Undercurrents

RebeccaRebecca
by Daphne du Maurier

This was, appropriately, the final book in the Discovering Daphne readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. I have been looking forward for months to re-reading it, and was a little sad at how quickly I flew through its pages when this week finally came.

One of the reasons I highly rate this book (and no doubt many others would agree) is the great pleasure of re-reading it. This was my third reading (I think) and I loved looking out for the hints of what is to come, as well as spotting the red herrings that had misled me previous times. Knowing the story allowed me to linger over the detailed gothic descriptions when I was in the mood and skim over them when I wasn’t. Despite knowing the outcome, I was still excited by the build-up of tension and on tenterhooks in all the right places. I’m convinced – du Maurier was officially a wonderful writer.

Briefly, this is the story of the second Mrs Maxim de Winter. Or rather, she is the one who tells the story, but for a lot of the time it isn’t about her at all, it’s about Rebecca. Rebecca was Maxim’s first wife and died tragically young, just a year before he met and swiftly married his second wife.

Continue reading “Undercurrents”

BristolCon11: reviews

The discussions and readings at BristolCon were all excellent but I did particularly enjoy “Reviews: threat or menace?”. As the panel pointed out, the title suggests that reviews can only be bad or more bad, yet most of them were both reviewers and authors and had some interesting thoughts on the process.

Juliet McKenna‘s view was that both reading and writing reviews can give you a snapshot of what’s new out there. She is reluctant to trash a book in a review, as she knows how much hard work has gone into writing it. Jonathan Wright agreed that it can be too easy to slag off a book, that that style of writing can come far too easily. Paul McAuley continued that as a bright young thing, the easiest way to get noticed is to be funny and slag off the books you review, but he is now ashamed of having written damaging reviews, and that’s a large part of the reason he stopped reviewing regularly.

Juliet McKenna raised the point I have heard elsewhere about the responsibility of the reviewer to present a fair cross-section of what’s out there. Stats collected by Vida and Strange Horizons show that in the UK and US approximately 44% of books are written by women, yet less than 30% of books reviewed are by women. Although this bias is unconscious, once known about it should be acknowledged.

A quick check of my reviews index shows that to date I have reviewed 46 books by women and 76 by men (i.e. not quite 38% women). And apparently male reviewers have a much stronger bias towards reading male writers. (Incidentally, my current TBR is much worse, standing at 26 books by women versus 77 by men. If ever I needed an excuse to buy more books!)

But in general the views about reviews and reviewing were positive, despite the event’s title.

BristolCon11: the books

I’m finally getting round to writing down some thoughts about Saturday’s adventures at BristolCon. There’s so much to tell that I will come back to this topic again. But let’s start with the spoils. These are the books that Tim and I came home with:

The spoils

That’s a combination of free, secondhand and new books. There were also badges and fridge magnets and goodness knows what else in our goody bags. The USB stick in the picture is yet another book, in digital form, by local author Tim Maughan. My TBR is most definitely up in three figures again!

I should probably mention that it will likely take me some time to get round to reading any of those books because this year I am taking part in NaNoWriMo, so all my November free time is going towards that. (Which also means that theoretically I will be blogging less.)

In general I loved the day and I’m torn between wanting it to be much better known and bigger next year, and liking it small and friendly as it was. The day ended with a quiz that Tim and I came last in, so despite thinking we’re pretty geeky, turns out we have a lot to learn!

Twists and turns

Don’t Look Now and other stories
by Daphne du Maurier

Though I’ve read quite a few du Maurier novels and even a guidebook to Cornwall that she once wrote, I hadn’t tried her short stories before this week. Thanks to Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights, I have now, and I’m glad.

The title story was of course made into a successful and critically acclaimed film of 1973, a film I have never seen and only had a rough idea of the storyline to, so I was able to come to it without foreknowledge. I think this greatly helped with my enjoyment of the story so I won’t reveal more of the plot than I knew beforehand: it’s a horror/thriller about a couple who travel to Venice following the death of their child. That’s all I knew (well, okay, I knew there was also something to do with a red coat, but then that’s really it).

As always, du Maurier is greatly skilled at creating complex, believable characters. All of these stories have some element of horror, but for the most part that horror comes from within, from the very human flaw of misreading a situation or other people, from imagining something that isn’t real. When there are “real” horrors, they tend to be somewhat banal, nothing like the troubled or possibly disturbed minds of the characters.

Another great skill of du Maurier’s that is evident here is her ability to describe diverse locations, imbuing them with real atmosphere. (This must be a skill she developed over time because it was something I found specifically lacking in scenes set outside of Cornwall in The Loving Spirit.) This book ranges from Venice to Crete to Ireland to Jerusalem to East Anglia, each time taking a character away from their home in England to a strange new location. There’s the schoolmaster on holiday who gets caught up with a strange American couple. There’s the young actress who decides, following her father’s death, to track down his former best friend. There’s the working class vicar who reluctantly agrees to guide a group of rich strangers around holy sites. And there’s the electronics engineer whose boss seconds him to work on a secret project that combines science fiction and spirituality.

All these stories have a certain tendency to mislead the reader, or at least I personally felt many times that I had been led down one path and was then blindsided by the story’s very different conclusion. As horror goes, there is none of the gore or violence you might expect. Or if there is it’s not described in any detail. These stories are all about the psychological, and even when it gets a bit supernatural or spiritual, the emphasis is on its effect on people rather than whether or not the apparently supernatural is real.

I think “Don’t look now” in particular will bear repeated readings, if only to hunt for the clues to how things turn out that I missed first time around. I think it is the best written and cleverest story in the collection, though none of them was by any means bad. They all share the same fish-out-of-water, sinister atmosphere, yet they are very different. I’m looking forward now to reading the other du Maurier short story collection I have, The Breaking Point.

This collection first published 1971 by Victor Gollancz.

Categories aren’t always helpful

A History of the Twentieth Century, with Illustrations
a novelette by Kim Stanley Robinson

In preparation for tomorrow’s jaunt to BristolCon, I have been reading some sci-fi short stories this week. Tim recommended this one, which has stuck with him for years (though it may not quite count as sci-fi). You can read it online here.

It’s the story of Frank Churchill (no idea if the Austen reference is deliberate), a writer of history books who is living in New York and taking “light therapy” in an attempt to alleviate his depression. It doesn’t seem to be working so he reluctantly accepts an offer to travel to London to write a complete history of the 20th century, figuring that the UK’s longer hours of daylight in summer will save him having to attend therapy.

The bulk of the story is about his research, with daily trips to the reading room at the British Museum. His findings form part of the story, a sorry litany of war after war after war. Obviously that’s a limited view of the century but it’s certainly believable that in future it’s all that will be remembered.

As with my previous experience of Robinson (or “Stan”, as I believe his friends know him), it’s all about the main character. In the background lurks a vague sense of apocalypse, of things unexplained, but at the forefront is an everyday, relatable human being. Frank is deftly created, a few words rustling up a lifetime of backstory. Every location is described with what feels like insider knowledge, without it becoming a list of buildings and street names (believe me, it happens). I often find that a short story isn’t long enough for me to really care about the outcome but I definitely cared about Frank.

I greatly enjoyed this story and it reminded me that I really should go back and finish Robinson’s Science in the Capital trilogy.

First published in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine in 1991. Reprinted in Remaking History and other stories (Orb, 1994).

It’s Hell in here

Damned
by Chuck Palahniuk

This, Palahniuk’s latest offering, is every bit as crazy, vitriolic, scathingly sarcastic and darkly comic as you might expect if you’ve read any of his previous work. It might actually be lighter than usual and more funny, but it’s been a few years so maybe I’m mis-remembering.

I throw out words like “light” and “comic” and then have to tell you that this book is set in Hell. A really nasty, gruesome Hell to boot. But it’s narrated by a chirpy 13-year-old American girl whose view of both the world above and the one below is hilarious.

Each chapter begins, “Are you there, Satan? It’s me, Madison,” in a riff on just one of the many literary influences in this story. In life, Madison, slightly chubby and hopelessly naïve daughter of rich, famous parents, liked to read romantic novels and watch feel-good films. In death she raves about how she managed to die in an outfit particularly practical for Hell and tries to make friends with fellow damned souls. We gradually hear her life story, told in-between descriptions of Hell and her attempts to get on with spending eternity there.

Initially I found Madison irritating, though the concept was funny. She repeats the same phrases, harks back to the same references and makes the same jokes over and over. Which is realistic, I don’t doubt, but not the makings of a sympathetic character. However, death forces her to examine and analyse herself, remember details she’d rather forget and question the identity she clings to, so that she gradually becomes more likeable. Perhaps it says something about me that I vastly prefer her once she has lost her innocent guilelessness!

The depiction of Hell plays on preconceptions, twisting and turning them around. There are demons, sure; in fact every demon ever invented by any culture or religion. There are fires and pits of torment and endless methods of torture, but there are also the very gruesome indeed Great Ocean of Wasted Sperm, Swamp of Rancid Perspiration, Dandruff Desert and many more of that ilk. Thankfully they are not all described in detail but, well, some are. And there are strict rules. Many, many rules. In fact, it becomes a running joke. At first it seems to Madison that perhaps the Christian right had all the answers, but she slowly discovers that the rules of Hell are petty, almost arbitrary, and can trap anyone. But the fact that there are rules means that you can learn them, and play them.

From the cell in which she first finds herself installed in Hell, Madison makes the acquaintance of a cheerleader (Babette), a jock (Patterson), a nerd (Leonard) and a punk (Archer). Adding her goody-two-shoes self, that makes her very own Breakfast Club and she determines to befriend them all. When Archer uses the safety pin from his cheek to spring them all from their cells, the motley crew journey across Hell together. Patterson just tries to get off with Babette while Leonard drones on about all the different demons encountered (he’s more of a history nerd than your typical science nerd) but Archer and Babette prove themselves surprisingly useful friends to have around.

I found this book genuinely funny, but also disturbing (it is Palahniuk, after all) and even sad. I grew to like Madison’s style of chatter, though the obviousness of her references never failed to grate. With her uber-bohemian parents and Swiss boarding school, surely she could have some less mainstream books or films to refer to occasionally? And while I accept that in the parents Palahniuk is mocking a certain kind of hypocritical celebrity, I did find some of his attacks a little too broad-ranging.

I think I will continue to look out all Palahniuk’s new releases, but so far his Diary: a novel has not been ousted from the favourite spot.

Copy kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.
Published October 2011 by Doubleday.

Time-travelling horrors

The House on the Strand
by Daphne du Maurier

I read this book as part of Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. I seem to have skipped the book that they both raved about (Mary Anne) and chosen to join in with another that didn’t entirely bowl me over.

This is one of du Maurier’s stabs at science fiction (though Tim and I are still debating whether Rule Britannia counts as SF or even speculative fiction). In this instance she’s looking at time travel, but with a curious twist, and really it’s a book about a marriage in trouble and the effects of addiction. Intrigued? I was.

First off, I was thrown to have a male narrator. I don’t think du Maurier does a bad job of giving Dick Young a realistic male voice, but I never warmed to him. He’s middle aged, has just quit a publishing job he disliked in London and is trying to find an alternative to the future his American wife has planned, which is to work for her brother’s publishing firm in New York. To give him some breathing space, his good friend Magnus (or, “the Professor”) has loaned Dick his cottage in Cornwall for the summer rent-free. The only catch is that Magnus has persuaded Dick to try an experimental drug he has produced – a drug that takes the mind back six centuries in time while the body remains in the present.

It’s an unusual idea and du Maurier has thought through the practicalities. Each “trip” lasts a few hours so Dick can sneak them in when his wife and stepsons are not around, though he cannot hide the side-effects from them. It being a small community – and indeed an even smaller one in the 14th century – Dick quickly gets to know the characters that he sees on his trips and is increasingly fascinated by their lives – who is sleeping with who, who is loyal to who – in a way that he would never care about gossip in his own world. He is particularly intrigued by the beautiful Isolda, who he learns early on is married but does not care for her husband.

There are drawbacks to this method of escaping from reality. Dick is seen wandering aimlessly through field and marsh after his invisible cast. He starts to conflate past and present, confused about what has happened in reality. He gets bad tempered with his family and his wife’s friends, constantly distracted by where this or that particular manor house from the 14th century must have stood. He looks up the people from the past in local archives, obsessing about every detail of their lives. He starts to need more of the drug for it to work and suffer worse side-effects.

All of which is gripping and well written and a believable picture of dangerous drug addiction. The problem is, all of the stuff in the past I found deadly dull. The relations between people and their allegiances I found confusing; for the first half very little happens in the past; and I just didn’t care about any of the historical characters. Which is a problem when we are supposed to believe that they are fascinating enough for Dick to become obsessed. The thing is, this is another case where du Maurier has been doing her historical research and has used genuine historical figures of significance to her (in this case the people who lived in and near her beloved Fowey) to build a story around. But she has put in too much of the dull stuff you can learn from archives – names, dates, facts – and not enough character and storyline. It’s a shame when she has used her research so well in other books (e.g. The Glass-Blowers).

It’s fascinating and shows that du Maurier had many strings to her bow, but it’s not her best. Next up in Discovering Daphne? Don’t Look Now and other stories, to be discussed next Sunday.

First published in 1969 by Victor Gollancz.

The start of her career

The Loving Spirit
by Daphne du Maurier

I read this book as part of Discovering Daphne, an event/readalong run by Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. Unfortunately, a combination of bad planning and ill health means I’m a week late finishing this book but it does feel appropriate to have read the bulk of it at the seaside!

This was du Maurier’s debut, a love letter to Cornwall as much as a novel, but also an ambitious family saga. It covers four generations of the Coombe family, from 1830 to 1930. Each section concentrates on one family member, each of whom has inherited a wild streak, the “loving spirit” of the title. It starts with Janet, who wishes she had been born a boy so that she could go to sea and is never quite content with her devoted loving husband, for all that she does love him. Then there’s her middle son Joseph, the love of her life, the boy who really does run away to sea and have great adventures and lead women on while never loving any of them the way he loves his mother. Then there’s Joe’s oldest son Christopher who disappoints his father by not wanting to become a sailor, but with that old family restlessness ends up trying to make his fortune in London. And finally there’s Christopher’s youngest, Jennifer, a strong and independent woman determined to break away from her controlling mother and grandmother and return to the family’s roots in Cornwall.

It’s a beautifully written, warm, engaging book, but it does have its flaws. For the first two generations du Maurier has her characters speak in strong Cornish dialect, which added a certain country charm and “ye oldeness” I suppose but also smacked of condescension. Maybe that’s just me. The relationship between Janet and Joseph troubled me. I know that a mother and son can have a stronger bond than a husband and wife and there’s nothing wrong with that, but something about the obsessive quality du Maurier describes made this particular relationship a bit wrong. There were a lot of times when I felt that everything moved too fast, that there was too much sketching out what has happened while time passed and not enough current story. And I didn’t like how down on London du Maurier was, with absolutely nothing good to say about the capital, though at least she was kinder to Bristol when it got a brief mention.

But for all that I still greatly enjoyed the book. Each of the central characters was engaging and sympathetic and I did like the way the language of courtship developed from incredibly polite and formal to teasing sarcastic banter. The descriptions of the sea and Cornwall are so detailed and evocative that the town of Plyn was almost a character itself. In fact, while none of the love stories or deaths roused much emotion in me, the final homecoming to Plyn did bring a tear to my eye.

There’s a lot of what I would guess were du Maurier’s pet “issues” in this book. She clearly thinks country is better than city, especially for children. She doesn’t hold stock with prim and proper, preferring openness and honesty. She believes in children knowing the facts of life rather than it all being a frightening mystery. She believes in the strength of women, in them holding jobs and speaking their minds and having options beyond “wife and mother” if they want them. And she believes in good, honest, simple lives – hard work, loving family, friendly neighbours – rather than building fortunes or being fashionable. Which is all fine, though you might argue she presses the point home a little strong. Of the many many characters in this book the odd one who broke the general trend would have perhaps evened things out.

See also: reviews on Savidge Reads and Novel Insights. Next up in Discovering Daphne? The House on the Strand, to be discussed next Sunday.

First published in 1931 by William Heinemann.

A thriller without thrills

Southwesterly Wind
by Luiz Alfredo Garcia-Roza
translated by Benjamin Moser

This highly acclaimed novel is the third in the Inspector Espinosa series, set in Rio de Janeiro. Quotes on the book jacket compare Garcia-Rosa to Colin Dexter and Raymond Chandler. I really really don’t agree.

It may be a style thing, it may be poor translation, but I did not get on with this book. I would have abandoned it if it wasn’t so easy to read. Easy but not good. There was a lot of clumsy phrasing, sentences that seemed like they could have been clever or funny if written differently. The plot was odd but predictable, the policeman’s actions unlikely and the ending not nearly as ambiguous as Garcia-Rosa would have us believe.

The story centres around Gabriel who was told by a strange fortune teller at his 29th birthday party that he would kill someone before his next birthday. As the big three-oh approaches, his paranoia gets increasingly bad and he goes to the police. Inspector Espinosa is intrigued but doesn’t know what he’s expected to investigate – no crime has been committed. Yet.

Of course, eventually crimes do happen that may or may not be related, there are shadowy characters and beautiful women, and there are many detailed descriptions of the city of Rio, which was one part of the book that I did like. That and Espinosa’s friendly neighbour, a young girl called Alice who wants him to get a dog so that he doesn’t get lonely. That was a sweet subplot.

There seemed to be an attempt to add something spiritual to the usual thriller fare. There was a lot of talk about psychoanalysis and religion and the effect of the southwesterly wind. But it wasn’t fully explored and it didn’t sit well with the rest of the novel.

The main problem, though, is that it takes a while for stuff to start happening and yet I felt no suspense. I thought that it was obvious there would eventually be a dead body that could possibly be linked to Gabriel and before that had even happened I had figured out the ending. None of the characters beside Espinosa had any real fleshing out. I am frankly baffled by the awards and praise Garcia-Rosa has received. Maybe his previous two books were far better?

Originally published in Brazil in 1999 by Companhia das Letras, Sao Paulo, under the title Vento sudoeste.
This translation first published 2004 by Henry Holt and Company.