Wednesday, February 19, 2014


The Heat of the DayThe Heat of the Day by Elizabeth Bowen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

”Overhead, an enemy plane had been dragging, drumming slowly round in the pool of night, drawing up bursts of gunfire--nosing, pausing, turning, fascinated to the point for its intent. The barrage banged, coughed, retched; in here the lights in the mirrors rocked. Now down a shaft of anticipating silence the bomb swung whistling. With the shock of detonation, still to be heard, four walls of in here yawped in then bellied out; bottles danced on glass; a distortion ran through the view. The detonation dulled off into the cataracting roar of a split building:

direct hit,

somewhere else.”

 photo BombingLondon_zps15b0ae56.jpg

This novel is set against the backdrop of the very tail end of the London Blitz. There are still explosions, but the inhabitants of London have more pressing concerns dealing with the rubble that has steadily accumulated. Stella Rodney, like most women with husbands in the war, has been displaced to a smaller apartment. None of the possessions that fills the rooms are hers. Her husband Victor, after leaving her for a nurse, promptly paid for his sins with a glorious/inglorious death in the war. His family think that the reason the marriage dissolved was that Stella was a tart, and she is unsure of how best to disabuse them of that idea.

Stella is still a lovely woman.

”She had one of those charming faces which, according to the angle from which you see them, look either melancholy or impertinent. Her eyes were grey; her trick of narrowing them made her seem to reflect, the greater part of the time, in the dusk of her second thoughts. With that mood, that touch of arriere pensee, went an uncertain, speaking set of the lips. Her complexion, naturally pale, fine, soft, appeared through a pale, fine, soft bloom of make-up. She was young-looking--most because of the impression she gave of still being on happy sensuous terms with life. Nature had kindly given her one white dash, lock or wing in otherwise tawny hair…”

She is in love with Robert Kelway, a man with a limp from a war wound at Dunkirk.
”His experiences and hers became harder and harder to tell apart; everything gathered behind them into a common memory--though singly each of them might, must, exist, decide, act, all things done alone came to be no more than simulacra of behavior: they waited to live again till they were together, then took living up from where they had left it off.”
Robert has a nebulous job with the war effort that has him gone for days at a time. His personality morphs as the novel progresses. He seems so strong; and yet, he has unresolvable issues with his dead father, and bitterness about the circumstances that led to his wounding at Dunkirk.

”I never knew you before you were a wounded man.”
“In one way that would have been impossible--I was born wounded; my father’s son. Dunkirk was waiting there in us--what a race! A class without a middle, a race without a country. Unwhole. Never earthed in--and there are thousands of thousands of us, and we’re still breeding--breeding what? You may ask: I ask. Not only nothing to hold, nothing to touch. No source of anything in anything.”

Stella may have some worries in regards to Robert, but she has some real problems with another Robert referred to by his last name Harrison. (Okay there are only a handful of characters in this novel, why do authors insist on using a similar or in this case the same name. Bowen resolves it by referring to Harrison by his last name.) Harrison works in counter-intelligence, and is convinced that Robert is working for the Germans. He is an odd fellow as those shadowy characters always seem to be.

” of his eyes either was or behaved as being just perceptibly higher than the other. This lag or inequality in his vision gave her the feeling of being looked at twice--being viewed then checked over again in the same moment. His forehead stayed in the hiding, his eyebrows deep in the shadow, of his pulled-down hat; his nose was bony; he wore a close-clipped little that-was-that moustache. The set of his lips--from between which he had with less than civil reluctance withdrawn a cigarette--bespoke the intention of adding nothing should he happen to speak again. This was a face with a gate behind it--a face that, in this photographic half-light, looked indoor and weathered at the same time; a face, if not without meaning, totally and forbiddingly without mood.”

Harrison is willing to make a deal if Stella will leave Robert and become his girlfriend. If she complies he will turn a blind eye to Robert’s transgressions. She is unconvinced of Robert’s guilt, but at the same time she has doubts about his loyalty to his country. She is also attracted to Harrison which lends even more confusion to her already jangled feelings about both men.

There are some interesting sub-characters in this novel. Stella’s son Roderick who is in the service not because of any loyalty to the cause, but simply because that is what young men of his generation did. He has recently inherited an estate from his father’s family. He takes some time off from the war to tidy up the affairs of his inheritance.

”Dark ate the outlines of the house and drank from the broken distances of the valley. The air had been night itself, re-imprinted by every one of his movements upon his face and hands--and still, now that he was indoors and gone to bed, impregnating every part of the body it had not sensibly touched. He could not sleep during this memory of the air.”

This whole novel feels dipped in shadows. The descriptions of the terrain of London and the surrounding areas certainly had me thinking of how noirish this book would look on film. Stella is dramatic, elegant, and trapped in circumstances that feels like only something tragic can free her from the bonds of two men. Harrison and Stella are both characters who could have stepped out of any Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammett novel.

Louie Lewis, the opposite of Stella, in so many ways. She sleeps with men to feel closer to her husband who is away fighting in the war. That is so sweet… I’m not sure the husband will see it quite that way. I really enjoyed Bowen’s description of Louie.

”Everything ungirt, artless, ardent, urgent about Louie was to the fore: all over herself she gave the impression of twisted stockings.”

Louie is somehow connected to Harrison and isn’t about to go quietly into the night. She wouldn’t know how.

Bowen has an unusual writing style that continually caught me by surprise. The words sometimes came at me in machine gun flashes. At other times her sentences were almost languid like Stella’s droopy eyelids. The first Elizabeth Bowen I’ve read and certainly not my last. Categorize this book as noir espionage with a splash of blitz.

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The Vice Begins to Close

The White-Luck Warrior

R. Scott Bakker

Penguin Books

Reviewed by: Terry

4  out of 5 stars


Beware, there are some spoilers for key plot points/character revelations below. 

So, volume two of the “Aspect Emperor” series has come to a close and so far R. Scott Bakker still proves that he has the chops to pull off a multi-volume epic fantasy that not only uses the standard tropes in new and interesting ways, but that gives his characters depth, darkness, and complexity and does so with prose that is always enjoyable and sometimes downright exhilarating to read. I don’t think that I really *like* any of his characters (though Achamian, and to a lesser extent Mimara and even Sorweel, come close), but I find them all thoroughly intriguing, even when they are frustrating or repellent…or perhaps it’s because they are. Kellhus is still a fascinating cypher: a saviour who is chillingly amoral and manipulative, but whose ultimate aims and decisions on how best to reach them seem maddeningly right. Achamian, the ostensible hero of the tale, comes across at best as a petty cuckold hazarding ridiculous risks (for himself and others) for the sake of ill-feelings and wounded pride, and at worst as a monomaniacal menace who is little more than a tool that could lead to the utter destruction of all mankind. Kosoter and his pack of Sranc scalpers (esp. the mysterious Nonman mage Cleric) are always an intriguing bunch and watching their inner dissolution on the trail to the Library of Sauglish as they become pared down to a nub, leaving only their most essential (and repellent) characteristics is fascinating. I have to admit that I found the struggle for power at the heart of Kellhus’ empire in Momemn a little less captivating (probably because I find Esmenet a less interesting character than some of the others), but the glimpses we get into the dysfunctional and super-powered Dûnyain family (from “Uncle Holy” Maithanet right on down to dear little psycho Kelmomas) is always a fun train wreck to watch. And Sorweel, Serwa and Moënghus? Let’s just say I’m intrigued to see where and how the heck they end up.

While much of the story is devoted to either having two of the main plot threads cover huge distances of geography (Kellhus & the Great Ordeal and Achamian & the Skin Eaters) or another main thread devoted to plunging into the labyrinthine intrigues of the slowly dissolving imperial court (with Esmenet, Maithanet, and Kelmomas taking centre stage) and thus at times it can seem that not a lot happens in a relatively large span of pages, there are some really exciting, edge-of-your-seat type moments on display. Whether it’s the kick-ass fight that Cleric and Achamian have with Wutteät, the seemingly undead Father of Dragons in the bowels of the Library of Sauglish, or the psycho machinations of ‘little’ Kelmomas in the hidden mazes of the Imperial Palace, or the endless sea of hording Sranc inundating a portion of the Great Ordeal in the midst of the ruins of mankind’s first great empire, or even the somewhat confusing but thoroughly intriguing mystery of the White-Luck Warrior and his seemingly time-warped journey through the Three Seas, there’s more than enough to maintain a reader’s interest.  The Cleric and Achamian thread was especially intriguing to me as the entire scenario seemed like some untold tale taken from _The Silmarillion_ and twisted in incomprehensible and often lurid ways. It was as-if  Gil-Galad went insane, lost his memory, and went adventuring with an even darker version of Túrin and his outlaw buddies and they just happened to stumble upon Ancalagon the Black or even Glaurung and had a magical slugfest in the heart of the ruins of Nargothrond.

Ultimately Bakker seems to strike a nice balance between moving the story forward and taking time to flesh out his characters and events. One could argue that some of the storylines don’t move forward (certainly geographically and sometimes plot-wise) as far, or as quickly, as one might wish, but ultimately I never felt bored with Bakker’s pace, or thought that he was sacrificing the story in the name of broadening his horizons or navel-gazing (I’m looking at you GRRM). Despite this nice balance, however, I still have a creeping fear that leads me to ask the question: Can Bakker wrap up this story in only one more volume given the relative leisure with which he has unfolded it to this point? As noted above I don’t in any way view his unhurried pace as a bad thing and I appreciated the way in which it allowed events to seemingly unfold organically and characters (even peripheral ones) to grow in interesting and realistic ways. It’s just that in looking back and seeing that approx. 2/3 of the apparent page count allocated for the story has been expended and then looking forward to see what he still needs to cover I really hope he isn’t forced to rush to the finish in order to reach the climax of the story in only one more volume. After all he is already working with a large cast, many with significant ties to the previous series who are still only beginning to be fully sketched out at this point. How will they develop? Should they have even been introduced? It's certainly nowhere near as bad as GRRM spinning out of control and adding viewpoint characters, locations, and subplots to an absurd degree, but is at least mildly analogous and makes me squirm a bit. Bakker’s also working with some pretty significant (and indeed numerous) plotlines that need to not only resolve, but also dovetail with each other to some extent, none of which seem to have their ultimate goal in sight yet. That being said, at the end of the day I have faith that he has the chops to pull it off...don’t let me down R. Scott Bakker!


Also posted at Goodreads