Sunday, February 25, 2007

The Portrait of Mrs. Charbuque by Jeffrey Ford

Odd. Nowhere near as odd as his earlier fantasy The Physiognomy and sequels, but odd nonetheless.

I was expecting another fantasy, but this turned out to be a fairly straight historical fiction. The closest thing to a sfnal element in the setting was the unusual (and gruesome) disease/parasite.

Let's see, plot... a portraitist named Piambo recieves an unusual commission: to paint the portrait of a woman, Mrs. Charbuque (or Luciere), who will not allow him to either see her or question her on her appearance. He may question her on any other topic, and if he succeeds in portraying her accurately, his already substantial commission will be doubled. Piambo is becoming tired of society portraits and accepts the commission, hoping to earn enough to retire from portraiture for a time and devote himself to his art.

What ensues is a battle of wills between and psychological study of Piambo and Luciere. Meanwhile, women in the city start bleeding to death through their eyeballs.

I might have enjoyed this book more if I hadn't read the author's previous work. His earlier Cley and Bellow were most remarkably unpleasant characters, and I spent some time suspiciously watching Piambo, waiting for him to reveal himself to be equally unsympathetic. I ended up rather liking him, though.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield

Before I write any more, let me confess: I fell in love with this book. It's a book for booklovers, too: everything from a girl who grew up in a bookstore to a moral dilemma that weighs literature against life.

The framing story is this: a dying author, Vida Winter, who has always hidden her past with outrageous lies, decides to tell the story of her childhood to Margaret Lea, who is an amateur biographer and has written an insightful study of a pair of twins. And it's quite a tale she has, too: a gothic with dark nights, bizarre deaths, madness and perversity, feral twins, old family servants and a governess. Incredible and un-realistic-fiction-like enough that at first I wondered if Vida would turn out to be spinning another tale - but if she was, she never confessed.

But surely some of it must have been invented, extrapolated, filled in: the picnic before her birth, for example - no possible informant I can see for that. Conversations recounted verbatim, that even the most detail-oriented family cook could not have retained or listening child recalled. Memory's a slipperier thing, a plague of biographers and framing-device novelists alike. At first my suspension of disbelief was jarred.

I couldn't quite discern what time either portion of the story was set in - Vida's story, or Margaret's, some 60-70 years later. Even the more modern frame seemed to belong to an era that did not know cell phones or computers. I think that was deliberate - it's a book meant to sit with the Brontes', or Du Maurier. Email wouldn't have gone well.

Friday, February 09, 2007

Child of a Rainless Year by Jane Lindskold

Oh, lovely. A very pretty, elegantly written, colourful book - the kind that makes real life seem just a little drab, on finishing. My life will never contain magic found surprisingly between things, just as my home will never demand to be painted in the blinding "midway fairground" style of Phineas House - though come to think of it, I don't regret the latter.

Urban fantasy, shading towards magic realism - the Spanish-tinged New Mexico setting rather reinforced this, I think. (Gene Wolfe's definition of magic realism: "Magical Realism is Fantasy written in Spanish.") And so another of Jane Lindskold's subgenre hops.

I liked the late middle-aged heroine.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Point of Honor and Petty Treason by Madeleine Robins

How can one not love a book that begins with the line "It is a truth universally acknowledged that a Fallen Woman of good family must, soon or late, descend to whoredom."

Sarah Tolerance is the heroine of these two books, and determined to defy the above statement. (Her aunt, who runs a whorehouse, didn't.) So she becomes an "Agent of Inquiry", which seems rather implausible, if entertaining. (And less implausible than the means by which other authors contrive to have their heroines entangled in murder after murder.)

Written with a very light, dry touch. It occurred to me that the ending to the first book, if written by another hand, could have been quite utterly devestating.

I didn't realize that this was a slightly alternate regency that was being written about, and so was rather historically disoriented for a while.