02 May 2007

Books Update: Expectations, Given Form

It's been a while since I last wrote a bit about what I've been reading, with the result that I'm now four books in deficit. All of them I came to with certain expectations, having read books by their respective authors before.

And here they are:

The Steep Approach to Garbadale is, shockingly, the twenty-first novel I've read by Iain Banks (along with a volume of shorts and a book about whisky), and there was much about it that was comfortingly familiar. Rather too much, I found in fact, as the narrative presented me with a hero emotionally crippled by his childhood love (as in The Crow Road and Walking on Glass), avoiding his sprawling, matriarchal family (The Crow Road again, and also Whit) who run a venerable, highly successful business (The Business) making a game which forms a metaphor for politics (The Player of Games) and taking lots of drugs (passim). What's more, this family has been guarding a terrible secret for a generation (The Wasp Factory and -- oh look -- The Crow Road) whose nature (which I won't reveal here) will also be familiar to long-term appreciators of Banks' oeuvre.

Banks' writing is always competent, and Steep Approach is less flabby and in need of editorial trimming than his last S.F. novel, The Algebraist. There are some lovely bits of writing relating to the hero, Alban's, youthful affair with his cousin, and to his long-dead mother's suicide. But overall it says very little of weight, has none of Banks's usual exuberant creativity, and feels much as if he's writing by the numbers. I've never met a Banks novel I've actively disliked (A Song of Stone and Canal Dreams come closest), but this one's something of a disappointment.

The Penelopiad, on the other hand, is classic Margaret Atwood without, as far as I know, being a retread of anything she's written before. Looking at The Odyssey through the eyes of Odysseus' long-suffering wife Penelope follows a standard feminist-revisionist approach (though it's one James Joyce, for instance, had flirted with before), but it's very productive. Penelope lends the novella a lively, sympathetic voice, sidestepping the victim status she might otherwise invite by tempering her complaints with hard-edged ruthlessness. Atwood gives the novella a second thread in the choric voices of the maids unjustly hanged by Ulysses for fraternising with Penelope's suitors, showing how Penelope herself is compromised by her privileged background as an aristocrat. It's a clever, erudite, witty and highly readable book, and reminded me of why I enjoy Atwood's writing so much.

The only previous work I'd read of Stephen Marley's was his 1995 Doctor Who novel, Managra, which was one of the very best published in Virgin's Missing Adventures range, and a major source of inspiration for Of the City of the Saved.... His Spirit Mirror is an earlier and sadly less deft novel.

The first in Marley's notorious (among Missing Adventures readers, anyway) yet little-read (ditto) "Chinese lesbian vampires" trilogy -- his first novel, bizarrely, being a life of the Virgin Mary -- Spirit Mirror has a lot to recommend it, including inventive ideas, strong characters and vivid descriptions both beautiful and horrific. Unfortunately it's all very po-faced, lacking the streak of wicked humour and deliberately outrageous invention which raises Managra to greatness. The second-century Chinese setting lends local colour -- though less than you might expect -- but ultimately the book is rather flat genre fantasy with some interesting moments.

(Oh, and although the novel contains both Chinese lesbians and vampires, there is no overlap between the two.)

Martin Day's one contribution to Virgin's Missing Adventures line was The Menagerie, a sadly lesser work than Managra, but he has since redeemed himself with contributions to the BBC's Doctor Who book ranges, notably Bunker Soldiers and The Sleep of Reason. I had hoped that Wooden Heart, like Gareth Roberts' Only Human, might be an exception to the dismal tendency of Who books since the new series to be shallow, vapid froth.

Sadly, it isn't quite. Day's work has always had a slight tendency to verbosity, which sadly comes out here in a book I can't imagine its target audience of 8-year-olds enjoying very much. There are some interesting themes relating to ethics and the nature of good and evil, which it's certainly surprising to see tackled by David Tennant's Doctor, but they never develop into anything truly worthwhile.

In the early days of the new series, we long-term Who book readers bemoaned the fact that none of the new Ninth Doctor tie-in books could match such TV episodes as Dalek and Father's Day for subtlety and complexity. Day's book isn't actually a great deal deeper or more complex than those, and yet it easily outdoes the current TV series for thematic sophistication. I find this disappointing.

After all that, then, the list of books I've read so far this year runs thusly:That's eighteen of the buggers. It's also the eighteenth week of the year, and while I started some of the above before the end of 2006, I'm also part of the way into Collapse and Iron Council already, which means I'm very slightly ahead of the game. Assuming that the name of the game is "reading a book a week".

And that's not counting humorous books read on the lavatory.

Still on my to-read list since last time are the following (new arrivals in bold, "less urgent" stuff in square brackets):

Fiction:From all of the above we can deduce that:

a) I don't read nearly as many non-fiction books as I intend to.
b) An embarrassing amount of my reading is Doctor Who related.
c) Only women writers are fulfilling my expectations at present.

Perhaps I'd better start one of those Justina Robsons.

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