December 7th, 2013


November Books 6) Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson

(Advance warning - lots of catchup bookblogging today.)

I was reminded of Paterson's utter classic Bridge to Terabithia by Mari Ness's (spoilery) write-up a few weeks ago, and just before my to-read list reached this novel, which also won the Newbery Medal (in 1981, three years after Terabithia.

I didn't quite know what to expect. I was braced for another Terabithia, a closely observed portrait of childhood friendship disrupted by a gut-wrenching plot development near the end. In fact it's very different - Jacob Have I Loved is a story of sibling rivalry, or rather of how the narrator is completely overshadowed by her twin sister. Where the relative normality of the families in Terabithia were a reassuring anchor for the narrative, here the awfulness of Louise's family surroundings, which start bad and keep getting worse, actually makes one almost wish for a Terabithia-style climax. The actual happy ending felt a bit rushed and tacked-on, part of a different story.

But it's still beautifully observed. In the BBC radio series Clare in the Community, there's a hilarious moment in episode 3.2 where Clare's mother is bewildered by Clare's resentment of her sister: "We always were careful to treat them both the same - the plain one and the pretty one!" Jacob Have I Loved isn't a comedy; it's a great portrayal of a despairing teenager, isolated in her own family, which itself is on an isolated island in the Chesapeake Bay, and how she finally gets away.

November Books 8) Reamde, by Neal Stevenson

Another of Stephenson's contemporary blockbuster technothrillers, over a thousand pages, which returns to his familiar themes of peculiar families, virtual reality games and the economics of moving large amounts of cash around the world. There are scenes set in great detail of the westernmost sector of the US-Canada border, and a vividly realised chunk of the book set in Xiamen, which I must admit was a city I had given no thought to whatsoever before picking up this book, though it sounds well worth a visit provided one can avoid a visit coinciding with Mafia and/or terrorists. There is one whacking huge unbelievable coincidence fairly early on when gur Znsvn naq gur greebevfgf ghea bhg gb or ubyrq hc va nqwnprag ncnegzragf, haxabja gb rvgure, but apart from that it is pacy and enjoyable, with even the extensive detail final shoot-out crafted entertainingly.

On reflection I have reclassified Reamde as non-sf rather than sf. There is nothing in it that requires counterfactual technology - possibly some aspects of the MMORPG are more advanced than anything in reality, but I found it all believable enough.

November Books 9) Nothing O'Clock, by Neil Gaiman

This was the last of the monthly Doctor Who ebooks produced this year, sending off the Eleventh Doctor in style with a short story by Neil Gaiman. This brings Amy and the Doctor to what seems at first a normal house with a normal little girl, and then the world starts to change in unexpectedly horrible ways - there are shades of Coraline and of a couple of the Sandman arcs here, but that's not a bad thing.

This wee series of books is presumably going to be published in hard copy as a single volume in time for the Christmas market. It will be a good buy, though consumers should be warned that the first story, Eoin Colfer's "A Big Hand For The [First] Doctor", is by far the weakest.

November Books 10) Long Time Dead, by Sarah Pinborough

I absolutely hated Pinborough's previous Torchwood novel, and pondered whether to even crack the covers of this one. However, I'm glad I did; this picks up the story of Suzie Costello, five years after her death in the very first episode of Torchwood, getting unexpectedly resurrected in the rubble of the Hub and creating mayhem while setting up some of the scenery for Miracle Day. None of the regular Torchwood characters appear (apart from a very brief look-in from Jack Harkness) but it very nicely ties up a loose end of continuity.

November Books 11) There Will Be Time, by Poul Anderson

I had read this as a teenager, and was very interested to find out how it stood up on rereading. It remains rather good - the protagonist is a mid-century American kid with the innate gift of time-travel, which he controls rather better than the husband in The Time-Traveller's Wife. There's a lot of politics here, as a white supremacist time-traveller tries to set up a racist principality at the end of time; can he be stopped, given that time appears to be immutably set in its tracks?

This was also the book from which I learned about the Fourth Crusade; somehow I simply hadn't heard of it before, and Anderson's portrayal of the brutal rupture of Christendom was a vivid historical eye-opener. All the good bits were as good as I remembered, and the bits I didn't remember were not bad at all.

December Books 3) Eyeless in Gaza, by Aldous Huxley

(If you're wondering what happened to December Books 1 and 2, they were unpublished manuscripts that I read for a friend. Both are strongly recommended, but they are not out yet.)

Apart from Brave New World, the only other Huxley novel I had read was Crome Yellow back when I was a student (and I remember very little about it). Eyeless in Gaza combines some fairly brutal commentary about lefties in British politics in the late 1930s, but tells the story in a narrative which is sliced up between decades, several different strands interlacing. There are some particularly grim scenes, involving a dog, an amputation, and a suicide, which are a striking contrast with the theoretical philosophising of the main character. I thought this had some of Huxley's better women characters as well, with a frank depiction of shifting relationships among a group of friends. Nothing sfnal to see here, but recognisably from the same source as Brave New World.