Sunday, October 09, 2011

Bourgeois Book Club

The New Confessions by William Boyd

I'm not really one much for non-genre literary fiction. Just not my bag, you know? But the works of William Boyd, specifically this book, came up in a thread on Crasstalk, and I found myself intrigued.

The New Confessions is the "memoir" of fictional film director John James Todd. Born in Edinburgh at the dawn at the dawn of the twentieth century, Todd's life captures the great upheavals and tragedies of the early twentieth century: World Wars I and II, Weimar Germany, Depression Hollywood, and the Red Scare. From Edinburgh to Belgium, from Berlin to Switzerland, from Hollywood to Tijuana, Todd's eventful life as a filmmaker whose futile struggle to complete a film version of Rousseau's The Confessions (from which, of course, the title derives) over the course of forty years is one of tragedy, triumph, and banality.

In a (fake) memoir such as this, the narrator is, of course, absolutely central. And Boyd's Todd is a very interesting narrator. Like his beloved Rousseau, he is uncompromisingly, unflinchingly honest about himself. Indeed, one of Boyd's triumphs is not to give into sentiment about Todd. He has a hard life, and a particularly sob-story childhood, but really not terribly sympathetic. He's compelling, but not, perhaps, likeable and certainly not admirable. He's impulsive, inconsiderate, a terrible father and husband, flighty, obsessive, and really kinda creepy a lot of times. And, yet, he has charm enough, and "his" writing is funny enough, that though one does not end up particularly liking him, one is still enthralled by his story.

Todd life is one of constant and sweeping changes in fortune, rather dramatically showing that all things, from interwar Berlin to Hollywood careers, are adrift on the winds of chance. Ultimately, life is random and meaningless. Hamish, Todd's school friend who is a prodigy and becomes a mathematician genius, tells him right before the end of WWII that the era they are living in is the Age of Uncertainty, the Age of Incompleteness. Heisenberg and Goedel have demolished all expectation of ultimate truth, leaving the universe to chance. As Todd's movie is incomplete, so is his life; as Todd's career is fraught with uncertainty, so is his life. So are all of our lives. We are always living in the Age of Uncertainty and Incompleteness. We just sometimes manage to convince ourselves that we're not. Perhaps, in a subconscious way, we're so used to uncertainty and incompleteness that we don't even notice it until and unless it becomes particularly blatant and extreme; or, perhaps, deep down we know we live lives of uncertainty and incompleteness, but ignore it; most people don't want to live in a world with no meaning, where randomness is the only constant.

There are rather gross parts of the book, particularly with regards to sex. But I suppose that's part of the brutal honesty. I mean, sex is rather gross.

A funny book with a melancholy heart, it's gotten me interested in Boyd's other work.

The Onyx Hall Series (Midnight Never Come, In Ashes Lie, A Star Shall Fall, With Fate Conspire) by Marie Brennan

Below and to the side of London stands the Onyx Hall, darkly glittering domain of the English fae, where a faerie Queen rules with her mortal Prince. This is the secret history of London, from the Elizabethan to the Victorian Age, a London where humans are not alone, and where actions in one world can have devastating consequences in another.

This has been one of my favorite urban fantasy (and never has that genre title been more apt; this is a book about London as much as it is about magic) series for the past several years. Brennan is a masterful writer, weaving together meticulous research with strong characters, all while juggling centuries-long timelines and complicated historical events with aplomb. The London Fire, Halley's Comet, and the construction of the London Underground all come to life with a magical twist.

One of the wonderful luxuries of a series like this is watching the evolution of London, its changing and never-changing character, and the diversity of its inhabitants, both mortal and immortal. This isn't just a world of fairy royalty and rich humans, but one where elf knights and provincial goblins rub shoulders with courtly poets and tavern keepers. Brennan's fae are neither cutesy sprites, D&D elves, nor demons but complex, diverse, and appropriately alien creatures with a variety of personalities and agendas, as well as complicated relationships among themselves and with humans. Another interesting aspect is that Brennan, who studied anthropology and folk lore, intentionally made them English, natives of a country whose fairy lore is much intact or studied than that of Ireland, say. But Brennan also reflects London's cosmopolitan character with supernatural creatures from other cultures, including fauns, nymphs, dwarves, and genies.

A super, super series for any fan of historical or paranormal fiction. With Fate Conspire is, sadly, the last book in the series for now, but depending on sales, there are at least tentative plans for future books chronicling the London Blitz and our present day. Keep up with Brennan's blog for news, and also just because it's a great blog, with interesting, regular content about writing and the fantasy genre in general.

This Shared Dream by Kathleen Ann Goonan

Sequel to In War Times, this is the story of the Dance children, offspring of the previous book's protagonist couple, who were abandoned by their parents and left adrift in an alternate timeline. They live in a "better" world, where the Cold War went very differently and Kennedy was never assassinated. But the nagging memories and dreamscapes of that other world, the one more-or-less ours, haunt them. Jill, the eldest, is experiencing a temporal nervous breakdown. Brian is tortured by the memory of dying in a Vietnam War that never happened. The youngest, Megan, is a researcher obsessed with memory and consciousness, but of all of them the most happy.

When a mysterious man begins following the children, looking for The Device that will be the catalyst for worldwide peace, it is up to their mother, secret agent Bette, to save them and keep The Device from the hands of those who would misuse it. The story goes back and fills in some details of In War Times from Bette's perspective, which I liked. Bette was a bit of a cipher in the last book.

Still a little too much Kennedy-slobbering, and general kumbaya, for my tastes. Still a lot of woo-woo about quantum consciousness and whatnot. Goonan seems to really, really have a thing about Montessori schools. And, really, far too much, IMHO, of the book is taken over with policy prescriptions and educational theories. Goonan lays out her ideals out the way a long-winded Internet commenter might. Our Shared Dream reads like a manifesto spruced up with some narrative. There were hints of this in the latter part of In War Times, but here it is on full display and it is annoying as all hell.

I still think the central conceit, that it's moral, even imperative, to change human nature to get rid of war, is a bit shaky. An analogy to vaccines is made, but I think the difference is free will. Parents make a choice for their children to get inoculated; no one is asked if they want to have their neurology changed in Goonan's world, it's a handful of people clandestinely enacting it. It's hard to say that ending war and human hatred is a bad thing when you look around you and see the state of the world, but I think it actually is, at least as it is gone about here. Yes, it might make a better world, but what right does anyone have to change history, to constantly tweak timelines and human biology to one's desired end through subterfuge, to rob people of their memories, no matter how bad? Is it worth sacrificing those you love for a better world? If we want to evolve as a species, it should be through chance and choice, not conspiracy. It doesn't mean anything otherwise.

I write my reviews as I read so that I don't forget anything, and I just realized that I'm not even half way through This Shared Dream, and I've written all of this stuff that basically amounts to, "I'm pissed off at this book." Why waste my time with a book that pisses me off? Perhaps some day I'll go back and finish just to see how the story of the Dance family ends, but right now I just have no interest in finishing a book I don't like, and I don't like this book.

Naughty In Nice by Rhys Bowen

The latest in the Her Royal Spyness mystery series finds our intrepid sleuth, Lady Georgiana of Glen Garry and Rennoch, great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria, escaping the gloom of a London winter on the Riviera, where a stolen necklace and a murdered tycoon provide ample opportunity for Georgie to put her detective skills to use.

Georgie is a great character, neither too Mary Sue nor annoying, and her supporting cast, from fictionalized historical characters such as Coco Chanel and Wallis Simpson to her fully fictional mother, are delightful. If I have one criticism, it's in the romance. The misunderstandings between Georgie and dashing secret-agent Irishman Darcy have gotten a bit tiresome by this, the fifth in the series, and Darcy himself isn't as well-drawn as most of the other characters. I think his cryptic nature is intentional, since he is a bit of a mystery to Georgie herself, but I think it is a problem for the narrative. Bowen needs to come up with some other manner of providing romantic angst, or put them together finally.

But, really, that is a very minor criticism. This series continues to be a light, utterly enjoyable treat, and Naughty in Nice another frothy bon-bon of mystery, glamour, and just a hint of romance.

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