Thursday, April 10, 2008

Touchstone and Other Meanderings

Convalescence Update:

I know I should be convalescing, but I'm having trouble keeping still everyday. I need to sit up to read and that alone involves moving the stitches. It's still going to be a while before I can resume yoga. It has been about a week since my last practice and I already feel ill at ease.

I found out recently that two of my friends just signed up for the gym. It feels like the world changes the moment I go for surgery. I have half a mind to join them after I recover. Right: yoga and gym. Where will I find the time to do anything else? Let us leave that thought for another day and focus on getting better, shall we?

Starting on Laurie R. King's Touchstone & Writers That Challenge Themselves:

In my restlessness I have started many books, the latest being Laurie R King's Touchstone. I have been a fan of Laurie R. King since 1999 and I still look forward to each new title with excitement.

Laurie R. King is most famous for her Mary Russell series, a Sherlock Holmes pastische that features Mary Russell as the great detective's partner – professionally and as his wife. She also has her Kate Martinelli series, a contemporary police procedural series that I also enjoy.

Touchstone, however, is one of her four stand-alone novels – unrelated to all her other books. King herself has remarked on her blog that while she still loves writing the characters she is famous for, a writer can be bored just writing the same books all the time. Her stand-alone novels are her creative ventures outside the familiar. They can be frightening for an established author, as the audience may not always be accepting of differences.

Neil Gaiman himself faces the same problem. I read recently on his blog, his response to a fan who wrote in to tell Gaiman that he isn't spending enough time writing. The fan then asks Gaiman for the sequel to Neverwhere. Gaiman's reply (with much aplomb, I must say) is that what the fan is asking for is not more new books, but rather, more of the same type of books. He goes on to explain that he would much prefer to write something new than rehash old ideas, and any attempt at something new will take more time. Which is why he isn't writing as fast as a lot of his fans prefer.

If the writers are not the sort to constantly challenge themselves creatively, they probably wouldn't be the sort of writers worth reading anyway. This is one of my frustration with one of my favourite writer (who shall remain unnamed) and the new works she has been producing past few years. I have no doubt on her ability as a writer – she still writes beautifully. Yet there is the teeth-gnashing resentment within me each time I read her newest book. She seems to be circling the same ideas, working in the same style – so smug and self-satisfied with the brilliance of herself. There is nothing challenging about her writing anymore. In fact, she now reads like a lyrical parody of her earlier self. It breaks my heart to admit this, because I had loved those earlier works of hers which are refreshing with their audacity and wit. Now she just feels like a one-trick pony.

Now We Actually Talk About Touchstone:

Which brings me back to Touchstone, in case you think I forgot. I have read one of Laurie R. King's other stand-alone, A Darker Place, a contemporary thriller about a theology professor going undercover to investigate a cult that. It is definitely a departure from what I would expect of Laurie R. King – but to my surprise, it is one my favourite among Laurie R. King's novels. She certainly is not a One Trick Pony – or perhaps she just does that one trick very well – the ability to draw research and characters into good storytelling.

Touchstone qaulifies as a period novel, with its story set in the 1920s, where England the America are coming out of The Great War (World War I) with new enemies, in the form of unions, socialists and communists. There has been three bombing incidents in America, seemingly unrelated until Harris Stuyvesant, an agent from the U.S. Bureau of Investigation, finds a common link between all three in the form of a British Richard Bunsen – a man with connections to the English workers' union, a rising star in British politics and who is romantically linked to a lady from one of the oldest and most influential family of the British aristocracy. Stuyvesant travels to England, and in the process picks up a suspicious ally – a man known as Touchstone.

The touchstone of the story, is one Captain Bennett Grey, a war veteran who was injuried in the line of fire. His injuries led to a perculiar hypersensitivity in Captain Grey's perception of humans and things. Touchstone, as explained in the book:

"It's a soft stone used to prove the purity of gold or silver. But the alchemists used quicksilver, or mercury, because when one touches gold to mercury, the liquid is drawn up to cover the soild, making it look like lead. The inestimable value of touchstone is in the way it reveals the true nature of gold. In the same way, Captain Grey is drawn to the true nature of the person of thing he encounters: He cannot help himself, he reacts and reveals the nature of the person. True or false? Gold or pyrite?"

With a character like Captain Bennett Gray, with his special ability, Laurie R. King is asking for a good degree of suspension of disbelief. I find myself a little challenged in this areas as I could accept, conditionally, Captain Grey's ability to sense the dissonance among the people he interacts with – but the logic as explained by the author is unable to explain his sensitivity to the integrity of inanimate objects.

I also noticed one problem with King's stand-alone novels – as her strength is in characterisation over plot, she now has to spend more time building up several new characters. The process is gradual, but it slows the action of the book somewhat.

I'm about halfway through the book, and most of the principal characters have met. Yet there is a sense of things not yet falling into place – not a good sign since this is supposed to be a period political thriller – and it's not thrilling me yet.

But I'm going to give it more time. There is justifiable reason for me following Laurie R. King for 9 years.

And Now I Conclude With An Ironical Comment:

Oh cool. As I'm typing this, the mail just came in – with the hospital bill. The stitches are still on my body and they are already billing me for the procedure? They are efficient.

The End.

5 comments:

Nymeth said...

I loved the way Neil Gaiman replied to that person too (the Terry comment - wow, how insensitive can you be?)

I really admire the way he deals with those things so well while always remaining graceful and polite.

Dark Orpheus said...

Nymeth Ah, you read the exact post I did on Gaiman's blog. Good.

I was annoyed at first by the fan's letter. You write in to Neil Gaiman by calling him a slacker? That's not very nice. Then that reference to Pratchett? I was just stunned.

That fan obviously wasn't thinking at all, but you can read the tension in Gaiman's reply. The way I read it, Gaiman was barely concealing his disdain.

Dorothy W. said...

It is SO hard to rest sometimes, isn't it? I hope you heal quickly so you can get back to yoga and to the gym!

stefanie said...

Rest is good right now. Keep doing it no matter how hard and you will be back at yoga before you know it.

Dark Orpheus said...

Dorothy & Stefanie Yeah! Some people are not meant for long term rest.

That said: The stitches are out, and I'm out and about!