Fumi Nakamura, ‘Enma the immortal’

Enma the ImmortalTattoos can confer immortality. It’s a good beginning. In 1866, a young man in Japan wakes to find that the design newly inked into his skin has made him immortal. He must make his way through history constantly set apart, never aging, trying to deal with the temptation to do to someone else what was done to him.

It’s an engaging tale which never makes the mistake of trying to be anything other than human: no epic clashes of supernatural forces, but the story of what people do in unnatural situations. The story is told in five sections, between 1866 and 1945, but there is always continuity: each chapter builds on the events of the past to develop Enma’s struggle to find a way to exist in the world. It’s part thriller, part love story, and part historical drama, and none the worse for being all three.

If I had a quibble, it was that I was disappointed that the story skipped all the way from 1895 to 1945: I’d been appreciating the chance to learn more about Japan’s history, and it seemed like the country’s development mirrored Enma’s own. I felt I was missing out by not knowing what had happened in those fifty years. But that’s my problem.

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Tobias Hill, ‘Underground’

It turns out that working ten- and eleven-hour days is conducive to neither reading nor writing about what you read. The next few entries are therefore going to be a bit of a scamper through the library books I’ve renewed umpteen times since December and have finally got through, plus one book I read on the way – this one.

Underground‘Underground’ is eerie, and gripping. Casimir is a Tube worker, spending his life in the depths of the London Underground. When a young woman dies under a train, Casimir is drawn into hunting for her killer, trying to identify one person among the hordes who pass him by every day.

Interwoven is the story of Casimir’s childhood in Poland, slowly discovering the family secrets which would shape his adult life. The pacing is perfect, flipping you effortlessly between the narratives and never losing the tension. Both sequences are told in the present tense, sharp and immediate. The child Casimir narrates his own story, and the world he sees is very much a child’s world. Tobias Hill is a poet as well as a novelist, and it shows in the vividness of the language and the detailed observational eye which can create a whole person in just a few sentences.

It took me a while to work out why the two halves of the story mesh so well, until I realised that both the child Casimir and the adult are observers, standing apart, both searching for an explanation. The child doesn’t understand his mother and father and the tensions of their relationship, and exists in two worlds: the world of children’s rules and the world of incomprehensible adults. The adult is literally adrift in a foreign country, but is one step further detached by the nature of his job, watching the people stream by every day and then stepping through doors and into tunnels and hideaways that they will never know. It’s only when Casimir begins to meet the people who make their home in a secret, dark otherworld, beyond even the passageways of his working life, that he is able to make any connection with another human being.

‘Underground’ was Hill’s debut novel, published in 1999. I will definitely be looking out for his other work.

Giulio Leoni, ‘The Kingdom of Light’

Kingdom of Light“If you love ‘The Name of the Rose’ then you must read ‘The Kingdom of Light'” said the review on the back cover, so obediently I did. I wish people wouldn’t say that sort of thing, and I wish I didn’t fall for it as often as I do. It’s more or less tantamount to saying ‘If you like a brilliant book which has been hailed as a modern classic, then read this one because it’s trying to be a bit the same’.

‘The Kingdom of Light’ gives us Dante Alighieri as sleuth, which is a very tempting premise if, like me, you’re interested in how gifted writers, scientists and thinkers might have lived and interacted with the people around them. In other words, how does a genius behave and think? What makes a great poet? Do such people see the world differently?

I’m not sure there’s much of an answer to those questions in this book. Dante is a man of intelligence, a persistent man and one who prefers to treat people humanely. I found I couldn’t really get much more of a sense of him than that. One reason was that I kept getting distracted by the continual violence of his reactions: he seemed to be frequently on a kind of emotional roller-coaster of despair, desire, disgust, terror, or rage. Often his emotions had physical symptoms of trembling or dizziness. He seemed to pass out a lot. I don’t know whether this is some sort of cultural difference – I’m hesitant to invoke the stereotypical over-emotional Italian – or just an attempt to portray a man of strong feelings, but either way I found it jarring.

I also kept running into odd sentences and descriptions in the prose which seemed contradictory or occasionally incomprehensible. If you write “Hamid stood silently in a corner. He was sunk in prayer, bent over on his little rug.” then I stop paying attention to the story and start wondering how anyone can achieve both postures at once. The problem is that it’s very hard to tell whether something is a fault of the original text or a translation problem. I didn’t feel I totally trusted the translator. The opening of the main narrative begins ‘They had turned away from the houses beside a cottage on the road to Pisa’. Houses beside a cottage? What’s the difference between the two sorts of building, and why are both mentioned? Why is this a significant place for them to turn away (by which the author seems to mean that they turned off the road or took a different road)? I couldn’t help wondering if the Italian words which had been translated as ‘houses’ and ‘cottage’ would have given more information to an Italian-speaker than the translation did to me.

On the plus side, it is a vividly-imagined world, with a wealth of historical detail, and the themes of conspiracy, murder and politics blend with mystical science, philosophy and religion to give a plausible picture of what was on the medieval mind. Be warned, though: the author doesn’t give you much in the way of background information as he goes but expects you to keep up. If you don’t know who the Guelphs and the Ghibellines were, I’d strongly suggest finding out first, since the story is set in an Italy where for decades the key political factor has been the conflict between the Pope and the Holy Roman Emperor. The ripples from that conflict, and in particular from the career of the great Emperor Frederick II form the heart of this novel. I wondered if Italian children are taught Guelphs and Ghibellines in the same way that British children are taught, well, whatever’s fashionable from British history and if therefore Italian readers would have been on more familiar territory. I had a rough idea of the history, enough such that the context of the story made sense, but I could have done with a little more hand-holding in places, not so much for characters and events but in terms of the details of how historical Florence functioned and the different roles in its government. There is a glossary with some historical background at the end but I confess I didn’t find it till I’d finished the book: I could have done with being told it was there.

J.D. Robb, ‘Kindred in Death’

It turns out that working ten- and eleven-hour days for a few weeks and then plunging into the family complexity of Christmas isn’t really conducive to a) reading and b) writing about books. I’m therefore just going to do some quick notes to try and catch up.

My New Year’s Resolution is to stop being too lazy to post cover shots, so here you go.

Cover of 'Kindred in Death' OK, confession time. Apparently this is the 35th crime thriller in the ‘In Death’ series, and I’ve somehow managed to remain ignorant of the series’ existence. Not sure how that happened. I have a feeling that in the dim and distant past I may have read one of the earlier books, but that was before I was keeping a reading diary and therefore Doesn’t Count. For the moment I’m just going to put it down to the fact the author is American and leave it at that. Anyone out there who is appalled by this ignorance will just have to try and forgive me.

Actually if I’d realised that this was the 35th book in a series I’d have been put off. I’m picky that way. I like to start with book one and move on from there. I was a bit disconcerted to find that the whole thing kicked off with a list of recurring characters from the series with a paragraph describing each one: usually I associate that sort of thing with historical novels where the author has decided to be kind to those who are confused by foreign names, or wants the chance to tell us which characters are historical and which fictional. Or there’s the Lindsay Davis approach, where the cast list gives her an opportunity for a bit of succinct satire. I don’t usually refer back to character lists much, but in this case, about five pages in, I realised that I actually did need this one, as various names were being bandied about in dialogue with no introduction.

I’m not sure what I think of this approach. Part of me says ‘that’s just lazy’, as it lets the author off having to think of ways to introduce people without breaking the flow of the narrative or irritating those who’ve read the whole series and know exactly who Charles and Louise are, thank you very much. Another part of me says ‘fair enough’, given how long the series has been going on for. A third part is just annoyed by having to stop reading and look people up all the time.

I also hadn’t realised from a quick scan of the blurb on the back cover that the series is set in the future. (I’ve just checked, and the blurb in question genuinely doesn’t mention it. Presumably I’m supposed to know that because I’ve read all or at least some of the earlier books.) It may well be that the futuristic setting plays more of a role in the earlier novels. By this point, it seemed to me that the only thing that separates it from a thriller with a contemporary setting is that the characters have access to more exciting transport options.

It’s a pacy read, with snappy writing and enough plot to keep you interested. The only problem I had was that by this point in their relationship, protagonists Eve Dallas – described on page one as ‘murder cop and ass-kicker’ – and her improbably gorgeous billionaire husband have finally reached a point of nuptial bliss. This shouldn’t really be a problem, and I’ve nothing against happy marriages in fiction. It’s also made clear in the book that they’ve got to this point after a long and emotional struggle to come to terms with the darker bits of their respective pasts. However, I’m starting to realise that there may be a rather fundamental reason why so many fictional cops have dysfunctional lives and relationships. If you write vividly about the vicious beating, rape and murder of a sixteen-year-old girl in her own bed, which is the appalling scene faced by the heroine at the start of this story, then you’re at risk of undermining the seriousness and horror of the crime if your detective goes home from work to a life where she has perfect sex whenever she needs it, an amusing cat, servants to take care of all the mundane stuff, and where her biggest angst is caused by the fact that she feels she doesn’t know how to be a good bridesmaid. The contrast is just a bit too much to take.

I suspect for that reason I’d like the earlier books in the series better than this one.

John Shirley, ‘Bleak History’

I was in two minds about whether to write a review for this one, as I don’t think I’ve given it my full and fair attention. I was about half way through and then went away for a long weekend, leaving it behind in favour of the mobile library that is my iPad, and didn’t get back to it for a couple of weeks. But half the purpose of this blog is to record thoughts about my library books, so I can remember what I’ve read and whether I want to read any more of it. And this was a library book. So here goes.

This has a good premise. It’s one of those stories that comes from the question “If some people were revealed as having supernatural powers what would happen?”, but it takes the question further than many and develops more options and interesting twists. Ostensibly, it’s a story about the conflict between the people with powers and the government agency created to ‘deal with’ them (in a variety of increasingly disturbing ways), but as the story progresses we learn more about the context, the hidden agendas and the forces lurking in the background. The central character, Gabriel Bleak (the title’s a bit too cheesy for me but I can live with it), is one of those who can manipulate energies to produce supernatural results. He’s become a natural loner, not really happy with the idea of joining up with his fellows in the supernatural world, but despite tragedies in his past he’s still able to connect with people and open himself up to the possibility of love and companionship, which is where the story takes him.

What I did like about this book was the complexity of the moral issues and the way characters didn’t have their actions limited by the ‘side’ they appeared at first to be on. What I was less grabbed by was the love story: the introduction of a mystical link between the couple seemed to me to take away a lot of what could have been interesting about their developing relationship. It’s an action-packed story, well told, with varied, fully-fleshed characters. I just don’t know why it didn’t hold my attention the way I feel it should have. Probably a case of right book, wrong time.

 

Rosemary Sutcliff, ‘Sword at Sunset’

Spouse and I were having a conversation in a pub recently about what makes a nation: is it linguistic, geographical, religious, cultural, or some sort of historical stew composed of all of the above? I realised during the course of the discussion that my view of what makes England England is largely derived from my childhood exposure to Rosemary Sutcliff.

I always get irritated with people who bang on about their ‘Englishness’, by which I mean the perceived importance of describing yourself as ‘English’ rather than ‘British’. This is mostly because in my experience such people tend to be annoying bigots, but it’s also because it’s such a meaningless distinction, if you look at the history. I’m therefore firmly of the belief that in order to reduce the number of annoying English-centric bigots in our midst what’s needed is for key Rosemary Sutcliff novels to be on the school curriculum.

Put simply, what she had was a clear view of what it meant to be Romano-British, and what happened to that world and those people once the Roman Empire broke down and the legions left. The characters in her novels may be Roman Italians, people from elsewhere in the far-flung Empire, Pictish tribesmen, Celts, Saxons, or the old people of the hills who were there long before the Celts came and the Romans after them. Most common are characters who whatever their or their family’s origin have come to make up the people of Roman Britain; that mingling of the native Celts with people from all over the Empire who came to Britain as administrators, soldiers and traders and stayed. The defining culture of Sutcliff’s Roman Britain comes from the Roman way of life, never obviously or bluntly defined, but characterised as order and the rule of law against barbarism. When the legions have left and the Empire is embattled and far away, the symbols of the ‘light’ of civilization that the characters fight to preserve are the forum with grass growing between the paving stones, the smoke-blackened basilica, the disused hypocaust in a bath house, the dusty courthouse pressed into service for the king’s war council, the cracked and fading mosaic pavement, the overgrown road.

Given that there is this recurring theme of the light against the dark, referring to the defence against the Saxon invaders, you might think that the Saxons were in danger of being sterotyped as Germanic barbarians. Somehow, Sutcliff manages to avoid this. Saxon characters in books such as ‘Dawn Wind’ (set maybe a hundred years after the events of ‘Sword at Sunset’) are clearly human beings, some sympathetic characters and some less so, and the whole presence of the Saxons (and Angles, Jutes, Norsemen etc etc) in Britain is given the context of a people who come from a harsh, unyielding land and are understandably lured by fertile fields. In ‘Sword at Sunset’ itself, the Saxons are always recognised as brave enemies with comprehensible motives. Even when their savagery towards British communities is being reviled, there’s never a sense that they are less than human, albeit humans with a violent and reprehensible way of war. A key moment in the book comes at a parley between the two sides, when a British boy and a Saxon boy, accompanying their respective leaders, warily accept each other as companions for the day and return in the evening having formed a temporary bond. The story’s hero realises that even though in the end the British forces will be overwhelmed, there is still hope, because the two sides are not so different that they cannot form alliances and learn from each other, foreseeing a time when there will be a mingling of the two cultures.

I’ve managed to get this far through this post without mentioning that ‘Sword at Sunset’ is a retelling of the story of King Arthur. This is deliberate. Put aside any thoughts of shining armour, Merlin lurking in the wings, Round Tables and magic swords. This is Sutcliff’s attempt to portray a man on whom the legend might have been based: a war leader, using a cavalry force to harass and drive back the invaders. He belongs to a royal family descended from men who tried to establish themselves as emperors in Britain and western Europe and thus represents the last vestiges of Roman imperial power in Britain. Two elements of the legend have been retained: the love triangle (though she chooses to use a character other than Lancelot, given that he’s a much later addition to the story), and the theme of the unwitting sin of incest leading to eventual disaster. But this is intended as a historical novel, not a fantasy, and the magical elements of the story have been left out. The hero is Artos the Bear, a charismatic leader, who manages to hold back the Saxon tide for a few more years, not a mythical king. Interestingly, Sutcliff did write a more traditional version of the Arthurian legend twenty years later in a trilogy of children’s novels, but here she is more concerned with how the history could have given rise to the legend, not only in terms of events but also in terms of how a real man could have become a mythical figure. This is a story of how one man can affect history in a time of change, and how a leader with a vision can leave a legacy even if he ultimately fails.

‘Sword at Sunset’ is one in a linked series of novels, including possibly Sutcliff’s best-known trilogy: ‘The Eagle of the Ninth’, ‘The Silver Branch’ and ‘The Lantern Bearers’. ‘Dawn Wind’, mentioned above, is also part of the same series and I think should be better known than it is (for more details on all the novels and how they fit together the Wikipedia article is a good place to start). Though ‘Sword at Sunset; is the only one of this series aimed at adults rather than children (today her books would probably be described as ‘young adult’), Sutcliff never shies away from the reality of hard choices in a dangerous world. I think they’re all compelling and moving stories, and would be worth the read for anyone who’s interested in the ebb and flow of history and how people can survive changing times with their own brand of courage.

Jo Walton, ‘Tooth and Claw’

I said in my last post that I liked the absurd. I do. I like the surreal, too. It’s just that sometimes it makes me scratch my head a bit. To quote ‘The King and I’, “Is a puzzlement.”

This is a book about polite society jostling for status, about subjugated daughters and their marriages, about family quarrels, about snobbery and posturing, about masters and servants, and about the ridiculousness of social conventions. Austen meets Thackeray meets Dickens meets Downton Abbey. It’s just that everyone in it is a dragon. Oh, and they eat each other. Mostly they eat their dead relatives, but not always.

If the mere thought of this concept makes your head explode, it’s probably best to avoid this book. However, it’s lively, well-paced, with interesting characters, and is a fairly effortless read, so I’d put it under the heading of Good Entertainment. I was just hampered by being the sort of person who wants to know exactly how a dragon fits on a train, and what their office furniture looks like.


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