July 27th, 2013


Links I found interesting for 27-07-2013


July Books 14) Kiss of the Butterfly, by James Lyon

His impression of Belgrade was one of dirty decay. He choked on the coal smoke, leaded automobile exhaust, cigarettes and diesel fumes, yet admired the awkward mix of graceful neglected old buildings and concrete communist kitsch. Street-corner black market currency dealers buzzed about like swarming bees as they chanted endlessly the Serbian word for hard currency, ‘devize, devize, devize.’ He was almost run over several times by new black Audis, BMWs and Mercedes with tinted windows, whose drivers braked for no one and rarely observed traffic lights, while the police stood by. And no one smiled.
Here it is at last: the Balkan vampire novel by my former colleague James Lyon, in which he unites a vivid impression of living in Belgrade as an American expat during the opening months of the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s with some well developed vampire mythology, drawn from the lore of the region rather than from the twentieth century's elaborations of Bram Stoker. The plot has sinister forces within the Serbian regime attempting to exploit an occult investment laid down centuries before by the Austro-Hungarian empire, with the central character a young American researcher trying to make sense of it all (and also to work through his feelings for two different Serbian girls). It's all very smartly done, and entertaining, and clearly leaves enough unresolved threads for a sequel or two.

July Books 15) Plague of the Cybermen, by Justin Richards

'Are we faster than them? Are they following?' Olga demanded. 'Where are we going? Are we lost? Will we ever get out of these tunnels alive?'
'No, probably, not sure, absolutely not, and I hope so.'
'Well - you asked.'
This turned out to be an interesting paired reading with Kiss of the Butterfly, in that they are both riffs on the classic vampire mythos in different ways: where James Lyon has gone right back to the roots of the legend, Justin Richards has of course gone for the Cybermen (who as wwhyte points out are not all that far from the undead anyway). New Who has actually been doing quite a good job of reimagining the Cybermen in their last couple of appearances; this novel has strong links to both the TV story Closing Time and the 8th Doctor audio The Silver Turk, though I felt not quite as good as either. I had expected that this would be an Eleven/Clara novel, but in fact it's Eleven-on-his-own, with one-off companion Olga. (Pedantic niggle: Olga not such a likely name for a woman in a German-speaking village in Central Europe in the 19th century.) A decent enough effort.

July Books 16) Katherine Swynford: The History of a Medieval Mistress, by Jeannette Lucraft

Was she kind, gentle, warm, blessed with a good sense of humour? This we do not know, beyond the conjecture that her personality must have been of merit to hold Gaunt's attention and love for so long.
A fairly short book, with a bit of a sense of PhD thesis pushed into book form, looking at the life and historical treatment of Katherine Swynford, John of Gaunt's lover and later his wife in the late 14th century. The core facts are interesting enough - her father appears to have been a Flemish mercenary, but she moved comfortably in royal circles and her sister married Geoffrey Chaucer, and her love affair with Gaunt was publicly acknowledged while his second wife was still living. Lucraft dwells on the scandalised treatment of the Gaunt household arrangements by later monastic chroniclers, but carefully dissects them to demonstrate that there may really have been general acceptance of the situation, with the most negative comments written some time afterwards, politically motivated and inaccurate on the facts. Indeed I wish she had gone a bit further and explicitly looked at the John of Gaunt / Katherine Swynford / Isabella of Castile relationship as a stable triad, terminated only by Isabella's death; there are plenty of historical, literary and contemporary examples to draw from. (One favourite of mine is Peter Dickinson's alternate twentieth-century British Royals in King and Joker.)

Lucraft then offers an interpretation of Katherine's personal worldview as having been inspired by St Catherine of Alexandria. Here she makes a very good case for the fact of Katherine's devotion based on the surviving iconography, but falls down a bit in interpreting what this might have meant to her subject: Catherine of Alexandria was, famously, a virgin, and Katherine Swynford, also fairly famously, was not (Swynford was the surname of her first husband, by whom she had had three children before the four she had with John of Gaunt). I think that there must be something in St Catherine's facility in helping her devotees to overcome suffering, and also possibly her personal devotion to learning, but Lucraft disappointingly strays off the specifics into a general discussion of godly women (though I did find the parallels with Margery Kempe interesting).

Anyway, I'm going slow on my own historical project at present, but this was an interesting example of what you can learn about a person, and about history, when they were moderately important in their won right but can only be reconstructed from physical artefacts and from what other people said about them.

July Books 17) The Ripple Effect, by Malorie Blackman

'For you, time is waves on a beach that you dip a toe into. For me it’s a whole ocean, all the way from coast to coast and from the surface to the ocean floor. I feel time in the very core of my being in a way that you never can.'
The latest of the short Puffin books doing a Doctor a month, and this being July it's the Seventh Doctor and Ace, slipping into a universe where the Daleks inexplicably appear to have become the good guys. Blackman puts the Doctor in an existential moral dilemma with regard to the Daleks rather well (and I notice that the Third Doctor has a similar problem with the Master in Alastair Reynolds' recent novel; coincidence, or subtle clues about the 50th anniversary special?) but unfortunately is much less good at catching the nuances of the Seventh Doctor and Ace as characters; it is of course entirely possible that she has not read all that many of the 75 Seventh Doctor novels out there. Still, I think the originality of the plot is commendable in such a short book.

(And as far as I know, Blackman is the first woman of colour to write a Doctor Who story in any medium.)

July Books 18) Spend Game, by Jonathan Gash

The house lies back from the pavement. Beyond the line of dwellings is a row of gardens. Then the dreadful countryside starts, rolling fields, woods, streams, trees. Really horrible, not an antique shop anywhere. I hate the bloody stuff.
I think that this will be my last Lovejoy book for a while. The actual antique mystery bit is particularly well done here: Lovejoy's obsession with relics from the dawn of the railway age turn out to be the basis of a peculiar murder mystery, and there is a thrilling climax as he tries to outwit his enemies trapped at the wrong end of an underground tunnel. But his revolting and sometimes violent misogyny is also on full display too, and it is rather implausible that so many women can simultaneously be pursuing his affections considering how badly he treats them all. I think I'll switch to Agatha Christie for a bit.

July Books 19) Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins

"Sometime in the near future, this war will be resolved. A new leader will be chosen," says Boggs.
I roll my eyes. "Boggs, no one thinks I'm going to be the leader."
"No. They don't," he agrees. "But you'll throw support to someone. Would it be President Coin? Or someone else?"
"I don't know. I've never thought about it," I say.
"If your immediate answer isn't Coin, then you're a threat."
In the concluding volume of the Hunger Games trilogy, Katniss has to work out not so much how to win the war against the regime of President Snow - that part seems to be working reasonably well, now that the rebellion has actually started - but also how to prevent it from being replaced by something just as bad, or worse. There's some pretty sane political critique in the trilogy, most especially of media culture and of authoritarianism, and that comes to a peak here when Katniss makes an agonising choice in the final pages (one which, judging from the internets, is actually lost on some readers). There's a harrowing sequence of her penetrating to the heart of the capitol, in constant danger and losing allies at every step, and of course with unresolved romance issues which she is forced to repress at significant emotional cost. I come away thinking that the first is the best of the three volumes, and one can read it without needing to learn what happens next, but this is a decent conclusion.

There was a remarkable story in the Economist a couple of months back about the adoption of the Hunger Games by the Tea Party. These novels are not great literature, but I think their approach to challenging authority and looking beyond bread and circuses for the reality of your society is sound; and I am not sure that the libertarians have chosen the best author for their own purposes here. While Katniss is (obviously) a fighter for her own freedom and that of others, I sense a pretty important thread of social justice in the books too.

July Books 20) Murder on the Orient Express, by Agatha Christie

Poirot was silent a minute. Then he said: “If you will be so good, M. Hardman, assemble everyone here. There are two possible solutions of this case. I want to lay them both before you all.”
I had not actually read this Agatha Christie novel before, though of course I knew whodunnit as it has been widely spoilered in popular culture. There is still a thrill in watching the insanely convoluted plot (both story and conspiracy) come together, and I patted myself on the back for picking up the one clue that Poirot misses (the monogrammed handkerchief). It's also interesting for just how much the backstory draws on the real-life Lindbergh kidnapping, which had happened two years before the book's publication; the similarities will not have been lost on the contemporary audience. The resolution does require impressive ability to deceive Poirot, at least initially, on the part of those responsible, and his moral choice at the end is a bit questionable (though not the only time this happens; I shall be keeping count).

But there is extra fascination for today's reader in the locations described. The opening scene of the book is the railway station in Aleppo, where Poirot is joining the train that started in Baghdad (with a break between Kirkuk and Nisibis). It's extraordinary for us now to imagine that route being a relatively unremarkable train journey, the year after Hitler took power in Germany. (Agatha Christie of course knew it well because of her visits to husband's excavations near Nineveh.)

For me the setting came even closer to personal experience when I realised that the actual murder takes place just outside Vinkovci, which I knew in 1998 as a traumatised frontline town recovering painfully from the recent conflict. In December of that year, with wife and small child, I drove past Vinkovci on the former Highway of Brotherhood and Unity through heavy snow, got turned back at the Serbian frontier after navigating the minefields, and finally found a hotel bed in the smashed urban moonscape of Vukovar. So although the area around the likely scene of the crime is actually fairly densely populated, I did feel shudders of sympathy. (See also Saki's short story, "The Name Day", for another creepy story of being stuck in a snowbound train carriage in the future Yugoslavia.)

I think as a mystery novel this is actually better than And Then There Were None; the story is more representative of the genre, there is somewhat less overt racism (gosh, a sympathetic Jewish character!), and the plot is slightly less implausible. I admit that these are fairly fine grades of distinction.