is similar to that of The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August which I reviewed for Interzone 252, and put up here two posts ago. (Since Atkinson lives in Edinburgh Life After Life was also eligible for the Read Scotland 2014 Challenge, though in her author notes at the end she says it is actually about being English.)

Review:-
So. As the author, where do you start a novel whose conceit is that the same person lives her life out again and again, on each death recycling back to her moment of birth. Is it with her still-birth, when the darkness falls immediately, to set up the premise? No. That life comes second. The one where she drowns as a four-year-old? No. When she falls off the roof trying retrieve the doll her brother had thrown there? No again. The Spanish flu? Several times? No. The Blitz? Again several times? No. So where then?

Oh, Of course. You start, albeit briefly, with the life in which, before his rise to power, she kills Hitler. (Or tries to. We don’t know if she succeeds because his heavies shoot her, the darkness falls and so we recycle back to her birth. I note here that in the real world, outside this novel, many attempts were made on Hitler’s life; all unsuccessful.)

The problem I have with this attempt to attain a spurious significance is that it isn’t developed. In all the lives Ursula Todd experiences within this book – all, by the nature of the premise, altered histories – wider history is not affected one whit; World War 2 occurs regardless (if Ursula even lives long enough to witness it.) I therefore struggle to see the point of the novel, what it is Atkinson is trying to say. Unless it’s that no matter what you do with your life nothing makes a difference. Which is a pretty bleak outlook.

Yes, in some of her succeeding lives Ursula has premonitions, or moments of déjà vu, which lead her to actions which avert the possibility of death or some other potential disaster in her present timeline – and to appointments with a psychiatrist – but this attribute is neglected for long parts of the book only to resurface in another Hitler killing episode. And we never follow events beyond Ursula’s death for, I suppose, the simple reason that she cannot witness them, yet the earliest sections of Life After Life are mainly given over to interactions within the household of which Ursula becomes a part, most of which she similarly does not witness. Life follows life and it is all very well laid out and interesting enough if a trifle depressing what with all the deaths. A recurring child molester/killer incident seems particularly gratuitous. Far from being about the state of Englishness the book is really more bound up with death and the innumerable ways in which it can come about. The other two principal novelistic concerns, love and sex, do get a look in but almost incidentally.

While at one point Ursula is allowed to muse, “That was the problem with time travel, of course (apart from the impossibility) – one would always be a Cassandra, spreading doom with one’s foreknowledge of events,” she does not actually travel in time, except in the normal way, before being rebooted, and her foreknowledge is never conscious, she cannot rationalise it. Elsewhere she says, “… you just have to get on with life. We only have one after all, we should try and do our best. We can never get it right, but we must try.” To which her brother Teddy replies, “What if we had a chance to do it again and again, until we finally get it right? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?” Yet even in the life where Ursula reaches 1967 before dying it is difficult to see whether she got it right. (Remember; history isn’t changed.) Yet she can come to the conclusion that time isn’t circular, it’s a palimpsest – a conceit to which Life After Life, as a printed book, cannot quite live up. (Perhaps only an electronic medium would truly allow that.)

I’ll say this for Atkinson. She has come up with a neat way of incorporating all the ideas she may have had about the possible courses of her protagonist’s life – too many to be credible for a unique lifespan – without having to discard any single one of them; but while Life After Life is very readable it doesn’t really go anywhere. Maybe time is circular after all.

Pedant’s corner:- Izzie’s call to alms. (Since Izzie was going to be a VAD neither call to arms nor call to alms really makes any sense.) I can find no dictionary entry for “banting” – even online. Then there was, “reached a crescendo,” (that would be a climax, perhaps?) and furlough is USian, as is medieval. Plus points, though, for the Misses Nesbit.

2014 in Books Read

The ones that stick in my mind most – for whatever reason – are:-

Signs of Life by M John Harrison
Mr Mee by Andrew Crumey
Be My Enemy by Ian McDonald
The Deadman’s Pedal by Alan Warner
A Scots Quair by Lewis Grassic Gibbon – but in especial Sunset Song
The Moon King by Neil Williamson
The Dogs and the Wolves by Irène Némirovsky
The Last of the Vostyachs by Diego Marani
HHhH by Laurent Binet
That Summer by Andrew Greig
Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
My Name is Red by Orhan Pamuk
Way to Go by Alan Spence

Four SF/Fantasy novels, six Scottish ones (eight if the trilogy is separated) and no less than five translated works.

Interzone 254, Sep-Oct 2014

Interzone 254 cover

Marielena by Nina Allan1
Noah Wahid, an asylum seeker, while waiting for his permission to remain, spends the days in an endless round of impoverished futility and seeing the face of Marielena, the girl he left behind, in nearly everyone he meets. The story hinges on Noah’s encounter with a refugee from the future.

A Minute and a Half by Jay O’Connell2
The tale of how Evan came to be in sole charge of a two year old daughter he hadn’t known about. He’s taken programmers, which, in a very intrusive info dump, we are told are able to sculpt human wetware in accordance to user input parameters. Or are they just hallucinogens?

Bone Deep by S L Nickerson
A woman with a medical condition where her flesh is turning to bone can only access the treatment she needs by having sponsors’ logos tattooed onto her. (Don’t give the buggers ideas is what I say.)

Dark on a Darkling Earth by T R Napper
In a world of perpetual war where memory has to be stored on electronic cards or it is lost, an old man falls into the orbit of a group of soldiers.

The Faces Between Us by Julie C Day
Is set in an Oregon where ghosts live on in ashes and Larry and Amber try to find the way “through” by snorting them.

Songs Like Freight Trains by Sam J Miller
Christine no longer listens to music. Ariel, her friend from her teenage years taught her the trick of time travel via song. But Christine’s daughter yearns to dance.

1 Imposter. Narrator Noah tells us his vocal command of English is not good but uses words like annunciates. Pita bread is usually spelled pitta.
2 Cannoboloid (????) I suspect this should be cannabinoid.

Interzone 253, Jul-Aug 2014

Interzone 253 cover

My Father and the Martian Moon Maids by James van Pelt1
When the unnamed narrator was younger his father, now in the last stages of dementia, built a UFO detector. While tacking backwards and forwards to the care centre he remembers how much of an influence his father was on his tastes and interests. A tale of filial affection and loss. Apart from anything else you can only warm to a story illustrated with a picture of a red Fokker Triplane.

Flytrap by Andrew Hook 2
A story about what it means to be human. Or alien. Which is perhaps what we are.

The Golden Nose by Neil Williamson3
Felix Kapel is an expert in aromas whose trade is in decline due to the innovation of Teleroma – transmission of smells via the internet – until he purchases the legendary (to olfactorists) Golden Nose of the Habsburgs. Its use has an unfortunate side effect.

Beside the Dammed River by D J Cockburn (James White Award Winner)
In a part of Thailand parched by Chinese damming of the Mekong River one of ex-Professor of Engineering Narong’s waning days is lightened by the breakdown of a truck carrying an off-target mined asteroid out of Thailand illegally.

Chasmata by E Catherine Tobbler4
A tale of human inhabitants of Valles Marineris on Mars, who have children there and encounter Martians, or the ghosts of Martians, and rain that floods that huge chasm, or doesn’t. The narration constantly undermines itself with asides. I liked the term “moonslight.”

The Bars of Orion by Caren Gussof5
When their world was destroyed a man called Blankenship and his daughter Tibbi were mysteriously transported to “our” Seattle where the counterpart of his wife is married to someone else. (In a particularly USian response he goes to therapy sessions.)

1 Written in USian
2 bought for brought; “she speculated her future” is surely missing a preposition; human’s as the plural of human.
3 George III of England. (Of nowhere else, then?) Struggled to “breath” in. We achieve the things are hearts wish for.
4 Written in USian
5 Written in USian in which pay back for seems to mean reimburse whereas in English it means get revenge. (On a stereo, “Blankenship found a knob hat made the sound louder.”) (Eyes) “seemed to be starting off into the distance.”

Ursula Le Guin and Tomorrow’s Worlds

There was an interview with Ursula Le Guin in the Guardian which also appeared in print in yesterday’s edition. It didn’t tell me much I didn’t already know but opined she is underrated as a modern US writer – to which I can only agree.

Also yesterday I watched the first episode of Tomorrow’s Worlds, a BBC 2 series on the history of Science Fiction, in which Le Guin made an appearance. To my mind the programme focused too much on visual media (film and television) and did not give enough attention to the written form. Then again, it’s difficult to show clips from books. It was nevertheless good to see the genre given some critically approving TV exposure. Or critical TV exposure at all come to that.

The Copper Promise by Jen Williams

Headline, 2014, 538p. Reviewed for Interzone 251, Mar-Apr 2014.

The Citadel contains within its labyrinthine caverns not only the trapped remains of the old gods (bar one) but a supposed treasure trove. By reputation no-one escapes from it alive yet it still attracts adventurers and has guards who must be bribed to allow entry. Sell-swords Wydrin of Crosshaven (the Copper Cat) and Sebastian Carverson, disgraced former Knight of Ynnsmouth, are engaged by the mutilated Lord Aaron Frith of Blackwood to penetrate its secrets. They agree somewhat off-handedly considering the apparent dangers. Amid adventures which in part are curiously reminiscent of the 1980s children’s adventure game TV show Knightmare and Indiana Jones films they succeed up to a point. Sebastian suffers a mortal wound but Frith is restored to fitness – and beyond – by immersing himself in the lake underneath the Citadel. In the process Frith acquires magical powers by which he involuntarily transports our three heroes to Blackwood in an instant when they are threatened by the old god Y’ruen, a dragon, which their foray into the Citadel has raised from its confinement. Frith’s new powers allow him to heal the wounds of both Sebastian and Wydrin.

In the Blackwood village of Pinehold, they encounter the source of Frith’s misfortunes, Fane, who is torturing the inhabitants to find the secret of the Frith family vault. While wearing a peculiar glowing helmet – which channels the influence of the demon Bezcavar, the Prince of Wounds, an enthusiastic harvester of pain – Fane is immune from harm. His equally cruel henchmen, the Children of the Fog, Enri and Roki, wear enchanted gauntlets to manifest copies of themselves which confuse and confound any opponents. With help from an old woman, Holley, and her magical glass spheres our heroes escape, cross an invisible bridge to the vault, find in it little but maps and return to free Pinehold from its oppressors. Meantime Y’ruen and her indistinguishable brood army – whose members have numbers but no names (though some of them have developed an interest in words and their own individuality) – is devastating the land of Relios.

The three then split up to pursue their own projects before being reunited for the final scenes. Wydrin returns to Crosshaven, Sebastian goes to fight the brood army. On the Hollow Isle of Whittenfarne, Frith meets Jolnir, who turns out to be O’rin, the untrapped god, and, without much protest or questioning, bestows on Frith the power to control his magic. As a by-product Frith realises that the maps describe a weapon.

This is Williams’s first novel and I’m afraid that shows. We start with a torture scene – never auspicious – from the viewpoint of a character who is not even mentioned again for about a hundred pages and is encountered in the narrative just once more – and that after she has already been killed. Chapter two introduces the Citadel and some of its menaces. Sebastian’s erstwhile friend Gallo is killed. Only in Chapter three do we meet our heroes, the two sell-swords, in a tavern, awaiting their client, the tortured party from Chapter one, Aaron Frith, whose escape from torture is dealt with exceedingly sketchily. (Not quite “with one bound he was free” – but near enough.) Descriptions of fights are leaden, we have changes of viewpoint within scenes, suggestions by a character of what to do next are followed by the sentence, “And so they did.” At various points a touch of economy with the prose would not have gone amiss. For example, who else would a cluster of people be in proximity to but each other?

There is also a curious prudishness to the proceedings. None of the characters really swears. (Williams tells us they do but no expletives save two “bloody”s appear in direct speech.) They might as well be neuter for all the sexuality we are shown. The one time even the faintest possibility of sex arises the subject is treated with absurd coyness and the opportunity is snuffed out abruptly. We infer early on, and later are told – but without description – that Sebastian is gay. He doesn’t manifest it in the text. (But he does carry a large broadsword.) Wydrin, I suspect, is intended to be a spiky young woman but instead appears rather foolhardy and unreasonably cocky. All are hauled hither and yon by the necessities of the plot. Gallo’s reappearance as one of the walking dead is a case in point. None of them come across as having agency of their own.

For all these reasons The Copper Promise fails to breathe. There is no sense in it of a life beyond the page, and little but death on it.

The following comments did not appear in Interzone.
I read an uncorrected proof copy so some of these may have been amended for final publication but (among others) there was a “sunk” count of 5, 1 span, 1 sprung, a “scrapped” for scraped, an “octopi,” one instance of vocal “chords,” “every bone felt as though they had shattered,” – one of innumerable failures of verbs to agree in number with their subject nouns; in especial an army is singular – “over take” for overtake, “very almost completely normal,” “it’s” for “its,” the “lay” of things (which wasn’t a song,) “lengths they would go to deceive each other,” “fit” for fitted etc, etc.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu and other stories by Susanna Clarke

Bloomsbury, 2007, 242 p.

 The Ladies of Grace Adieu cover

This is not my natural habitat. A book of short stories about Faery – in cod early nineteenth century English complete with “antique” spellings? The same author’s novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, covered much the same ground and was interesting as a one-off, presenting fairies as less fey creatures than their normal portrayal (and also an everyday part of history) but this collection doesn’t really take us any more beyond that. There are introductions and footnotes by “Professor James Sutherland, Director of Sidhe Studies, University of Aberdeen,” as if the whole thing was to be taken as more than a jeu d’esprit. I can recognise the artifice of it all, the craft, but it doesn’t quite hit the spot for me.

The Ladies of Grace Adieu
Three ladies in the town of Grace Adieu practice magic. A tale “full of all kinds of nonsense that Mr Norrell will not like – Raven Kings and the magic of wild creatures and the magic of women.” In it Mr Strange reads a book which “contained a spell for turning Members of Parliament into useful members of society.” If only.

On Lickerish Hill
Before the marriage Miranda Sowerson’s mother had told her daughter’s prospective husband she could spin five skeins of flax in a day for a month. One year after the wedding he expects Miranda to accomplish this feat and shuts her up in a room. She contrives to conjure up a fairy to help her. A more or less straightforward retelling of a familiar fairy tale.

Mrs Mabb
Miss Venetia Moore’s intended, Captain Fox, has been enticed away from her by the mysterious Mrs Mabb (who never appears directly in the tale.) Strange things happen to Venetia when she tries to find Mabb’s house. She is determined, though.

The Duke of Wellington Misplaces his Horse
The Duke’s horse goes into fairyland. He follows, and discovers his fate embroidered onto tapestry. Luckily he has been provided with a pair of scissors.

Mr Simonelli or The Fair Widow
Mr Simonelli tries to prevent any of the five Gathercole sisters from being induced to marry John Hollyshoes, the fairy widower. (This employs the plural “Miss Gathercoles” rather than “Misses Gathercole” – though I accept this may be 19th century usage. However, the possessive of John Hollyshoes continually shifts from s’s to s’ and back again.)

Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby
How Tom Brightwind came to build the fairy bridge at Thoresby. Contains the immortal sentence, “There was, after all, nothing in the world so natural as people wishing to be English.”

Antickes and Frets
In her captivity in England, Mary Queen of Scots embroiders all sorts of garments to try to kill Queen Elizabeth and gain the English throne.

John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner
While out hunting, John Uskglass, the Raven King, damages the livelihood of a Cumbrian charcoal burner, who then petitions various Saints to gain him revenge. They demur but take the king down a peg.

One of “Professor Sutherland”’s introductions contains the observation that the story following “suffers from all the usual defects of second-rate nineteenth-century writing,” – something of a hostage to fortune in a book such as this.

Was by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 2005, 456p. First published 1992.

Was cover

As I posted in my review of the same author’s Air (or Have Not Have) I didn’t much take to Ryman’s earlier (short) works. I remember Colin Greenland at an Eastercon pointing this book out and saying, “You’ll have read this.” I shook my head and said I had a blind spot where Ryman was concerned. He seemed taken aback. When I saw this recently in a second–hand bookshop I thought I might give it a whirl.

Following her mother’s death a young girl called Dorothy, along with her dog, goes to live with her Aunty Em in Kansas. Any similarity to a well-known film (and slightly lesser known book) is entirely intended. Was is suffused with references to them. But this is no mere retread. Ryman takes the opportunity to illuminate life in late nineteenth century Kansas and so contrast his realistic approach to the smoothed out film version.

Dorothy Gael’s life in her new home is harsh – and unremitting. She does not get transported by a tornado to a more colourful world. Moreover, there are enough wicked witches in our own to suffice for anyone – and not only witches. Dorothy’s lack of understanding of her new environment only exacerbates her estrangement. The main focus of the book is on Dorothy’s experiences but there are chapters setting out Judy Garland’s life as viewed by herself as a child, by her make-up artist on The Wizard of Oz and by her mother after her success, with quotes at chapter heads from various sources commenting on the making of the film, the book on which it was based or the history of Kansas. Topping and tailing it all is the tale of a 1980s (HIV positive) actor trying to find traces of Dorothy Gael in historical documents.

Ryman’s imagining of Dorothy’s story has her surviving into the 1950s where, as a troublesome inmate of a home, she is befriended by a young man who goes on to a successful career in counselling (and one of whose later clients is the actor.) Dorothy tells him, “People are the only thing that can make you feel lonely,” and that Was is “a place you can step in and out of. It’s always there.”

Yet Fantasy comes to the book late. For the most part the tone is resolutely realistic and until very near the end any intrusion of the strange can be taken as imagination or illusion.

In what is perhaps a touch of overkill Ryman has The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s author, L Frank Baum, encounter Dorothy while employed as a supply (Ryman uses the term substitute) teacher – but it does precipitate a further deterioration of Dorothy’s young life. After this, “Dorothy needed magic….. She began to have another fantasy… walking backwards through the years… back home… away from Is into the land of Was.”

As a re-examination of, a commentary on, the mythology of Oz, this is a fine work. It’s also a damn good read.

Ryman’s afterword, where he discourses on the relative utilities of realism and fantasy, of the necessary distinction between history and fantasy, is also worth a look.

Pedant’s corner. Apart from the USian in which the whole book was produced, it was page 246 before I came across an irritant – laying instead of lying, which occurred once more. Unusually, I didn’t spot any typos. This may be because the book is a reprint.

The Well at the World’s End by Neil M Gunn

Polygon, 2008, 333 p. First published 1951.

 The Well at the World’s End cover

The book starts off at a well, which appears to be dry but whose water is so transparent it is invisible. This strange encounter reminds Peter Munro and his wife Fand of an old Gaelic legend of the well in the land beyond ours, the Land of Youth. Munro sets off on a quest to see if anything remains of this well at the world’s end, to go through the human boundary (which may be an illusion.)

The novel treats of two of the triumvirate of literature’s perennial concerns – love and death, but not the third, sex – and in part reads like a series of short stories bound together as a travelogue. On his journey Munro sees The Wild Man, meets a shepherd, hears of a practical joke played out in a supposedly haunted house, is knocked out by illicit whisky distillers, witnesses a woman reinvigorating her marriage in a traditional way, facilitates young love and encounters rivalries (and a reconciliation) in neighbouring seaside towns.

While the book skirts round fantasy territory, things appearing out of mists etc, the overall treatment is realistic. The denouement brings the whole round in a circle and reintroduces fantasy overtones, inviting the reader to identify Munro with the Wild Man he glimpsed earlier but in one sense wriggles out of the conclusion which that entails.

Memorable phrases included, “A man should get away from everything occasionally, even from his wife,” “There are two things the Gael likes naked and one of them is whisky,” “We don’t drink alcohol for its reality. We drink it for the effect it creates, the illusion it engenders,” “A nod’s as good as a blink when there’s a blind salmon on the back doorstep,” and the reflection, “Every village in the Highlands, every crofting area to the farthest Western Isle, had kin in the ends of the earth, and long before world wars were the fashion.”

The text employs those impeccably Scottish words kist (spelled as cist,) widdershins and deisil (sunwards) and has Munro muse on the fact that alcohol is known as water of life in several languages, uisgebeatha, eau de vie, aqua vitae, but the Sasunnach (not having a water of life of his own) struggled to pronounce uisge and so deemed it whisky. At one point Gunn touches on the phenomenon of dual personality which has echoed through Scottish literature down the years since the Act of Union when he has Munro reflect, “as though in oneself were two quite different men, who were yet the same man.” Even without these indicators the book could not be mistaken for anything other than emblematically Scottish, though.

I confess I had to look up the phrase “agenbite of inwit,” which I had never seen before.

Pedant’s corner:- Sasunnach is an unusual spelling. “Shore up” was used in the sense of “rise up.” There was a barely brew (barley,) an unpredictible, doppleganger, genuiness and a failure of subject to verb agreement in “his knees, his whole body, was trembling finely.”

Interzone 251, Mar–Apr 2014

Interzone 251 cover

Ghost Story by John Grant1
An interesting take on the ghost – or possibly parallel worlds – story. Nick is happily married to Dverna when he receives a phone call from the daughter of family friends who says she is pregnant and he’s the father. Except both Dverna and he know he can’t be.

Ashes by Karl Bunker2
In a world where AIs have allowed all sorts of useful developments but also the technology that drove the Dust Wars the very few humans who remain live in scattered enclaves without contact for fear they’ll kill each other. The AIs are prone to winking out of existence. Narrator Neil, accompanied by an AI, sets out to bury the ashes of a former girlfriend.

Old Bones by Greg Kurzawa3
Another post-apocalypse tale. An old man inhabits a wrecked room. He is frightened of the mummers who roam outside. One day a surgeon knocks on the door.

Fly Away Home by Suzanne Palmer4
Set on a mining asteroid run by a woman-hating theocracy which holds its workers in bondage till they pay off their debts and/or fines for misbehaviour. Fari is unique, a female miner – but she is the best – and has her own reasons for paying back credits. Things come to a head when a new Rep takes over.

A Doll is not a Dumpling by Tracie Welser5
Yopu, a robot dumpling seller, is kidnapped by activists for non-human rights (one of whom is a dogboy.) Yopu is given a bigger vocabulary and a mission.

This is How You Die by Gareth L Powell6
A very short story narrated in the second person about the effects of, and a personal response to, a devastating flu-like pandemic.

Pedant’s corner:
1 It’s androgynous not genous and any Scot I know uses either bairns or weans to describe children, but not both.
2 The two info dumping sections are intrusive and the story is written in USian.
3 Had been “sawed” apart, fit for fitted, the surgeon made no “more” to interfere (misprint for move.)
4 Written in USian.
5 Written in USian plus two instances of failure of agreement between subject and verb, epicenter, and a “lay” for lie.
6 “wet orange leaves” is ambiguous. Well, I had to read it twice to get Powell’s meaning.

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