Monday, August 21, 2006

books! crocodiles and kings!

Two books in our interval, both continuing my little streak of good reads.

Karleen Koen's big book Dark Angels turned out to be a quite enjoyable piece of Restoration historical fiction. This was a relief, since the Restoration, worse than any period (except of course the Regency), tends to bring out the Amelia Nettleship in so many writers (for those of you who don't know the name, it refers to a lady novelist and "bottler of historical bilge-water" in John Mortimer's immortal story "Rumpole and the Bubble Reputation"). Certainly Koen herself gave me cause to worry, since right there in her Author's Note she refers to Charles II as "the merry monarch." That's usually a sign of trouble.

But Dark Angels is almost entirely free of trouble! Happily, Koen has done a large amount of research - a student of the Restoration (such as myself, for instance) will find comparatively little to wince at in this book. Of course the squalor possible even at the highest levels of court is omitted (Regency novels are especially guilty of this), and I can assure you all that never in his life did Charles II ever utter the word "gadzooks." But these are minor things - the overall feel of the book is historically accurate.

The book is a prequel to Through a Glass Darkly. It tells the adventures of one of that book's best-drawn characters, Alice Verney, when she was a girl at the court of the King, and it moves along with a surprisingly light touch. The King, the Queen, Monmouth, Clarendon, Nell Gwynn - they're all here, and Koen brings a very enjoyable freshness to her portrayal of all of them.

Charles himself is the toughest nut to crack, for historians and novelists both. He was extremely intelligent but also lazy and doubting and self-doubting, and the overall combination is almost impossible to catch in all its facets. Rose Tremain gives a very good modern spin to it all in her novel Restoration, and of course the gold standard here is the mighty Forever Amber, so far unequalled and certainly not seriously challenged by Dark Angels. Kathleen Winsor's huge, bawdy, funny, smart novel hangs over almost every page of Koen's book - not in a bad way, but impossible not to notice.

Fortunately, Dark Angels succeeds on enough of its own terms to avoid being hurt by the comparison. This is a big, readable novel set in a perennially favorite time period: it'll be a snap to recommend.

Likewise the second book here, Beast by Ally Kennen. It's the story of young Stephen, living in foster care, not all that bright, lunatic mother and seedy, criminal father, working jobs he hates in order to afford the biggest secret of his life: that he's keeping an enormous salt water crocodile captive in an abandoned reservoir.

The crocodile is huge and always hungry, and of course the secret gets out and of course the crocodile gets out, and all of it is just begging to be made into a movie starring Zach Efron.

Nevertheless, it's a very good read - utterly unpretentious and utterly without cutesy-poo preciousness. No attempt is made to polish up the fact that Stephen, though a decent enough kid, is a loser from a family of losers. And the crocodile itself is never in any danger of being turned cutesy or wise - it's just a big vicious animal that'll do anything to survive.

I resisted the urge at any point in the novel to consider the crocodile a metaphor for something else, and I'm grateful to Kennen that the book ALLOWED me to refuse to do that. With all due apologies to Kafka, extended metaphors like that virtually never work. Despite whatever other levels are operating in it, this is very much the story of a kid who's secretly keeping a giant crocodile caged and fed, period.

And of course my liking of the book was increased by one little sub-plot handled well. At one point early in the novel, Stephen comes into possession of a miserable little stray dog he names Malackie. Almost as soon as he acquires the dog he gives him to his derelict father, which caused me as a reader to clench my teeth. The whole time I was reading the book, the whole while I was following the building tensions involving the crocodile, I was praying Kennen wouldn't simply forget about the dog. But I got all the way to the end and there was no mention of it, and I was prepared to hate the book on that account alone. Then I reached the last page, where Stephen goes back to his father's abandoned shack:

I see him.
He's so thin he looks like a starvation victim. He's too weak to move far, but there's a stagnant bucket of water he must have been drinking from. Just enough to keep him alive. There's rubbish all around. Turds and food, a broken-open box of cookies, a wrapper of ham. A bread bag.
"Poor old bugger," I say gently, and touch his head. He looks up at me and sighs. His coat is wet through. I wonder how he hasn't died of exposure. I reckon he's been out her for nearly two weeks. I untie my top from around my waist and wrap it around him.
I loosen the rope. It's so tight it's bitten right into him. The skin is red and raw underneath. I only allow myself to think briefly about what it must have been like tied up out here, day after day, night after night, slowly starving to death.
"It's going to be alright," I say. "I'm back. I'm looking after you now."
I pick him up and hug him to my chest. He's so light.
"Come on, Malackie, my boy," I say. "Let's go."

That's the way I like books to end (although it was, of course, the water and not the bucket that was stagnant) ... although it'll be tricky recommending this to people, since it's a hardcover and I'm still a little unclear on exactly who buys hardcover teen novels.

Up next? Why, I'm not really sure! Tonight I'll be re-reading Chapterhouse: Dune in preparation for reading - gigantically against my better judgement - the new 'sequel' to it by Frank Herbert's son. But my next brand-new book? It eludes me at the moment! I expect by this time tomorrow I'll have read it, and your faithful scribe shall divulge!

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