May 2007


Skeleton Key, Anthony Horowitz“I was told you weren’t to have any weapons…” Smithers sighed, then leant forward and spoke into a potted plant. “Could you bring them up, please, Miss Pickering?”

Alex was beginning to have serious doubts about this office – and these were confirmed a moment later when the leather sofa suddenly split in half, the two ends moving away from each other. At the same time, part of the floor slid asied to allow another piece of sofa to shoot silently into place, turning the two-seater into a three-seater. A young woman had been carried up with the new piece. She was sitting with her legs crossed and her hands on her knee. She stood up and walked over to Smithers.

“These are the items you requested,” she said, handing over a package. She produced a sheet of paper and placed it in front of him. “And this report just came from Cairo.”

Pretty much all you need to know about this book is that it is James Bond for teenagers. And, in its way, it’s quite good, and has the grace to acknowledge its inspiration by a generous sprinkling of subtle, and not-so-subtle, allusions to the grown-up version.

This is the third book of a number featuring the 14-year-old reluctant MI6 agent Alex Rider. In this one, he gets himself into trouble with some Chinese triad chappies before taking a “holiday” on Cuban island Cayo Esqueleto (Skeleton Key) with two CIA agents whose son he is pretending to be. A former Soviet general turned megalomaniac multi-millionaire has got his hands on a nuclear bomb and is planning something nightmarish, with only Alex to stop him.

Here’s an Amazon link.
Mine from the library. I love the library!

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Heart of Darkness, Joseph ConradThey were conquerors, and for that you want only brute force – nothing to boast of, when you have it, since your strength is just an accident arising from the weakness of others. They grabbed what they could get for the sake of what was to be got. It was just robbery with violence, aggravated murder on a great scale, and men going at it blind – as is very proper for those who tackle a darkness. The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it much.

This is the story of narrator Marlow’s trip to Africa, to the Belgian Congo, to act as a steamboat captain on the river Congo. He tells a dark story of the power of the wilderness, symbolised by the “remarkable man”, Mr Kurtz. Kurtz has been living in the jungle among the natives and in addition to collecting more ivory than any other company agent, seems to have gathered about him some sort of dark and frightening power of his own, some hold over the native people, some horrifying spell – and he is wasting away with it, in every respect: physically, morally and spiritually.

At the start you are warned that this is the story of an “inconclusive experience”, and that is certainly what this is. There is no real resolution – only a journey, and a mystery that remains unsolved even to the end, with an underlying message that seeks to expose not only the rotten underbelly of conquest generally but also the specific madness of Europeans trying to “enlighten” the darkness of the African jungle.

Here’s an Amazon link
My copy was from the library.

Soul Music“She hasn’t even got a scythe,” said Tez.
Susan concentrated. The scythe appeared in her hands, its blue-edged blade making a noise like a finger dragged around the rim of a glass.
The students straightened up.
“But I’ve always thought it was time for a change,” said Tez.
“Right. It’s about time girls got a chance in the professions,” said Skazz.
“Don’t you dare patronise me!”
“That’s right,” said Ponder. “There’s no reason why Death has to be male. A woman could be almost as a good as a man in the job.”
“You’re doing it very well,” said Ridcully.
He gave Susan an encouraging smile.
She rounded on him. I’m Death, she thought – technically anyway – and this is a fat old man who has no right to give me any orders. I’ll glare at him, and he’ll soon realise the gravity of the situation. She glared.
“Young lady,” said Ridcully. “Would you care for breakfast?”

Music with Rocks In hits the Discworld. Death goes on a bender, leaving his granddaughter Susan in charge. The ending doesn’t make sense, and there’s no witching in it. Not the best by any means, as things go. But, you know.

Also, by coincidence, I read this one before Thief of Time instead of after and that was a good plan. In so far as the Discworld does chronology, I read them in the right chronological order.

Here’s an Amazon link.
Mine was from the library.

Theif of TimeTo call Wienrich and Boettcher “chocolate makers” was like calling Leonard of Quirm “a decent painter who also tinkered with things”, or Death “not someone you’d want to meet every day”. It was accurate, but it didn’t tell the whole story.

For one thing, they didn’t make, they created. There’s an important difference. And, while their select little shop sold the results, it didn’t do anything so crass as to fill the window with them. That would suggest… well, over-eagerness. Generally, W&B had a display of silk and velvet drapes with, on a small stand, perhaps one of their special pralines or no more than three of their renowned frosted caramels. There was no price tag. If you had to ask the price of W&B’s chocolates, you couldn’t afford them. And if you’d tasted one, and still couldn’t afford them, you’d save and scrimp and rob and sell elderly members of your family for just one more of those mouthfuls that fell in love with your tongue and turned your soul to whipped cream.

Somebody’s mucking up the fabric of the universe again – and, as usual, it’s happening in Ankh-Morpork. The History Monks look after time – making sure that people who need it have got enough and that people who don’t make up the shortfall, that sort of thing. The Auditors don’t like time, they don’t like mess, they don’t like the way humans keep breaking the Rules. A foundling with a passion for clocks, for accurate clocks, might break the world apart. A foundling fast enough to steal from a History Monk might be able to stop it. And then there is Susan. And Death, War, Pestilence and Famine. Oh, and a milkman. It’s a good’un.

Here’s an Amazon link.
Mine came from the library.

The Fifth Elephant, Terry PratchettIt wasn’t that dwarfs weren’t interested in sex. They saw the vital need for fresh dwarfs to leave their goods to and continue the mining work after they had gone. It was simply that they also saw no point in distinguishing between the sexes anywhere but in private. There was no such thing as a dwarfish female pronoun or, once the children were on solids, any such thing as women’s work.

Then Cheery Longbottom had arrived in Ankh-Morpork and had seen that there were men out there who did not wear chain-mail or leather underwear, but did wear interesting colours and exciting make-up, and these men were called “women”. And in the little bullet head the thought had arisen: “Why not me?”

Commander Vimes of the City Watch – also the Duke of Ankh-Morpork and, for what it’s worth, a former blackboard monitor – is sent to Uberwald, country of dwarfs, vampires and werewolves. Ostensibly, he is there to attend the coronation of a new dwarfish Low King, in his capacity as ambassador for Ankh-Morpork. But there is a reason why the calculating Patrician has sent a policeman to do a diplomat’s job, and it isn’t only the fat mines. Trouble is brewing, war threatens, and the true Scone of Stone is, apparently, at the centre of it all.

A Discworld cracker, this one has got it all (except witches, boo!) – even a talking dog.

Here’s an Amazon link.
My copy was from the library.

Atonement, Ian McEwanThe word: she tried to prevent it sounding in her thoughts, and yet it danced through them obscenely, a typographical demon, juggling vague, insinuating anagrams – an uncle and a nut, the Latin for next, an Old English king attempting to turn back the tide. Rhyming words took their form from children’s books – the smallest pig in the litter, the hounds pursuing the fox, the flat-bottomed boats on the Cam by Grantchester meadow. Naturally, she had never heard the word spoken, or seen it in print, or come across it in asterisks. No one in her presence had ever referred to the word’s existence, and what was more, no one, not even her mother, had ever referred to the existence of that part of her to which – Briony was certain – the word referred. She had no doubt that that was what it was. The context helped, but more than that, the word was at one with its meaning, and was almost onomatopoeic. The smooth-hollowed, partly enclosed forms of its first three letters were as clear as a set of anatomical drawings. Three figures huddling at the foot of the cross. That the word had been written by a man confessing to an image in his mind, confiding a lonely preoccupation, disgusted her profoundly.

This is a strange sort of book. Parts of it are superb. The passage above made me want to sing, even. Yet other parts just didn’t quite stack up.

I don’t think it helped that the central event of the book involves a false allegation of rape (or, perhaps, some lesser sexual assault – it is left obscure) that results in one of the key protagonists spending several years in prison, having to abandon his plans to train as a doctor, and ending up instead as a private in the army just as WW2 is breaking out.

When 13-year-old Briony Tallis comes across her 15-year-old cousin Lola in the garden one night, in disarray and with a man fleeing the scene – she accuses Robbie, a family friend as the attacker, mistakenly identifying him in the darkness and in a state of mind already excited by reading a shocking letter that was not addressed to her. It is not implausible that she should name him, but the way in which she is said to sustain her allegation, even in the face of her own uncertainty, and to be consistently believed – and the fact that her uncorroborated evidence (Lola being confused and unsure) appears to have been sufficient to convict a respectable young graduate about to embark on a medical career, with every reason to treat anyone connected with the Tallis family with the utmost courtesy and respect… not likely. This is not the stuff of real life.

However, if you can swallow that central idea, that in 1935 a young and excitable girl should be believed when she identifies a sex attacker in the dark despite the victim’s own apparently inexplicable inability to recognise him and failure to accuse him, the rest of the book is in the bag. The writing is superb, with only the occasional jarring moment. (It is one of those slightly annoying, self-conscious books in which the writer writes about writing, and pretends to be a character in the book writing and re-writing the story. But it is done so well that you can forgive that conceit.)

Here is an Amazon link.
Got mine at the library.

Death by Fire, Mala SenThis is the story of Mala Sen’s exploration of violence against women and girls in modern India, which centres around her investigations into a number of individual women’s stories, and interviews – often informal ones – with key people involved in their cases.

First and foremost among these women is Roop Kanwar. She was an 18-year-old woman whose husband died shortly after their arranged marriage. She thereafter became sati, burning along with her husband at the village cremation ground in rural Rajasthan. The year was 1987. The perpetrators were tried for murder and acquitted. We will never know exactly how Roop Kanwar’s death came about and to what extent it was voluntary, but what is certainly clear is that it stemmed from a culture in which women have less than no value, and in which a widow is the least desirable kind of woman possible.

Roop Kanwar is the main subject of Sen’s investigation, but the book also tells other stories.

There is Selvi, a woman burned by her husband who barely escaped with her life and whose burn wounds will never fully heal because she feared to seek treatment at a proper hospital. Whether the “reason” – rather, the excuse – for this atrocity was a dispute over dowry is never altogether clear. But then, when a man burns his wife because the dinner is late again, we don’t split hairs over whether dinner actually was late, do we? The problem, again, is a culture in which violence against women for trivial perceived transgressions is so utterly normal that an event like this can take place without consequences. Selvi never even reported the event. Nor did anyone else. Her husband had to leave the village, but later took up a new wife and never faced any real consequences for his actions.

There is Bhanwari Devi, who was gang-raped by respected men in her village as retribution for having the temerity, in her role as a government-sponsored activist for women’s issues, to protest about a forthcoming child marriage. After her rape – and the beating of her husband – the humiliating and slipshod police investigation (on which she herself had to insist, with the police refusing even to examine her for several days) led to an acquittal of all the men involved, principally on the ground that they were respectable men and as such could not credibly be accused of rape.

There is Karrupayee, a mother accused of killing her infant daughter. She had two surviving daughters, and a girl and boy baby who had each died in the first few days of life – when her fifth baby, a girl, was born and died soon afterwards, she was charged with infanticide. She seems to admit the crime, and her husband (who faced no charges despite his initial arrest) seems to admit complicity. Yet this is not the whole picture – for female infanticide is common. The male to female ratio in India is something like 1000 to 917. Rich people have scans and legally abort the foetus if it is female. Poor people continue to practice illegal infanticide if the baby once born is female. Midwives are paid more if a girl baby dies than if she lives. A crackdown on infanticide harms the poorest people without doing a thing to resolve the underlying causes of the problem.

Doing away with daughters is rife, and is an obvious and horrific consequence of the dowry system. When a daughter can only marry if her family pay a substantial fee to the husband’s family*, a fee beyond the means of many parents, why not do everything in your power to avoid having girls in the first place? And in a culture where female life is of so little value, why not simply do away with a daughter? Billboard adverts for foetal sex screening say things like – “Pay 500 rupees now or 500,000 later”. It is the practical thing to do.

[* And woe betide any woman whose dowry is found wanting, for she faces all manner of violence and even death at the hands of her in-laws once she is in their power, even if the agreed money or property has already been handed over. And why not, given how little she is valued and how much could be extorted from her family by threatening their daughter?]

Sen paints a horrifying picture of women’s position in modern India. The dowry system is at the heart of it all, coupled with a universal callousness towards women and girls, a universal failure to treat them as having equal value and humanity with men. The evils perpetrated against girls and women all spring from the dowry system in the sense that this system creates the conditions where such violence can seem to be an inevitable, even a sensible, course of action. Yet the dowry system alone would not create these evils if Indian society had not failed in so many fundamental ways to recognise and appreciate the humanity of women and girls. It is not just the violence against women which stirs the blood, it is the indifference of the government and politicians, and of men in general.

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PS – A final quibble.
The book was as much about the author’s own experiences and her own voyage of discovery as it was about the women whose lives and deaths she explores. This at first seemed like a powerful way to bring the reader really in touch with the stories, to really get involved. Yet, perhaps because I could not warm to Sen as a person, in the end I found her narrative approach to be irritating and self-indulgent rather than truly engaging. Which is a shame, because the women whose stories are in these pages deserve a clear voice.