Archive for An instance of the fingerpost

Arcad’yaaawn… [book review]

Posted in Books, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 19, 2017 by xi'an

“How does it do this? Pears, not traditionally a science fiction writer, employs some commonly used devices of the genre to create a mind-bending but wholly satisfying tale…” Robin’s Books

“Indeed, Arcadia seems to be aimed at the lucrative crossover point between the grownup and YA markets, even if it lacks the antic density of the Harry Potter series or the focused peril of The Hunger Games.” Steven Poole, The Guardian

The picture above is completely unrelated with the book if not the title. (And be at rest: I am not going to start an otter theme in the spirit of Andrew’s cats… Actually a cat plays a significant role in this book.) But Pears’ Arcadia is a fairly boring tale and an attempt at a rather dry play on the over-exploited theme of time-travel. Yaaawny, indeed!

I am fairly disappointed by this book, the more because Pears’ An Instance at the Fingerpost is a superb book, one of my favourites!, with a complexity of threads and levels, while maintaining a coherence of the plot that makes the final revelation a masterpiece. The Dream of Scipio also covers several historical periods of French Provence with a satisfactory plot and deep enough background (fed by a deep knowledge of the area and the eras…). The background, the broader perspective, the deep humanity of the characters, all these qualities of Pears’ books are lost in Arcadia, which sums up as an accumulation of clichés on dystopias, time-travel, and late 1950’s Oxford academics. [Warning, spoilers ahoy!] The parallel (and broadly medieval) universe to which the 20th century characters time-travel has some justifications for being a new type of Flatland: it is the creation of a single Oxonian academic, a mix of J.R. Tolkien and Eric Ambler. But these 20th century characters are equally charicaturesque. And so are the oppressors and the rebels in the distant future. (Set on the Isle of Mull, of all places!) And the mathematics of the time-travel apparatus are carefully kept hidden (with the vague psychomathematics there reminding me of the carefully constructed Asimov’s psychohistory.)

There is a point after which pastiches get stale and unattractive. And boring, so Yawn again. (That the book came to be shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke award this year is a mystery.)

burial rites [book review]

Posted in Books, Mountains, pictures, Travel with tags , , , , , , , , , on April 23, 2016 by xi'an

snaefell2This book by Hannah Kent was published in 2013 and was recommended to me by Peter when we were discussing about our respective trips to Iceland. This is a novelised re-enactment of a historical murder that took place in North-West Iceland in 1828, when a woman convicted of murdering two men is sent to a remote croft to wait for her execution, the last one in Iceland.  The novel caries many levels at once, from uncovering the true (?) story behind the murders, to the incredibly harsh life of those Icelandic farmers, to the very rigid religious atmosphere imposed by Lutheran pastors, along with a large degree of superstition to the literacy of even the most remote farmers and the love of sagas and poems, to the savage beauty of the land and of its winter, to the treatment of servants and paupers in those rural communities… It is a beautiful book, if of a definitely dark kind of beauty, The description of the communal life in those crofts, with all members of the household sleeping in the same comes out as very outlandish, until I remembered the common room in Brittany where the only privacy was afforded by the lits-clos, box-beds aligned along the walls with a door turning them into as many tiny alcoves… The book also reminded me at times of [the magnificent] An instance of the fingerpost, where another unusual women again stands accused of a murder, with contradicting statements about her, except that there is nothing Christic about Agnes Magnusdottir (or Jòndóttir). The building of her character tiny piece by tiny piece throughout the book is impressive and touching, and so are the other characters at the farm, forced into partaking in this tragedy just like they are forced in hearing the confession of Agnes to the priest while sharing the common room with her. And eventually accepting her as a whole person rather than a murderess.

“I let my body swing, I let my arms fall. I feel the muscles of my stomach contract and twist. The scythe rises, falls, rises, falls, catches the sun across its blades and flicks the light back into my eyes – a bright wink of God. I watch you, the scythe says, rippling through the green sea, catching the sun, casting it back to me.”

The book is truly telling much (too much?) about the daily life of those farmers, as in the above passage which reminded me of watching my grandfathers cutting hay with their scythe in the summer, with a practice that made them go for hours, only stopping for sharpening the blade… Obviously, I am not fit to judge the historical accuracy of such details, especially in Iceland, but it rings true or true enough to merge with the psychological part of the novel. And I wanted to hear about how Icelanders reacted to this book (since the author is Australian, if clearly in love with Iceland!): as a coincidence, I met with an Icelander in Oxford Royal Oak earlier this week who told me that the book sounded Icelandic to her, so much that the English version read as if it had been translated from Icelandic! [I just found this entry about travelling around the sites appearing in the book. As a last note, some sites and blogs have ranked the book within Icelandic or Scandinavian crime novels: this is completely inappropriate.]