Monday, 3 June 2013

Books read in May

Secret Water – Arthur Ransome
Of all the Swallows and Amazons books, this has a special place in my affections. I read very few children’s books when I was young; I was much more interested in what the adults were up to. The Ransome books were amongst those few that I found interesting. And as we lived in Norfolk at the time, I had an affinity with the East Anglian set books (much as I loved and still love the Lake District). And of them all, I like this one especially because my sister bought me a copy of the hardback when I was about ten.

Of course, without a decent story, it would never have held my interest, all that other stuff notwithstanding. Like them all, on the surface not a lot happens. Kids go camping and sailing. But under this is a kind of anarchy (in its proper meaning). Their lives away from their parents are communal. They care for the weakest. They look after themselves and take responsibility for their actions. They also have a respect for the world around them.

There is another element to this particular story that fascinated me and that is map making. Hardly the stuff of high adventure, but I loved the idea that you could make a place your own without having to own it. Mapping and naming places so that they mean something to you rather than some official cartographer is an important way of keeping in touch with the world around you. A kind of nascent psychogeography.

Finally there is the innocence. It is not fey or naïve, it is what kids should be. And given that book was written on the eve of the second world war, it must have been at the back of Ransome’s mind that the Walker children had a father who was serving in the Royal Navy. However, this is fun and I love them.

A Hearse On May Day – Gladys Mitchell
Not one of Mitchell’s best, largely because any tension in the first section (despite the attempt at menace) and the fact that there is way too much business. In terms of an isolated village with strange goings on, it is more like an early episode of The Avengers. You know who the villains are, the red herrings are a tad too red and smelly to be taken seriously, there is zero characterisation, and Dame Beatrice and the police amble through familiar territory at a leisurely pace. Even so (and despite the poor production of this particular edition) it is a pleasurable enough read.

Daughter Of Dreams – Michael Moorcock
An Elric/von Beck novel, first of a trilogy, and originally titled The Dreamthief’s Daughter. Set during the first half of the Second World War, this is less pacy than the earlier Elric novels. It does not suffer much because of this, it is after all a first person narrative and Ulric von Bek is given to philosophical discursiveness. The Elric/von Beck adventures tie in with the strange pick ‘n’ mix mysticism of the Nazis who were known to have collected various holy relics in the belief they would aid them in their attempt to impose their twisted vision on the world. As a guardian of the grail and a mystical sword, von Bek becomes their target. He is aided by Oona, a mysterious woman, and by Elric, of whom von Bek is an avatar.

Weaving real world events with fantasy in a seamless fashion, Moorcock has extended his Elric novels into yet another dimension. His writing style has matured over the years (and relaxed without the pressure to produce novels on an almost weekly basis). Yet the pace and excitement is still there, never faltering despite the greater depth to the work with its ruminations on cruelty and the parallels it draws with today’s world.

I am, of course, a huge fan of Moorcock and have been since the late ‘60s. I’ve read this one before a number of times. It just keeps getting better.

Mercury – Anna Kavan
A manuscript discovered and published posthumously, this book is a close cousin to her work Ice. It employs the same basic themes, has a similar storyline, and explores the same ideas. In most cases, such a work would only be of interest to scholars looking to see how a work developed. But in the case of Mercury, it is a work in its own right and stands completely separate from Ice. Indeed, it draws power from the similarities simply because both books are about layers of reality, about dreams, about the ways in which we invent our lives and replay the incidents in them. Mercury, therefore, is another layer of Ice.

The remarkable thing is that this book that never made it to publication (for whatever written) is far better written than many that do. Compact, simple language that is made to do remarkable things and produce complex effects. Kavan is a proper writer who deserves much greater recognition.

Destiny’s Brother – Michael Moorcock
Originally ‘The Skrayling Tree’, this new edition has been retitled and packaged as part of the Gollancz re-issue. And as well as the joy of having it as part of a uniform paper edition, I can now collect and read Moorcock on my ereader.

This is an Elric story. Of sorts. He is a major character, but this is not the Elric of old. For one thing it is himself dreaming himself (you’d need to know about the Elric stories and the Melnibonean dream couches and I’m not going to explain all that – buy the books, the first: ‘Elric of Melniboné’ is now available and if you’ve never read them I envy you the journey). These later books are also written in a different style. The original Elric books were pulp fantasy at its very best – dark, pacy, and with as many ideas in a page as most writers today struggle to stretch across a 300 page volume.

The books, as the series progressed and tracked back on itself, became more settled affairs and took a bit more time. I have to confess I prefer the earlier ones, but that has as much to do with discovering a new writer and reading them for the first time. I fully appreciate Moorcock’s maturing as a writer; and I fully appreciate how he has made a virtue of that in the stories, especially when tackling our own dark history.

This book cleverly uses the Longfellow/Hiawatha story as one of its themes with the whole thing set in a mythical North American past. They myth and magic of native Americans is touched upon and woven skilfully into the wider Moorcock mythology of the multiverse with Elric and the von Beks combining to defeat an attempt to bring down the very Tree of Life.

And if the pace is now a little slower as we grow older, the chance to enjoy the scenery and one’s companions on the way is very much appreciated. Excellent stuff.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Books read in April

The Chinese Agent – Michael Moorcock
A comic romp. Developing early work for Fleetway, especially Sexton Blake, this is one of several novels that fringe the multiverse and play with characters in a light-hearted fashion. It’s a very simple story of mistaken identity and secret plans, which is rather more interested in character and in the truly horrible family of the central character, Jerry Cornell. This is one of the first tranche of the definitive Moorcock being put out by Gollancz – available as an ebook only (most of the others will be ebook and pbook).

Maigret In Exile – Georges Simenon
Atmospheric evocation of claustrophobia, all the more remarkable in a setting one normally associates with quite the opposite.

Maigret And The Toy Village – Georges Simenon
Some of the English titles are baffling. True, Maigret compares the new suburban development with a set of toys laid out in the fields, but the story is related only inasmuch as that is part of the setting. Félice is there would be a more accurate translation, with the extra meaning hidden in the name of the central female character for whom happiness is an elusive commodity. And, as ever, with Simenon, it is this character which sits at the heart of the story. Beautifully drawn, annoying to the last, yet compelling in her own way. One is left hoping that she does, against the odds, find the happiness she craves.

Four Days In A Lifetime – Georges Simenon
A fine novel in which Simenon proves what an exponent he is of the psychology tale. It is true plenty of action occurs, firstly in the two days surrounding the death of François’ wife, and secondly three years later in the events leading up to... well that would be a spoiler. Simenon is both sympathetic toward his characters, but never less than honest about the kind of people they are. They might blame each other, but Simenon, as an author, never does lay blame – his characters are what they are and he subjects them to an almost forensic examination that somehow never ignores their humanity.

In this book, the characters struggle their way out of poverty. It is not done in a savoury fashion, but then the system that put them in poverty is not savoury either. And through this struggle we have layers of Parisian society opened up for us and we see the consequences of failure in playing a dangerous game. As a fan of the Maigret novels I sometimes half expect him to ake an appearance; these are the people that Maigret often deals with as a policeman, yet the novel is distinct from his detective fiction.

The Russian Intelligence – Michael Moorcock
The second Jerry Cornell comic spy novel. This is developed from an earlier novel (as was The Chinese Agent) and is of particular interest in that it has, as part of its setting, a company called Wayflete Publications. Moorcock’s early writing life was spent with Fleetway Publications and he no doubt used his experience there to create background for this book. It is a ffectionate and peripheral part of the book, but nonetheless illuminating. The novel itself is something of a curio, but a pleasant and amusing diversion that clearly grew out of those Fleetway days.

Maigret Afraid – Georges Simenon
Another small town case where the old prejudices and ways, although dying, leave a lingering distaste and enmity, both of which cloud judgement. Although not, it has to be said, on the part of Maigret this time. Indeed, he resolutely stands well back from events and lets others bumble on. Despite that, he navigates past all the false trails and identifies the real culprit.

It has the feeling of one of those westerns in which a stranger comes to town, does very little, yet by the time they leave, events have been resolved (even if the people’s prejudices have not). Maigret’s powers are almost zen like in this book and shows just what you can do with a central character who does virtually nothing.

The Drowning Of Arthur Braxton – Caroline Smailes
I don’t take to much in the way of contemporary writing. It is often bland (even if full of pretty sentences), pre-occupied with middle-class, first world concerns, and largely a waste of even the tiny amount of intellect required to read it. This book had none of that. It was captivating from the first and clearly had things to say and ideas to explore. What is more, it was evident that it was going to say and explore those things in an interesting way.

Arthur Braxton is one of those kids that feral packs feed on. Consequently, he is one of those kids found lurking in out of the way places, exploring (whether willingly or not) the borderlands – between sanity and insanity, the upward climb and the downward fall, the outside world and the strange places inside their heads. Mostly, life grinds the poor sods down. Sometimes they shine. On rare occasions they escape into places we can barely dream of. Where Arthur goes, you will have to find out for yourself, because his journey is the story and to start talking about that would be to give things away, save to say, one of the places in which the borders exist is where water meets the land. It is along that strand that Arthur’s journey proceeds.

So far I have perhaps made this sound like a YA fantasy book of some kind. Well, there are elements of that and it could, no doubt, be read on that level. You’d be missing 99% of the book if you tried it that way. Because there are many other such elements running through the book, nods to this and that. Yet it never becomes any one of those because it is unique. It is its own story acknowledging popular culture along the way (it would take someone who hadn’t been near a television in the last few years not to hear the echoes of the final words) without ever being trapped by any of it. That is down to two things, in the end. The first is a strong story. The second is a strong writer.

It is not just popular culture that feeds the book. Indeed, much more important is myth. Certain myths featuring water. They are common to all myth cycles. Water is such a fundamental part of our existence, and clean water so fundamental to our survival and the fertility of the land, that it is no wonder every tribe and every nation has stories about the origins of streams, wells, springs, and pools; has stories about the guardians of such places, of the beings that inhabit them, of the curative qualities, of the terrible consequences of misusing them. Our native mythology is replete with such references, none more so than the Arthurian stories. Ladies in the Lake, swords appearing from and disappearing into water, battles fought at the water’s edge, water as a source of healing and wisdom, and key to the Arthurian stories, the rape of the guardians of the wells that led to the wasteland and the quest to restore fertility to the land. As someone who has studied these tales for decades, it was a genuine thrill to see them explored so thoroughly in such a vibrant way that whilst paying all due respect to the source of such tales, made its own statement.

It should not be taken from this that we have some kind of dull thesis, some rewriting of ancient myths. They are the source and the story drinks deeply of them in a way that displays a deep understanding of the archetypes. But what emerges as a result is a new story, a new myth for today, sung with a voice every bit as mesmerising as the bards of old. And if you still can’t quite figure what kind of book this is, the film should be made by Terry Gilliam or by Jeunet and Caro.

You can probably gather I like this book. I have a jaded opinion of modern writing, but this has restored my faith. Because for all that stuff about mythology, for all the fact that author here is doing for myth what Angela Carter did for fairy tales, at the heart of it all is a solid and heartbreaking story about ordinary folk and the truly shitty lives some of them lead. A story told with eloquence and sympathy. Buy it. The author deserves your support.

St Peter’s Finger – Gladys Mitchell
A typically competent mystery. Well-written although a little lacking in the tension one might expect from the story – with one child murdered and others (possibly) in danger. However, it is a wonderful portrait of a closed society and, in retrospect a paean to the imperturbability of the British in the face of threats (it was written in 1938). And, as ever, there is a neat twist in the tale.

Maigret And The Reluctant Witnesses – Georges Simenon
A portrait of past glories refusing to die and dragging others down as they decay – asituation that resonates with a Maigret close to retirement. The usual intriguing plot and superb psychological insights.

Maigret On The Defensive – Georges Simenon
A classic example of Maigret’s (and by extension, Simenon’s) interest in the psychology of the criminal; his understanding of the damaged and his ability to empathise. In this case going so far as to promise to stand witness for the man who nearly destroys him.

Maigret Hesitates – Georges Simenon
An interesting story with relevance today. How do you prevent crime? How do you identify a criminal? Can you identify a criminal? Can you morally intervene before a crime has been committed? Is it a crime if the perpetrator is considered insane? What is insanity? Simenon doesn’t attempt to answer these questions and they come naturally to the story, providing a poignant reminder that sometimes we are unable to intervene and people suffer as a result.

Maigret And The Killer – Georges Simenon
A young man is found stabbed in the street and he subsequently dies. Something of a loner his main interest was wandering the streets of Paris and recording people’s conversations. Did he record something that would incriminate someone. It is possible, but Maigret has his doubts. Another intriguing psychological study.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Books read in March

The Zen Gun – Barrington J Bayley
This book has it all. Vast galactic empire on the edge of collapse, space battles, aliens, space pirates, rebellions, philosophy, plausible pseudoscience, traction cities (decades before Reeve) that roam the dried up sea beds of Earth, escape pods followed down to a planet where storm troopers go in search of fugitives (sound familiar?), great helpings of satire (along with pigs taking over the empire decades before Angry Birds), all wrapped inside 55,000 words.

Bayley is really good at this sort of thing. He knows his pulp sci fi inside out and squeezes every last drop out of it to build familiar landscapes with a few deft sentences so he can get on with the meat of the story. And what precisely is that? ‘Nothing moves. Where would it go?’

Bayley didn’t write conventional stories. He pulled dense handfuls out of alternate universes and arrayed them before us for our amusement and edification. He takes ideas and examines them (almost like the aliens in this book), turning them upside down and inside out, pulling them apart, reassembling them in different ways, mixing them, so that by the time you get to the end of your 150 pages you feel like you have read 1500. This was his skill as a writer. Something we could do with more of these days because I would rather read this than some bloated space opera that goes on and on with ideas as rare as atoms of hydrogen in deep space.

As well as being able to condense his work in this phenomenal way, Bayley was also a master at creating atmosphere and strangeness. His aliens are truly alien, even those that share our universe. His future cities are not just bigger, taller versions of our own, his technology is well thought out and does not feel dated, and he has a sense of fun. There is a smile in his work that is so often missing from a lot of writing.

I went drinking with Bayley back in the late ‘70s, so I’m probably biased, because he was a great bloke. His work always deserved to be better known. At least it is now (most of it) available in ebook form. Take a look.

Maigret And The Flea – Georges Simenon
A standard Maigret, but none the worse for that. These are not about convoluted plots (most real-life murders are straightforward), but about the people involved. In this case small time gangsters who are so cocky they think they are untouchable but who crack once the pressure is applied. The characterisations are superbly done and it is always a joy to read Simenon because he packs so much in to so few words.

Foam Of The Daze (L’Écume des jours) – Boris Vian
To get an understanding of this book you have to go and watch some old black and white Betty Boop cartoons – Jazz, surrealism, and bizarre storylines. Indeed, you have to wonder what the artists were taking. The same goes for this book. Indeed, reads as if it were a treatment for just such a cartoon. The characters live in a world that has no real connection with reality other than as a strating point for people, places, and events that in a cartoon would make you smile, but as words on the page seem truly unusual and at times macabre.

That, on its own, would not be enough to sustain an entire novel. Here we have a number of layers, at the heart of which is a tragic love story. This too is surreal in the extreme, yet nonetheless touching for that (and in some ways, because it is stripped of the usual for of sentiment, it is far more poignant than it would have been if presented as a straightforward narrative). There is also a sustained expose of obsession and the industries that grow up to feed those offlicted (in this case it is the obsessive cult growing up around a philosopher named Jean-Sol Partre, with devotees scrabbling about trying to buy every last publication, every last recording, even used underpants).

I struggled through a battered copy of the original with dictionaries at hand, back in early 80s. I also came across a translation  (which these days is almost impossible to find unless, ironically, you are prepared to pay over huge sums of money). I wish I had kept that early translation because although it has been good to read this again, this new version is crap. It might be technically accurate and based on a revised version of the original, but it has no soul and the thing I remember about the original and the translation I read was how gripping it was. The excuse given for the dullness and for the endless notes is that Vian used a lot of puns and obscure references. But a good translator will be able to reproduce all the vitality and playfulness of the original. For all that, it is still worth a read if only to remind ourselves that there are forms of literature that rarely get a look in these days.

Maigret And The Lazy Burglar – Georges Simenon
A fascinating character study built up of a murder victim, the lazy burglar of the title. A man who never hurt anyone, who was never violent, who led a secret life, and who was such an expert he never left signs of having been in the houses he had burgled. Except for the last time when something goes wrong.

Maigret uncovers what happened and knows from the slender evidence he has collected (he is not even officially on the case) that an arrest will never be made. The investigation into the murder (paralleled by an official investigation into a series of robberies) is also a look at the ways in which policing was changing. Maigret was getting close to retirement and all around him, the bureaucrats and lawyers were taking over, people who have no idea of how policing works, who have no knowledge of the streets, who have devised a penal code in which murder is not considered until all the crimes against property and money.

Although the law cannot serve the lazy burglar, someone with whom Maigret felt an affinity, justice does. Maigret makes sure of that in his own quiet way.

Maigret And The Millionaires – Georges Simenon
Maigret is rarely comfortable around the wealthy or the elite, even though he grew up on a large estate. Or maybe because he grew up on a large estate. The problem is, as a working man from a working background, he finds it difficult to understand people whose lives are spent filling in the time, moving restlessly from place to place, living in hotels, helpless as babies as everything is done for them. In the end, however, that turns out to be the key, and after travelling across half of western Europe Maigret returns to the scene of the crime and more familiar haunts where he starts afresh and solves the case.

Once again this a pyschological study of privilege, of infantilism, and of the low esteem in which life is held when compared with money. Atmospheric, it captures both sides of the door in the grand hotels in which the privileged live and strips away all the pretensions of the rich to show them as being exactly the same as everyone else.

Maigret And The Gangsters – Georges Simenon
More action than is normal for a Maigret, this is about a collision of cultures. An American criminal is on the run having witnessed a gang murder. The gangsters send hit men to get to the witness before he can be persuaded to return and give evidence. This happens on Maigret’s patch and he is less than pleased that the Americans assume they can play out their domestic squabbles in another country without so much as a hint as to what is going on. The result is to harden Maigret’s resolve and to bring down the gangsters, which he does in style.

Maigret’s Christmas – Georges Simenon
A collection of short stories. This being Simenon, ‘short’ is a relative term. Most of his Maigret novels were about 40,000 words in length. And in fact one of the short stories in this collection is in fact a novel. But length is immaterial. Simenon can pack more into a short story than most writers can fit into a 100,000 word book. And all of these stories are Simenon at his best.

Even the story in which Maigret does not appear (it is set in the Police Emergency Control Room with a number of secondary characters and forms a companion piece to the title story) has Simenon’s trademark melding of an intriguing story with a detailed character portrait, all done through the medium of telephone calls and meetings in the one room.

Through his stories and through his character studies, an intimate picture of Paris is slowly built up, layer on layer until you are convinced you could walk down any Paris street and know what is going on behind the doors and windows. It is a fiction, of course, but only insofar as any life is a work of fiction, told and retold to bring some narrative sense to where none exists other than in brief flashes.

Popular writing at its very best. Accessible and insightful.

Maigret And Monsieur Charles – Georges Simenon
It is clear by now that I’m a Simenon fan. More specifically a Maigret fan, although I do like his other work. This involves a missing high society solicitor whose body is eventually fished out of the Seine. As with many other Maigret’s there is no convoluted twisting. As in real life, the solution is fairly simple; it is the finding of the evidence and the studying of those involved in the case that Simenon does so well. His portraits of people, especially their inner lives which are so often at odds with their material existence, are always pin sharp. And in this we see how the expectations of one person and the refusal to accept responsibility on the part of another lead to the tragic downfall of a woman. Heartbreaking. And perhaps a fitting last Maigret novel.

Maigret And The Dosser – Georges Simenon
Much like the previous book there is an element of protecting what one loves, of going beyond the limits to fight for what one values. In this case, a dosser, one of the ones who sleeps under the bridges that cross the Seine is attacked and thrown in the river. His cries for help rouse some bargees and he is rescued. Uncovering the identity of the dosser and how that links with the attack is a prime example of what makes Simenon’s work so good. The fact that this character is a down and out does not obscure his very real story and the wholly credible reasons for him being where he is and behaving as he does.

Although Maigret ends up knowing why he was attacked and the crimes that lie behind it, there is not enough evidence to arrest anyone. The attacker goes free, yet in the end there is a sense of a bond between Maigret and the victim as well as a sense of understanding that Maigret feels is more than compensation for the loss of an arrest.

Maigret And The Hotel Majestic – Georges Simenon

Notes From The Underground – Fyodor Dostoevsky
The whining of a miserable scrote. Waste of an evening’s reading.

Maigret And The Ghost – Georges Simenon

Factotum – Charles Bukowski
Harder edged than Post Office, some of those edges jagged. There are parts of the book that make you step back, that make you laugh, but most of all they make you cry. This kind of life is a reality for so many people. Bukowski skillfully portrays the tedium and pointlessness of most work; of the destruction of the soul and how it drags down everything else as it crumbles. That he was able to turn this into such a brutal and lyrical portrait is writing at its very best. That he survived such a life to be able to write about it is a blessing.

The Star Virus – Barrington J Bayley
Space opera at its best. But that’s what you expect from Bayley. And as always he packs more into 120 pages than most other writers could squeeze into a twenty volume series. Action, philosophy, ideas (no, the two are not the same), two colliding ‘empires’ and an ancient race long since gone but still affecting the lives of everyone in the galaxy. And characters. Real ones, with whole lives as ghostly afterimages trailing out behind them. Even the slave singer toward the end who appears for just a few pages. In that very brief encounter, there is so much backstory without the slightest hiccup in the forward story. And the central concept, that humans are a virus, sounds hackneyed now, but it was new back than and is used here with subtlety. Bayley might easily have made a longer novel of this, but it would all have been padding, and he was far too good a writer ever to do that.

Maigret’s Revolver – Georges Simenon
Spot on. And one of those novels in which Maigret does not get his ‘man’.

The Song Of Phaid The Gambler – Mick Farren
Farren is an original. His writing can be unusual and it is no surprise some of it is now out of print (although it really shouldn’t be – he was doing modern vampires long before Rice and Whedon). This is a post-apocalyptic fantasy, a road novel, a picaresque. Less way out than the DNA Cowboys, it offers a unique and dirty vision of the future.

Saturday, 2 March 2013

Books read in February

The Mystery Of The Hasty Arrow – Anna Katharine Green
It is instructive to see how tastes have changed editorially. This is an interesting mystery. A young girl is murdered in a museum in front of witnesses with the subsequent investigation setting the pattern for many later works. Reconstruction of the crime, expert testimony, dogged investigation. It reads more like a modern spy novel in that respect. Slow, philosophical, yet never losing interest or focus. Yet once the mystery is resolved and justice served, we are given chapter after chapter of back story which feels like an enormous anticlimax as much of it can be inferred from the main narrative. I suspect an editor would want it re-written today so that all that information was revealed as the story progressed. In a way, it would spoil the mystery as there is just too much information that would give the game away.

All that aside, this is, as I mentioned, an interesting mystery (although the version I read was missing the diagrams that would have made it easier to follow). And what seems to be horribly coincidental and accidental is neatly tied up during the long tail. Editions of these books illustrated with photographs of the period would be wonderful.

The Sword Of Damocles – Anna Katharine Green
A Detective Gryce novel by the skin of its teeth. He makes a very brief appearance in one chapter. The rest of the story is grand melodrama, the sort of thing that you can imagine as a silent movie with grand physical gestures and lots of exaggerated facial expressions. Apart from one or two passages that teeter on the edge of mawkish sentimentality and moralising, it rattles along with its tale of wrongdoing, blackmail, and the ghosts of the past coming back to haunt the characters in ways that stretch the notion of coincidence to the limit.

Hopeless, Maine: Personal Demons – Tom & Nimue Brown
It isn't often you pick up a book that combines excellent writing and excellent illustration within an excellent piece of production. Even before you open the covers, you know you have something of quality in your hands. The book is weighty (a solid cover and no skimping on the weight of paper inside). Front and rear covers are beautifully illustrated and the embossing adds that extra level that shows someone went the extra mile when it came to production.

And then you open the book. Sumptuous. The overall palate of colours is suggestive of the mood of the story and for me brought to mind a whole mix of references (Dark City where it is always night; Mythago Wood where the sun finds difficulty penetrating the depths of the forest; those dreams where one can never quite see clearly). This tone is enhanced by having the panels framed in black, like an endless succession of funeral notices. And the illustrations... I cannot praise enough. Here is an artist who draws with enormous skill and clarity and who knows exactly the right level of detail to include so that each picture is a work of art in its own right, each picture moves the story forward, each picture contains sufficient detail to make it interesting and worth exploring and revisiting without cluttering the page.

The story is wonderfully developed. Simple enough to follow yet filled with layers of meaning that build as the story progresses. Very often this aspect of graphic novels is overlooked, especially where the book is for younger readers. It is often assumed that this is the easy bit; it's just a few speeches. But that is why it is so difficult. Writers are rarely self-effacing enough to stand back and let the combination of text and illustration make the point. Here the two combine perfectly and this partnership has produced something truly wonderful.

What Video Games Have To Teach Us About Learning And Literacy – James Paul Gee
Books where a specialist in one field strays into another and puts the world (or that other field) to rights often fail because it is clear from the first page that the author hasn’t grasped the basics of the field he has strayed into, let alone the subtleties. Sometimes, though, there are people who take the time to understand something they have seen and explore it fully before expounding their ideas. This book is of the latter variety. Gee clearly knows about education and has taken the time to understand how video games work.

Noticing how easily youngsters become absorbed in such games and devote a huge amount of time to learning how to play them and noticing that games are designed to make learning easy (because they don’t sell otherwise), Gee began to investigate just how games managed the trick. Except it isn’t a trick. Good game writers and designers have worked out how to involve players and teach them the rules of the game without the need for huge manuals. Most good games can be played from scratch, all the skills required to progress being taught in the early levels, success rewarded and the game set up in such a way that failure means you try again and learn from the mistakes you made.

Wondering if and why schools do not do the same, Gee isolates the principles that seem to apply and examines whether they would work in schools. And as they are such universal principles, ones that are more relevant to real life than learning models in education, he has a point. He isn’t always correct, but this is an exploratory work, one that sets out to propose a possible alternative. By the very principles he sets out, the work is a success, whereas under old models it is looked at askance as it does not conform to the principles currently in use in education.

More books like this are needed, even if the ideas are not adopted. They make people think, go back to basics, and that is always a good thing. When I was training to be a teacher I was (and still am) fascinated by the likes of Neill, Illich, Goodman, and Russell who had ideas about alternative models of education and in many cases put them into successful practice. I like to think they made my teaching better even though I was never in a position to work in a school dedicated to their ideas. In a period (in the UK and elsewhere) where politicians are trying to push education backwards and revive all the arguments they lost half a century ago, such books are essential.

Hand And Ring – Anna Katharine Green
Although I worked out fairly early on who had really committed the murder, this is (apart from Green’s propensity to throw in the hand of God now and then) an intriguing courtroom thriller. It was difficult at times to remember that this was one of the earliest of its kind as it seems to come fully formed. There is drama in the courtroom. Investigations on behalf of various of the accused, a detailed examination of people’s movements, lies and cover-ups that are, for the most part, done with the best of intentions.

The book doesn’t quite have the sense of peril you would expect from the story had it been written today, and the emotional scenes tend to the melodramatic, but it is a fine mystery and well worth a read for anyone who is interested in the history of crime novels.

That Affair Next Door – Anna Katharine Green
Amelia Butterworth has to be one of the most self-satisfied, priggish, bigoted, and annoying central characters I have ever come across, and at the same time one that carries the reader and undergoes a mellowing of her less pleasant side as the story progresses.

Witnessing an event that is not in keeping with the area in which she lives (a youngish couple she does not recognise enter a house she knows to be empty at midnight), Amelia Butterworth becomes intrigued. The man leaves shortly afterwards and she is unsettled at the idea of a young woman alone in the empty house. When the place is still shuttered at midday the next day she finds a policeman and encourages him to enter (with the help of a cleaning woman who turns up with a key). They find a body, just as Amelia Butterworth feared.

Being the sort of woman who pushes her way into a situation simply because she believes she has a right to be there, she finds herself investigating the murder in parallel with Detective Gryce. It is an intriguing mystery. You cannot say all the clues were there, but there were certainly enough to make you realise that suspects brought forward by the author in succession were not a perfect fit. And as the novel progresses, you realise that someone in the background has a more prominent role than at first suspected.

The means by which Miss Butterworth follows leads and develops her ideas would not be out of place in a modern mystery and the ending is sufficiently melodramatic to satisfy her original audience. Yet the reliance on melodrama and coincidence is much muted in this book and that makes it all the better. My only regret is that Miss Butterworth’s maid Lena was not given a stronger part to play as there seemed to be a genuine character there ripe for development.

Julia And The Bazooka – Anna Kavan
Published shortly after her death, these short stories show a remarkable insight into her own condition, one that is bare of any false sentiment or self-pity, but which shows the unsettling reality in which she lived. Whilst some of the pieces are highly autobiographical in that they relate real events in the outside world, they are all accurate portrayals of her inner life.

Her writing is intense whilst also being relaxed as if the mind was wildly alive in a body that lay back and was powerless to stop it happening. The landscapes are sharply drawn, hard and echoing, cold, floodlit. It is her world, but she does not feel at ease there. Like her novels, there is always movement with nowhere to settle.

Haunting and painful, these are writings that touch the soul without once asking you to feel sorry for the author. And such honesty is at times painful. Not that cringing pain one feels for people who are making fools of themselves, not the pain that is tinged with annoyance at someone who you wish would snap out of it. You know there can be no snapping out of it. Addiction doesn’t work like that. Depression doesn’t work like that. The pain comes from seeing the tragedy and from recognising that we all stand on the crumbling edge over which she has slipped and we know that in her case there is no way to reach down to her. She knows it as well and wastes no time in screaming, but calmly records everything she sees so that we may have a chance of stepping back.

The final, title story, is the most poignant of all. Seven sides in which her whole life is summed up and fades into nothing. Except, of course, we have her exquisite writing.

Lost Man’s Lane – Anna Katharine Green
The tale of people disappearing from a road through the woods along which just a few people live gets lost in the author’s delight in writing gothic tale. It’s quite a good gothic tale and if it had concentrated on that it would have been much better. Or if it had concentrated on being a detective mystery it would have been better. This is not to say you cannot have good gothic detective mysteries, it is just that in this case the one swamps the other. There are detectives at work, but precious little detecting.

Presumably at this stage in her writing career, Green was playing with a form that she had more or less invented, and that is to be commended. That it doesn’t quite work doesn’t mean it is not a good novel of its kind. I certainly enjoyed it.

Post Office – Charles Bukowski
‘Maybe I’ll write a novel, I thought. And then I did.’ And this is it. Post Office. The machine that sucks you in, grinds you up, and then spits you out. And Bukowski conveys the dull horror of this so beautifully in every single word. Poverty, pain, pleasure, living under the heel of petty bureaucrats who pass their own agonies and inadequacies down the chain.

This portrait of urban American existence is raw and uncompromising. Chinaski (the author’s alter ego) lives hand-to-mouth and yet survives the brutalisation of his work in the Post Office – a metaphor for life in the US (and any other society for that matter). He’s no angel, but he’s no devil either. Just an ordinary man getting by.

And along with the portrait of life and the jokes and the weirdness of life, there is also an underlying sadness. One gets the sense of that question: we are human beings and this is all there is? Yet a combination of upbringing and the sheer weight of everything stops the question being properly formulated, let alone answered or the answer acted on.

One thing I would take issue with and that is the constant description of Bukowski as being a chronicler of low life America. These people are not low life. That is the vocabulary if division. You call your enemy ‘gooks’ so you don’t have to think of them as people. You call one section of society ‘low life’ so you can feel superior to those people and start blaming them for their troubles. If there is one thing that Bukowski does, it is to show that people kicked down the ladder and trodden on are just that: people.

The Circular Study – Anna Katharine Green
A shorter outing for Amelia Butterworth and Detective Gryce. Not so much a whodunit as whydunit involving the end result of a long running family feud. As such, it lacks the tension of her longer, more involved works, but contains enough of the gothic and of the well thought out plot to hold the reader.

Maigret’s Rival – Georges Simenon
When a young man’s body is found on the railways track just outside a rural town, rumours start to fly. A concerned relative of the object of the rumours asks Maigret to take a look. Reluctantly, he leaves Paris and finds himself dropped into the heart of the sort of community that depresses him to the core. Upper middle classes whose days are spent rehearsing family pedigrees and peasants who dare not speak out of turn because their livelihoods depend on those same bourgeoisies. And if that wasn’t enough, there is an ex policeman clearly hired to make sure all evidence of the crime is destroyed.

Maigret is off form, depressed by the place (fenland and perpetually misty), and wishing he had never agreed to investigate. But investigate he does, uncovering untrammelled immorality, but too late to find any evidence to bring a case.

It is a dark story, written in 1943 during the Nazi occupation of France. It never once alludes to this period, yet can be taken as a snapshot of the type of society at the time of the German invasion, with all the implications. In the novel, it is the peasants who move about under cover of darkness and take risks to try to expose wrongdoing and fight against the bourgeoisie who they see as occupiers. It is the bourgeoisie who behave as if they are above the law. They have taken what they want by force. Anyone who gets in their way is eliminated. Others are used to further their ends.

Although Maigret is too late to bring the law down on those involved, he does mete out a form of justice and rids the town of the perpetrators and it is clear where Maigret’s sympathies lie. The question still asked is if that is a clear reflection of where Simenon’s sympathies lay as well.

Friday, 1 February 2013

Books read in January

Ice – Anna Kavan
An unnamed narrator undertakes an obsessive search for a girl he has known. She is frail, timid, and thin and she has long white hair. His pursuit puts him at odds with a man known only as the ‘warden’ whose pursuit of the girl is equally obsessive. Between them they chase across a dying landscape as ice coats the planet.

On the surface it does not sound too promising – a sadomasochistic science fantasy of the sort that is all too common these days. But this was written in the mid 1960s and it was written by Anna Kavan. The actual story is a simple metaphor for all the obsessions and addictions that our flesh is heir to, yet it is the telling of the story that elevates this work. The language is simple, the forward narrative almost relentless with the periods of calm enforced on the characters but never the reader.

Kavan was addicted to heroin for many years. She took it originally to relieve the excrutiating pain of a spinal disease. In the end, it took her. We should not imagine her as the frail woman of the book, hiding away and waiting. Anna Kavan was active beyond her writing. But her inner world if not directly portrayed here must surely have contributed. The encroaching ice – seen both as a disaster and as a means of ending all troubles – is psychological, it is the past catching up, it is metaphysical, it is the result of passing that tipping point when the addict can do nothing to save themselves.

It is a grim tale of dissolution and war, of cruelty and destruction. Yet there are also acts of kindness struggling through the suspicion, revelations that surprise yet which are entirely believable. And in the end, there is a kind of peace, even if it is not the conventionally cosy happy ending.

All of Kavan’s work is worth reading. It is poetic and surreal and in that it is starkly simple and so real it hurts. There is nothing fussy about her work. It is sharp and disturbing, yet it is entirely human and there is always a real person beneath and behind the words. One could only have wished she had been better regarded as a writer during her lifetime. One could wish she were better regarded now.

The Kindness Of Women – J G Ballard
This book is a crucial turning point in Ballard’s writing. It marks the point where he seems to realise that the real world now easily outstrips his surreal imagination. There are those who claim this for Empire of the Sun but that still contains many elements of his earlier works (indeed it is an exposition of the source material of those works) and it is only the setting that anchors it in the real world. For all the events are ‘real’ (that is, a fictional rendition of real events), the world is still seen through the filter of a boy’s imagination.

In The Kindness of Women, Jim has grown up, gradually leaving behind the trauma of his early life, slowly waking from the dream, jolted on the way by very real and very personal events that begin chipping away at the carapace. And whilst the book focuses on the more bizarre and unsettling aspects of his life (some more thinly veiled than others, some strangely changed), at heart is revealed a very ordinary man who has witnessed extraordinary things and found a unique way of articulating how these have skewed his vision of the world.

Anyone expecting the kind of writing Ballard used at his most exploratory stage will be disappointed. This is fairly straightforward narrative. But Ballard’s use of language is highly cinematic. There are cuts, fades, flashbacks, close-ups, pans, and he can even go into slow motion. And it is a novel. He has arranged real events to create a satisfying emergence of a butterfly from its pupal stage, something that does not happen so readily in the real world for humans.

It is also a mark of Ballard’s maturity as a writer that he moves on, not just in terms of style, but also in terms of content. He never completely leaves behind his major concerns, but he has learned enough as a person to know that there are other and more relevant ways to express them as he does in his later novels.

The Rising Of The Moon – Gladys Mitchell
Ostensibly a Mrs Bradley mystery this book centres on the exploits of two young brothers (aged 11 and 13) when their town is visited by a series of murders. It sounds clichéd now, but this example (from 1945) was an early version of an a book for adults about children. It captures the two central characters with great accuracy and affection, makes their exploits feel believable, delivers a good crime novel (not much of an actual mystery as it is fairly obvious who is doing the killing), and covers the psychological aspects with Mitchell’s usual insight.

In addition this is wrtten through the eyes of the thirteen year old and captures that slight formality one might expect from a youngster tasked with telling the story as accurately as they could. And to leave her great detective in little more than a cameo role was also a brave move. All in all, Mitchell at her very best in which much is left unsaid and makes all the more impact for it.

A Blink Of The Screen – Terry Pratchett
Collected shorter fiction and nothing much that anyone who likes Pratchett’s work hasn’t seen before. Even his juvenilia is good, although it is juvenilia. Sadly it feels like a tidying up of a life, especially the extremely poignant photograph on the back flap.

The Inquisitory – Robert Pinget
A monumental work in which his fictional district of France is examined in the minutest detail through the questioning of an elderly, deaf servant. Buildings, rooms, inhabitants and events are all subject to the inquisitorial gaze in a work that is so hypnotic I found myself going back over sections to make sure I hadn’t dreamed bits (I had). Yet beneath this encyclopaedic surface (the sort of thing one would expect of Robbe-Grillet) lies the human stories of the place, principally that of the old servant.

We learn of the goings-on amongst the landed gentry, the tax evasion, sexual romps, and other less specified unpleasantnesses that those who believe they are above the law get up to. And on a more subtle level we learn of the lives of the ordinary working people and how they get caught up in the nets of the wealthy. And at the heart are two parallel tragedies. At the very centre is the death of the servant’s child and wife and the people he blames for his loss. Running along side are three connected murders.

Throughout the inquisition we are left wondering just what is being investigated. It has the hall marks of a detective novel, of a suspect or witness being questioned, but in the end we know it is about an old man reviewing his life, trying to make sense of things and realisng the absurdity of it all.

The remarkable thing is that such a dense compendium with pages and pages of minute description and listing can be so absorbing and reveal so much about what is going on. Layers of things hidden are revealed, layers of things that are important are discovered and ends with the truly poignant dream of the old man of a world where he is reunited with wife and child and can talk about the stars with an elusive resident and find peace and rest. And so say we all.

The Innocence Of Father Brown – G K Chesterton
Chesterton liked detective stories. He wrote quite a few. And he never much paid attention to the conventions (of the form or anything else for that matter). Rather, he knew the conventions inside out and the showed you could work outside them.

It is true that Father Brown is not a detective in the modern sense of the word. He is an observer and makes intuitive leaps from what he has seen to create solutions to enigmas. There is a moral edge to the stories and they may have been the reason they were written, but Chesterton is far too good and far too sensible a writer to hit his readers over the head with that. Instead, he presents intriguing puzzles solved by an equally intriguing character (who seems to have an awful lot of time on his hands for a priest).

One of the attractions of the stories is their setting, not just in time, but also in place. Why anyone would think that turning them into sunny, 1950s, west country, feelgood tales enhances them is anyone’s guess. Give me the grimy backstreets and the rough edges where poverty rubs up against wealth. Indeed, if you have to update it for television, the present day would be a far better setting.

That aside, these are the epitome of well-written, intelligent entertainment. And having been prompted to read the first collection, I have no doubt that GKC will be getting a major revisit this year.

We Didn’t Mean To Go To Sea – Arthur Ransome
I’ve been a fan of Arthur Ransome’s books ever since I was acquainted with grasshopper’s kneecaps. So being objective is not easy. So I won’t bother. I first read this at night, uner the blankets, with a torch, in a friend’s house where I was staying for a week. Where he lived was something of an adventure in itself – a flat behind the cinema (his father was chief projectionist) that had all sorts of levels and an open space with a metal bridge over a four storey light well.

In this, the Walker children, waiting for their father to return from the farEast, befriend a sailor and go aboard his yacht as crew for a few days to sail up and down the rivers Stour and Orwell. Because of a mishap, the boat slips its mooring in fog and drifts out to sea on the tide, minus its captain. With a storm at their heels they guide the boat across the southern end of the North Sea and end up in Flushing. There they meet up with their father and sail back again.

It sounds boring when put like that, but this is pure adventure all the way, with the Goblin (just a different name for Ransome’s own boat the Nancy Blackett) a fifth character. There is nothing fantastical here. Everything is realistic. Yet it is never boring and we see the Walker children as we have never really seen them before (unless you count Peter Duck which is a fantasy). Seasickness and arguments, mistakes through lack of experience, and the serious possibility of a falling out with their parents.

Everything works out in the end (and that’s no bad thing – life isn’t all crises and misery), but there was a real sense of peril during the story, and the satisfaction of getting to know his characters at a deeper level. And even if none of that were true, it is still marvellous comfort reading.

Lady Audley’s Secret – Mary Elizabeth Braddon
Being a Talboys, this is almost compulsory reading. It wasn’t much to my taste when I first tried it many many years ago, but people change. This time round I thoroughly enjoyed it. I suspect last time it was a case of being told I ought to read it and I automatically take against books I’m told I ought to read. It’s in my nature.

What struck me about this reading is that Mary Braddon has a dry sense of humour. It’s like a fine white wine and acts as the perfect accompaniment to this tale. Described as a novel of sensation, one can only wonder at how sheltered the reading public must have been to class this book in such a way. By today’s standards (putting the coincidences and occaisonal slips of language aside) it is rather insightful work that succeeds to make a sympathetic character out of a reprehensible villain. She is not evil, simply using a particular strategy to survive and to avoid the kind of life her maid ended with.

The sympathy evoked in the reader for Lady Audley makes everyone else’s actions all the more difficult and credible. And whilst it is not a novel that out and out condemns aspects of society that deserve condemnation, it does raise a lot of questions about the status quo. In addition to all that, it is a fascinating read and succeeds in moving the story along with sufficient suspense to keep the reader to the very last page.

The Leavenworth Case – Anna Katharine Green
Published in 1878, this is one of the earliest detective novels and is marked by its special attention to gathering sufficient evidence for a legal case to be made (rather than relying on purely circumstantial evidence). As a precursor to the police procedural (only a precursor because the methods of the police and their organisation are not really touched on) it also introduces other elements of crime fiction with which we are now all too familiar.

There is a form of locked room mystery at the heart of the story which itself is an isolated house mystery. However, the work of the investigating lawyer begins to pick away at the stories offered by those present in the house and the mystery of the missing servant becomes a sub-plot of equal intrigue to the main. It is also the first of a series of books featuring the same detectives, each with their idiosyncracies that lift them above the normal.

None of which would be of much interest if the book itself were not also lively and satisfying. Which rather sets up the question as to why it and its sequels are not better known.

A Strange Disappearance – Anna Katharine Green
A little more melodramatic (with nods to the gothic) than its predecessor, this is, nonetheless, an entertaining read. Although Gryce and Q reappear from the previous book, this one is a tale of a case as told by Q to some of his colleagues. With the shift in perspective, we have a different feel to the tale and a different investment by the central character in the events and outcome.

The story centres round a member of the household staff of a wealthy New Yorker who goes missing, possibly abducted. Mystery surrounds her and the circumstances of her disappearance and Gryce puts Q on the case. After mch following of the principles and a hair-raising jaunt into the wilds of the countryside, matters begin to fall into place.

If you can accept certain conventions of this type of tale (which I cannot discuss without spoiling the book), it is a great book that succeeds in painting more of a picture of life in the city than was the case in the earlier book. Great fun.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

Books read in December

The Return Of The Thin Man – Dashiell Hammett
Hammett wrote some of the quintessential hard-boiled detective novels of the 20th century. Based in part on his experiences as a Pinkerton Detective, they combine gritty realism, social comment and excellent plots with a skill for writing that really is top class. Yet Hammett also had a great sense of humour and this was ably displayed in his novel The Thin Man which featured the detective Nick Charles and his wife Nora. The novel is a wisecracking mystery with Nick and Nora always just the right side of innebriated seeming to blunder through an investigation yet using their apparent foolishness as the perfect cover.

So successful was the novel that it was turned into a film. So successful was the film that the studio clamoured for sequels. Reluctantly (Hammett did not enjoy his time in bondage to MGM), he produced treatments for two more films and a brief outline for another. These have recently been unearthed and are published together in this volume.

This is a wonderful book on so many levels. To begin with we get more genuine Hammett. Secondly, we get two new stories that sparkle as much as the original novel. And finally we get to see part of the process by which movies can be made – always a bonus for anyone trying to work on their screenplay. Hammett didn’t write the screenplays, but he did provide detailed stories and most of the dialogue (screenwriters lifted his dialogue by the pageful when preparing screenplays as he was recognised as a master). Indeed, so detailed are these, they could as easily have been developed into novels as movies. Whatever the case (and the movies do differ slightly from the treatments) these were very readable stories and so vivid that one could see them playing out as movies whilst reading them. This is writing at its very best, even when Hammett was losing interest in the project, he did not once short change the reader.

The Saltmarsh Murders – Gladys Mitchell
Another wonderful line-up of bonkers characters. Another wonderful mystery. In this case, Mitchell has also demonstrated her skill as a writer by making a first person narrative from the point of view of one of the characters involved, with Mrs Bradley seen through his eyes. That in itself as an excellent little character study of a young man with all his prejudices, foibles, desires, and in a number of cases fairly advanced thinking for a man of the cloth in the 1930s.

They mystery is, as ever, intriguing and whilst the book does display some of the views of its day that seem shocking to us (especially with regard to the question of race), it also manages to air that problem and show up much of it for the prejudice that it is. It is a question that is thrown into sharp contrast a decade later with the arrival of American troops in the UK, so kudos to Mitchell for giving it a walk around the park so early.

Death At The Opera – Gladys Mitchell
Typically convoluted and, evidenced at one point when a whole new novel appears to start, resolutely its own style of mystery novel. A co-educational private school with a head who has mildly progressive ideas decides to put on a production of the Mikado for its annual concert. Around this the relationships of the staff are explored, particularly those pertaining to Miss Ferris, the self-effacing mathematics mistress who puts up the money to put on the show.

The investigation into why she winds up dead lifts stones on a whole set of things that people would much rather had stayed hidden. Although the story does have truly absurd elements and appalling coincidences, it is still a satisfying read and the characters are wonderfully drawn in a way that portrays the slightly barmy Mrs Bradley as normal and everyone else as a complete basket case.

Poor Things – Alasdair Gray
Part gothic horror (although with tongue in cheek), part social commentary, wholly entertaining, and of course beautifully illustrated. The book is presented as the reproduction of a privately printed volume found outside a solicitor’s offices amongst other papers. As such it is a series of stries nested inside each other. The story of the book’s finding (and a commentary on the parlous state of the finances for preserving and conserving Scottish culture); the discussion between the person who found the book and Gray (as editor) about its veracity and reliability; the story told within the book about a woman who became one of the first female doctors in Scotland and her bizarre origin; a letter written by the woman (at one time married to the author of the book) giving her real origins and life story; plus a whole host of notes.

The whole thing is, of course, a work of fiction. It can be read on so many levels, achieves so much in terms of creating a parallel history, and remains throughout both well-written and entertaining. Gray does wobble sometimes in his writing, but he is never less than bold, never less than entertaining, and never gives less than his whole to a project. This alone makes him a writer to be treasured. That he has a social conscience and manages to discuss important social matters without once dropping into polemic makes him doubly wonderful.

Come Away, Death – Gladys Mitchell
Always literate, Mitchel lifts what might have been a straightforward murder mystery to an altogether different and chilling level. The usual conventions of such books are in place. Mrs Bradley happens to be a guest of a family about to embark on a pilgrimage to sacred sites of ancient Greece. There are tensions and it quickly becomes obvious who the victim will be. So far, so normal.

What is chilling about this is the way in which it exposes the awful assumptions of certain classes of British society and the casual way in which an irritant is dealt with (the victim is a pain in the arse but no more so than the family he has attached himself to like a leech). Murdered, disposed of, and the assumption that that was the way to handle it and that it should be hushed up.

As such it is a scathing and unflinching view of British society and how little distance it had travelled even after the horrors of the First World War. It is also a an excellent novel in its own right, lost to most readers as it is a genre novel, one by a sadly neglected writer who produced much better work than Christie but one who exposed the dark underside of society rather than smoothing over the cracks and making it look cosy and normal again.

The Chain Of Chance – Stanislaw Lem
Another of Lem’s metaphysical investigations where noir meets the absurd (in a territory in which both happily exist). I love both kinds of writing and to have them in one story (much as Goddard did with his movie Alphaville) is perfect.

In this book an ex-astronaut (dumped from a Mars programme because of his hay-fever) agrees to help into the investigation of a series of mysterious deaths in Italy. This is a world that is both contemporary and in the future; a world plagued by all the concerns of the mid-70s when it was written, but viewed through the filter of a highly analytical mind.

With all the hallmarks and proceedings of a murder investigation it soon becomes something else – mostly a meditation on modern life with aspects of mathematics thrown in. The denoument is suitably downbeat and quirky and whilst it might not satisfy mystery buffs, it is intellectually satisfying and thoroughly enjoyable.

Father Ted, The Complete Scripts – Graham Linehan & Arthur Mathews
What’s to be said that hasn’t already been said? Lots, I suppose. Collected here in a single volume, with notes, are the final written drafts of the scripts of the TV series Father Ted. They differ slightly from what appears on screen as decisions are made during shooting about what transfers from the page, but the differences are tiny (mostly scenes cut because they were too long or went nowhere). It is the genius of the writers that what is on the page is as funny as what appeared on screen, although for different reasons. The performances in the series were superb and brought a whole new dimension to the written word (and it is very difficult to read the scripts without hearing the actors and visualising them – especially if you have watched it a few more times than once). However, the written word here is funny in its own right and has that deceptive simplicity of all good writing. It’s the sort of thing that makes you say, ‘I could do that’ until you try and realise that you have to be very gifted indeed to translate surreal humour into first the written word and then a written form that then translates to TV. Excellent.

When Last I Died – Gladys Mitchell
Another superb piece of writing from Mitchell. Well informed (as are all her books), solid, and believable. This involves a tangle of family relationships and what happens when the family members come together over a slightly dodgy scheme to convince people that a house is haunted in order to make a bit of money and a reputation on which to live. Stepping out onto that limb makes everyone vulnerable especially when one of the is determined to stop at nothing to saw the branch off at the base.

It is also extremely refreshing to have children portrayed realistically rather than as the jolly, precocious brats they often are in such stories. But then Mitchell was a teacher so she knew what children were really like in all their moods – even the children that had long since grown up.

Death and the Maiden – Gladys Mitchell
No happy ending in this book, although justice is served at a terrible cost. Set in Winchester, mostly along the banks of the Itchen, this is a complex tale of greed and murder which, in true Mitchell style, manages to be seamlessly erudite, disturbing, and entertaining.

Tom Brown’s Body – Gladys Mitchell
Whilst this is well-written and contains a mystery every bit as intriguing as her other books, the ending feels rushed. There are no cheats, but suddenly Mrs Bradley and the police make an arrest and it’s all over. That may well be the experience in real life, but in a book of this sort one would like something a little more satisfying.

The Dwarfs – Harold Pinter
I remember thinking when I first read this that it had only seen the light of day because it was interesting to see how Pinter’s writing had developed and people who enjoyed his plays (as I did and still do) would want to. As a work it already displays Pinter’s interest in dialogue. There is very little of anything in the novel that could be described as action, little more than would be found in a play as stage directions.

In the sense that the author already has a mature and idiosyncratic style where the dialogue is already ‘Pinteresque’, the novel works. Many of the sections of dialogue work within themselves. But there are passages that display the immature side of Pinter as a writer. They ramble without adding anything to the work. There is no plot to push forward and the characters are types rather than individuals.

Despite its faults, it is still a work I will champion and suggest people read simply because it is one of the hidden treasures of British literature. It follows its own course, speaks with an individual voice, tries something that writers at the time would have found alien, and succeeds in its failure by being a far better and more interesting book than much of the dross that purports to be literature these days.

Watson’s Choice – Gladys Mitchell
A rather pleasing mystery with a Holmesian background, supplied by an eccentric who holds a party Holmes themed party out of which the rest of the story flows. Fluent, filled with wonderful characters who are just on the right side of caricatures (as befits a novel of this kind), and a solid mystery at the heart. The ending is also considerably more satisfying than the last one I read. The deductive steps were clearly shown and suspects whittled down until it was inevitable at the end just who it was who committed the murder.

The Twenty-Third Man – Gladys Mitchell
Set on an island this is a tangled tale in which truth and identity are never what they seem. Mrs Bradley, having hoped for a holiday stumbles upon murder and deceit. And in a neattwist that disposes of the ‘why does the investigator always happen to be on the spot when a murder occurs problem’, it is the arrival of Mrs Bradley that triggers the events that lead to murder. Pleasingly convoluted yet nonetheless plausible, this is another excellent mystery from Gladys Mitchell.

The Compleat Ankh-Morpork City Guide – Terry Pratchett et al
For the compleatist, a nonetheless entertaining book and the ideal gift (as this was). Based on Victorian directories, this is the ultimate guide to Pratchett’s premier city on Discworld with a huge fold-out map. One wonders how long before there is a Google Street View version.

Caligula & Other Plays – Albert Camus
The volume contains ‘Caligula’, ‘Cross Purpose’, ‘The Just’, and ‘The Possessed’. And despite these being for a theatre of ideas they each display a tendency toward a theatre of personal psychology (character driven, in other words). This is manifest in ‘Caligula’ which clearly starts out as examination of nihilism and other similar philosophical stances, driving them to their logical conclusion, but which transforms into a study of an individual and his descent into what we might call madness, but which is clearly much more complex than such a sweeping diagnosis would suggest.

Very often the term ‘madness’ is used in this way – as a convenient means of pushing a problem to one side and refusing to deal with it. Which is, itself, a form of madness. Failure to engage with the real world and deal with it is not, of course, confined to history. Every year people set out on killing sprees, the extent of the body count determined by the position in society of the killer. Even the lone and lowly killer can rack up body counts that are horrific. And every time, the root causes are ignored.

As ‘Caligula’ shows it is not always easy to determine the root causes, any more than it is easy to stop such murderers. Far too many other people stand ready to support the cause. Very often, such murders as well as violence and astonishing cruelties are committed in the name of politics, or revolution, or the fight for liberty or however it is dressed up. ‘The Just’ and ‘The Possessed’ examine these latter issues in particular.

I have never seen any of these performed, but with a background in Drama and Theatre, it is not too difficult to imagine them on the stage. And despite the sometimes stilted feel (they are expository to a degree not normally found in British theatre), an appropriate style of delivery would surely make these worth seeing.

That's a total of 164 books read this year (and that doesn't count the parts of books read for research). Very few were newly published works; a large number were re-reads; a considerable proportion were 'light' - mostly because I was writing my own (two novels drafted and a lot of other stuff scribbled). So, here's to next year with a book already being read (and another already being written).

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Books read in November

The Hound Of The Baskervilles – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Considered by many to be Conan Doyle’s best Sherlock Holmes, it certainly contains all the ingredients and is an efficient enough tale, but it does suffer from a rushed ending and a lot of plot holes (for example, if Holmes’s young helper on the moor was so easily spotted through the telescope, why hadn’t the escaped convict and his helper been seen?). One could also wish that Doyle had taken the time to explore in a little more depth the social side, that it’s the toffs causing the problems and dumping on the lower classes and cast out folk. That said, it is still an intriguing tale and an enjoyable read.

The Valley Of Fear – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although on the face of a mash-up of two novellas (one as backstory to the other to make it up to novel length), there is more to the structure of this book than first meets the eye. On the face of it, it is much like ‘The Sign Of Four’ and, indeed, has a similar setting, replete with a secretive society part of which has gone to the bad. But in this later novel, Conan Doyle has used the same structure to add a layer of uncertainty. In the first half we have a classic Holmes puzzle which leads to a denouement of some uncertainty. The back story, presented in the second half, compounds that uncertainty to the end. A very clever use of what could have been straightforward and boring kept alive by turning reader assumptions on their head several times.

His Last Bow – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Clearly not, of course, as there is a further collection, but although Conan Doyle later declares that he has been happy writing the Holmes stories it is clear that whilst there may be ideas, there is less enthusiasm for their working out and presentation. One might argue that as Holmes ages his style changes, but as the stories are not chronological it is obviously more to do with the author. There are one or two intriguing stories of the old style, but for the most part they read like reminiscences long after the fact rather than having been written just after the event occurred.

The Case-Book Of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
The final collection of Holmes stories is a hotch potch affair. Different view points and approaches, all of which demonstrate Doyle limitations as a writer – it is difficult to tell a narrative by Holmes from a narrative by Watson as well as the fact they characters have not changed or developed over time. But this is not serious literature. The Holmes stories are entertainments and in that they succeed admirably.

The Franklin’s Tale – Geoffrey Chaucer
I did this for A level and as part of a plan to re-read all those A level texts I finally got round to this (it is taking me considerably longer than the original two years – so many other things keep  attracting my attent – SQUIRREL). It is a tribute to my English teacher (Colin Silk, a gentleman and excellent teacher) that I could sit down and read the Chaucer in the original, straight through, with no need to refer to notes. And enjoy it.

A tale of personal sovereignty and of sexual obsession it clearly owes its genesis to the tales of chivalry and courtly love told by the troubadors. I am inspired now to revisit the rest of the Tales which, I am ashamed to say, I have only ever read in a modern English prose version.

The Lost World – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Although not the first work to posit the survival of prehistoric species into the modern day (Verne used the idea years before), Conan Doyle created the most plausible of settings compatible with scientific understanding at the time. A remote, sheer-sided plateau in South America on top of which species have been isolated from the rest of the world. To this he added the memorable and annoying character of Professor Challnger and the small group that makes the journey with him to verify his claims.

It is a fairly straight forward, gung-ho adventure with some (by modern standards) appalling attitudes. Which is instructive as Conan-Doyle was fairly forward thinking for his day. Whilst it is fairly tame adventure by today’s standards (and many of the film adaptations not only muck around with the casting but add incidents to pep the story up), it is remarkable in that it sets up a standard by which many subsequent and far worse stories have been created. It also highlighted the fascination with dinosaurs which exists to this day, creatures that have turned up in all sorts of isolated spots (or been reborn) to cause wonder and havoc.

The Poison Belt – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
A novella that brings together the characters of ‘The Lost World’ at a moment when the Earth passes through a belt of poison gas that affects everyone on the planet. Having had some foresight with regard to the disaster, Professor Challenger has set up a room in which the characters sit through the events, kept alive by oxygen. They witness a train crash and fires and, in the aftermath, drive through a stricken London believing themselves to be the only remaining humans on the planet.

Again, whilst not the first global disaster story (Mary Shelley was an early precursor), it is a remarkable short piece that seems to lay the foundations for works by the likes of John Wyndham. The depictions of the everyday world brought to an end are particularly potent and it is a shame that Conan Doyle did not develop the work into a full-length piece.

Professor Challenger is also an interesting character as he seems to prefigure many of the brilliant, obstinate, and angry scientists beloved of pulp fiction and B movies, perhaps culminating in Professor Quatermass.

The Naked Nuns – Colin Watson
A Flaxborough novel, and if you don’t what that is, shame on you. The Flaxborough novels are some of the finest humorous crime novels of the twentieth century. Superb dry with, wonderful characterization, and a portrait of a provincial town that is both over the top and deadly accurate. Because beneath the respectable surface of Councillors and business owners, their wives and all the the other folk of dubious means of support lies an unpleasant truth: that these people are for the most part criminals, cheats, and liars. And in some cases their actions lead to murder.

In Flaxborough, thankfully, the police have the superb Inspector Purbright who understands exactly what these people are like and what they are capable of. And Colin Watson delivers each of these books with superb writing that looks simple but which is the work of a master.

Pulp – Charles Bukowski
Bukowskis final novel, a pastiche of the kind of noir detective story in which the detective doesn’t detect, just stumbles around getting beaten up until the case resolves itself. A bit like life. Which is pretty much the point of the book. It is also about death and in fact the central character, Nicky Belane, may already be dead when the book opens and this is his rite of passage.

Bukowski substitutes the weird characters of America’s underbelly with weird characters from its fictional psyche. Aliens, Lady Death, a succession of stupid bartenders presiding over bars with one person in them, usually aggressive. The only real character is the man who wants evidence of his wife’s infidelity and then gets angry about it, turning his fear and his ire on the detective he has hired.

The whole thing is written in Bukowski’s tight, unflinching style and is a real joy to read.

The Hour Of The Star – Clarice Lispector
A short, intense, and demaning work that defies comparison (despite attempts through the years). It also, in a number of ways, defies categorisation. This is often described as a portrait of an anti-heroine, but Macabea really is nothing of the sort. Born in a poor region of Brazil and living in a slum of Rio de Janairo she is an everygirl and a nogirl; representing the many tens of thousands who live similar lives, yet unique for she is an absolute innocent, as attached to the world as any star.

For all its intensity and introspection there is a lightness of touch to the style that creates an easy read. The book can be finished in a few hours, but it is a story that will stay a lifetime because inconsequential details and events start to surface long after the covers are closed and Macabea has died.

There is an intriguing subtext as well in that the narrator at one point admits he is her boss (although he also calls himself a writer and speaks of her boss in the third person). The whole thing is also a metatext as we are privy to the thoughts of the (fictional) author not only about the character with whom he is falling in love despite her having no real redeeming features, but about the process of creating her and telling her story.

Definitely a book to return to.

Lonelyheart 4122 – Colin Watson
Lonely women disappear, apparently after making use of a matrimonial service. The police investigate, but the set-up seems to be above board and fool-proof. But it’s not just the police who are investigating and we are introduced to one of the truly enigmatic characters of crime fiction, Lucilla Teatime. From what we learn of her, one suspects she is the type of women who spent the second world war being parachuted into occupied Europe. Whatever her past (which is not altogether on the right side of the law), she develops into a wonderful addition to this series.

As well as all the other praise I could heap on these novels, it is their subtlety I love. Watson does not spend pages telling us about the motives of characters. They are there in front of us. Only once is made explicit in this story and even then if you blink, you miss it. It is that level of respect for the reader, that level of confidence and intelligence in the writer that I really do appreciate in an age when subtlety has become something of a lost art.

Charity Ends At Home – Colin Watson
Another fine example of Watson’s work with a wonderful portrait of a couple gleaned mostly from the people around them and those questioned during the murder investigation. The story is approached obliquely and even the red herring does not look red, smell of fish or swim about.

The Flaxborough Crab – Colin Watson
Goings-on in the world of medicine as seen through the prism of Flaxborough. Watson’s trademark dry wit creates convincing portraits of people and a time. It also dissects social attitudes and finds them wanting.

Plaster Sinners – Colin Watson
This is an altogether more sombre book, despite the ‘guest appearance’ of a London DI whose method of working is to upset people and see what happens. It is sombre because it involves family and the lengths to which some (in this case, landed gentry) will go to cover up past indiscretions. To match the mood we get an excellent story, equally wonderful characters, and Watson’s acidity aimed at the usual targets – very often the institutions that dehumanise us.

The Land Of Mist – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
Thirteen years after his last outing, Professor Challenger is revived as a minor character (to Malone’s central role) in this work. Malone, still working for his newspaper is tasked with writing a series of articles (along with Enid Challenger, the Professor’s daughter) about religion. Each week they take a different one and eventually attend a Spiritualist meeting. Thereafter, Malone investigates much more deeply and becomes convinced of the truth that lies behind Spiritualism.

Not so much a novel as a means of presenting a Spiritualist case to the public, this is nonetheless well written and thoughtful (if at times overly sentimental). Doyle’s involvement with Spiritualism is well known and he was clearly well read and well versed. If nothing else this is an interesting fictional documentation of a movement that gripped the public imagination in the aftermath of the First World War.

Blue Murder – Colin Watson
Whilst the humour is still there, this is a much more serious outing and with a much more convoluted (although plausible) plot. The focus here is on a group of outsiders – a team of journalists from a Sunday newspaper intent on digging the dirt on what they have been told is the production of blue films by the local photographic society. As a background, it could not be more relevant as it is clear the newspaper in question is modelled on a newspaper that is mired in sleaze of its own making.

The story itself also grows out of the misery caused by the sanctimonious dirt digging of such newspapers and the collateral damage that ensues. As such it is the most realistic of the Flaxborough novels.

Whatever’s Been Going On At Mumblesby? – Colin Watson
Snobbery with violence. It’s the title of a book by Colin Watson in which he discusses murder mysteries. It can also apply to this, his final novel. Although there is a degree of exaggeration in his character portraits, it is only a degree. He has caught exactly the degree to which certain people think they are (a) above the law and (b) entitled to behave exactly as they wish toward people not in their own feral group. Exactly how that manifests is the fascinating plot of this book.

I was a little disappointed by the device used toward the end (letter left to be opened in the event of death explaining most of the plot), although given that it was a lawyer, not entirely out of character. That aside, a wonderful addition to the Flaxborough series.

In A German Pension – Katherine Mansfield
Considered by Mansfield to be an immature work, this may be true compared with her later stories, but by anyone else’s standards, these are first class. For the most part these are studies of people staying in a German hotel for a ‘cure’. And whilst they veer slightly toward caricature, that is simply a device by which to heighten points of interest rather create grotesques. Indeed, far from being critical of Germans (as some have suggested) it strikes me as being a far more universal critique of the kind of pretentiousness to be found in any upper-middle class group of people who can afford to take a few months away from ‘normal’ life to stay in a hotel and indulge in pampering their bodies.

The narrator/observer is always coy about their own reason for being there and one really only need look at Mansfield’s own life to fill in that background. And even if they are to be regarded as immature works, it is clear that as an author she already has a keen eye and a way with words that builds with assured strokes convincing and sometimes humorous portraits of people.

There are also other stories here which owe more to fiction than observation as they look into events and lives to which Mansfield probably had no direct access. That these are interleaved quite seamlessly with the other works is a testament to her work and they provide a wonderful contrast to the lives of the privileged and their petty concerns.

The Sleeper Awakes – H G Wells
One of Wells’ fictions – a future history in which a man goes into a coma, is left a fortune, and on waking finds he owns half the planet and that those administering in his name have created the kind of society we can see evolving at this very moment. Giant corporations rule, democracy is dead, the workers earn just enough to live in company workhouses and the wealthy migrate to Pleasure Cities.

Unfortunately, fascinating as it is, the story on which this is hung is thin stuff and is clearly a device for Wells’ warning about what the future might hold. If it is read as political tract, it works a lot better, but even then it cannot be considered one of Wells’ better fictions. Neither fish nor fowl, even Wells wasn’t that happy with it. It was written in haste as a serial and he extensively rewrote it when it became a novel. Even then, it is clear the flaw is in the structure and without changing that it was never going to be more than one of his ‘other’ works.

The Mystery Of A Butcher’s Shop – Gladys Mitchell
Superb. Glorious. I have always enjoyed Mitchell’s books. Far superior to Christie in every way in my opinion. Better written. More intriguing plots . A central character far better conceived (and as ageless) as any other detective in fiction. And not afraid to be off the wall. Indeed, it is the battiness and sheer fun of the puzzle in Mitchell’s books that I find so attractive.

In this, a dismembered and headless body is found one morning hanging in a butcher’s shop. Who it is and how it got there takes us back to a fairly stard country house scenario but with a cast of characters that are broadly drawn but intriguing. And one by one they all fall under suspicion and indeed most of them had opportunity. But piecing it all together and always one step ahead of the police with her speculations is Mrs Bradley.

If you enjoy golden age detective fiction then you should give Mitchell a go. Her work is sadly neglected, only about ten of her sixty plus novels are in print. But they can be found if you hunt them out.