Saturday, 29 December 2007

Peter Duck - Arthur Ransome

A ripping yarn with convincingly nasty pirates, buried treasure, adventure on the high seas, a ‘desert’ island, and that particularly comforting homeliness that comes with companionship, mugs of cocoa, and knowing that all will turn out as it should.

I was introduced to the books of Arthur Ransome by a friend when I was nine years old. We lived in Norwich at the time and it was a revelation to me to read books some of which were set in a landscape (the Broads) that I knew. I later became familiar with the Lake District and re-readings of the books took on an extra layer of immediacy.

The ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books consequently have an emotional appeal as they are forever associated with my childhood. Anyone who reads a lot will have similar childhood favourites that they turn to for comfort as they have the power to return us to a time in which we were, if only within the space created by the book, happy and secure.

It is not easy to assess whether such books are well written books (although one could argue quite convincingly that if they have such a power over the years, they are good books). Arthur Ransome certainly has a gift for story telling (taking what are often quite mundane events and imbuing them with a rich dimension of adventure), for creating wonderful characters (not least strong female roles), and for writing books that appeal to children and adults alike (it is not a new phenomenon, despite what some publishers would have us believe).

I have had copies of these books on my shelves for forty years and more. My last set (paperbacks) fell to pieces and I am finally treating myself to the hardbacks and reading them with as much delight as the first time I encountered them.

Saturday, 22 December 2007

Extra(ordinary) People - Joanna Russ

For someone who is not a huge fan of science fiction, I have been reading a fair bit recently. Rather, I have been revisiting old favourites. And Joanna Russ’s work certainly comes into the category of favourites – of any genre. In fact, as far as I’m concerned she is one of the best writers I’ve ever read.

Her work is intelligent without relying on obscurity or cleverness; she writes with passion and clarity; tackles difficult subjects with ease, wit, and humour (which isn’t always the same thing); and has done more to stretch the boundaries of her chosen genre than most other writers.

Extra(ordinary) People is more than a collection of short works without quite being a novel. This, in itself, makes for an interesting and vibrant format where themes can be explored from different angles without creating the false or awkward situations that might be necessary in a single piece. These themes and ideas are carried forward in a way that unifies the pieces, even though they are outwardly disparate.

As well as the themes that are explored (of which more in a moment); there is a common underlying viewpoint that binds the stories.

A lesser writer would, perhaps, have made something of this structure, creating and peopling an elaborate back story, yet Russ has allowed the stories to do that through the voice of the central character(s). A sense of alien presence, of otherness, is conveyed through what is highlighted as absurd in humanity.

The stories in the book are about communication and about understanding what it is to be human, especially for one half of the human race. And this is why I have left the themes of this book until now. Russ is a feminist. And already I can hear the sound of hordes of sci-fi fans walking away. Which is strange and saddening. Yet it is no rare thing for sci-fi apologists to expound its ground breaking qualities whilst accepting books that are misogynistic, militaristic, or at best paternalistic without batting an eyelid or bruising their delicate consciences. Make one mention of the position of women in a future or alternative world and we are told this cannot be real sci-fi (unless of course the women in question are young, blonde, pneumatic and wearing skin tight space suits). The same holds for fantasy.

Yet some of the very best sci-fi and some of the very best fantasy has been and will continue to be written by, for, and about women. And long may it continue. I don’t want a literature that excludes half the planet’s population, or treats its members like a housewife in fifties sitcom or the help-maiden of some fascist ideology. That is degrading and downright unrealistic (unless the tale is about the degradation of women).

Russ examines the place and experience of women in the world. This world. Other worlds. She stands assumptions on their heads. She explores possibilities. She even discusses the nature of fiction. And she does it as part of a long and grand tradition of women writers in the genre. Yet it is not polemic. That makes for bad fiction. And if there is one thing that is certain, it is that Joanna Russ writes good fiction - extraordinary fiction.

Friday, 14 December 2007

Black Plumes - Margery Allingham

By the time Margery Allingham came to write Black Plumes (in 1939) she was well established as a first rate crime novelist. This was partly due to her creation, the much loved Albert Campion, but as this novel shows, she is a writer of great quality. A classical and well-crafted whodunit, this also happens to be a fine novel about how the atmosphere within an enclosed society can easily become soured by ambition, jealousy, and thwarted desire. It also proves that an Allingham book did not need Albert Campion to make it a success.

If I had any niggle, it was a slight over dependence on the ‘…in years to come X would remember this moment…’ device. Other than that it was a fine portrait of a claustrophobic situation, of fear and suspicion. There is an added piquancy to this, given that it was written in 1939, with dark clouds gathering over Europe for a second time in a generation.

The characters are well drawn and inhabit the story quite naturally, even though most are out of their natural environment. The plot is intriguing and contains some wonderfully dramatic set pieces. And always there is Allingham’s dry wit and wonderful observation, small touches of characterization that bring even the minor characters to life.

This would make a marvellous film. Rather, it would have made a marvellous film in the days when the British film industry was still good at this sort of thing – telling a great story with quality acting and highly professional cinematography. These days it would be done on television and treated as a lavish costume drama with some high profile adaptor changing the story for no apparent reason or it would be sent up in a treatment that producers would call ‘ironic’.

Given that Margery Allingham is a far better writer than Agatha Christie or Dorothy L Sayers, given that her stories are far better constructed, more intriguing, and peopled with much more believable characters, it seems a crime that her books are not all in print and readily available.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Collision with Chronos - Barrington J Bayley

I am not a huge fan of science fiction. I don’t mind the science and the exploration of ideas – these are vital, not just to science fiction, but to all literature in a scientific age. What I dislike in most books categorized as science fiction is the awful writing and the often right-wing political sympathies masquerading as forward thinking. I won’t name names as I know I will be jumped on good and proper by a bunch of people who won’t have anyone dump on their antediluvian darlings.

Barry Bayley is one of the science fiction authors I do like. For one thing, his science is good. He has a far better understanding of it than a lot of so-called scientists and science writers who have also turned out space operas. For another, he has an excellent grasp of social complexities and can explore this through the science and the science through social situations without having to stitch the two together and hold it together with a bolt through the neck.

And as if that wasn’t enough, he is a good writer. Even where the exploration of a scientific or philosophical idea is central to the story, it isn’t clunky exposition peopled with cardboard cut-outs. Bayley is a brilliant novelist, an extraordinary intellect, one who feels at home in the ‘genre’ he has chosen. It would not surprise me if you hadn’t heard of him, or if you had it was for the books he wrote to put food on the table.

Some of his books are now back in print in the US and some can be bought through Amazon. It is to the eternal shame of the UK publishing industry that Bayley isn’t on the shelf of every bookshop where he would outshine much of the turgid nonsense that is there.

Collision with Chronos is an exploration of time. Although some of the theories (from J W Dunne) have been expanded and superseded since the mid 1970s, it is nonetheless a fine, taut thriller that turns all the time-travelling clichés on their head or simply grinds them into dust. It also paints a horrifying picture of the evils of the ideology of ‘racial purists’ and how ideology is used to subvert scientific and other truths.

Friday, 7 December 2007

I Sit In Hanger Lane - Jack Trevor Story

I really do not understand why Jack Trevor Story’s books are not in print. They are classic works of social observation that transcend the period in which they were written. He writes clear, clean, and precise prose – not a word wasted in creating complex situations and casting his dark comic eye on the world. Even his pulp work (Sexton Blake, for example) is streets ahead of stuff that gets into print today. I would heartily recommend his work to anyone, especially people who themselves aspire to be authors. His work provides an example of how to write well. It also tells a great deal of truth about the life of a writer.

It is not difficult to keep a book in print these days. Nor is it expensive. Print-on-demand produces a book with a quality comparable with mass printing, and the publisher has no financial risk. Set up costs are low, books are printed only when they are wanted. It is true unit costs are higher, but overheads are correspondingly lower.

Of course, one hopes any enlightened publisher using this method would take the time to reset a text and check it for typos - an ideal job for any literate junior just entering the profession. They get experience working with books, learn the business, and are introduced to some quality writing into the bargain (which would be no bad thing).

And to finish, here is a little quiz. This book is about a screenwriter. So, list your top ten favourite movies (or the ten you’ve seen most recently, or any ten chosen at random). Now list the names of the people who wrote the screenplays. Do it without going to IMDB.

You will probably know the director’s name. You will invariably know the names of the actors in the lead roles. If the film is based on a book, you will probably know the author. But the screenwriter? Well, if you do, I bow down to you and give you a gold star.

Next time you watch the hype around a new movie, count the number of times the screenwriter gets interviewed along with the actors. Watch the credits on the movie and see where, in the list, the screenwriters are mentioned. And then wonder who wrote the treatment, who was then given the job of preparing a rough draft, who took that up to knock it into shape, who had to rewrite because an actor wasn’t happy with it, who had it taken away because it was no longer their property only to see someone else’s name added to the shooting script.

But, most of all, seek out Jack Trevor Story’s books.

Monday, 3 December 2007

The House of Doctor Dee - Peter Ackroyd

Man wanders round London a bit, has visions, and solves a riddle or two. It could be any Ackroyd book. But whilst not much happens in an Ackroyd book in a physical sense, he manages to treat his explorations of the psychogeography of London as if they were action.

I am a sucker for Ackroyd’s work as it mirrors my own interests and increases my understanding of those things. It is sometimes difficult to remember they are fiction (and given the truth of some of his subjects, one does at times wonder why he feels the need to invent – vide The Lambs of London).

And this is where my question about Doctor Dee lies. There is an incident in the book, albeit brief, that seemed to me to be there for no good reason other than to shock the reader. Perhaps it had some abstruse alchemical symbolism, but if that was the case it was never drawn upon or developed. Indeed, it seemed a flash of cruelty for the sake of cruelty and it nearly made me give up on the book. I persisted to see if the wanton destruction of an animal led somewhere. It did not.

I do not object to violence in books, any more than I object to sex or any other ‘contentious’ content. That is, I do not object to it if is essential to the work and serves a purpose other than titillation. Otherwise, like any other story element, if it does not serve to further the story, it should be removed as it is bad writing. This is not normally something of which Peter Ackroyd can be accused. I believe that in this instance it is.

The Metatemporal Detective - Michael Moorcock

This collection of shorter works brings together Mike Moorcock’s Seaton Begg stories. The stories come from different periods of Mike’s writing, but cohere wonderfully in what is, essentially, the work of a mature and profound writer having a bit of fun. These romps follow the adventures of Begg (a multiversal Sexton Blake) in his sparring with Zenith the Albino.

Anyone who knows me will also know that I cannot be objective in assessing Mike’s work. I love it. Even those things he dashed off in a few days to help pay the bills and keep ‘New Worlds’ going (and if ever there was a good literary cause, it was that).

So what is there to discuss?


Yup. Sorry Mike, but whoever proofread this book did a lousy job. The only consolation being that it seems to be fairly standard these days. Now, anyone who has prepared a script for publication (either as writer or editor) will tell you it is impossible to catch all the errors. Every book has them. Most of the time, we do not notice them, and when we do we usually glide over them. But when it is a character’s name, or when they pile up; when an author or editor makes a fundamental mistake and it gets repeated throughout a book; then we have every right to wonder if standards have slipped. Or perhaps they have been pushed in order to speed up a process that treats books like beans – pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap, get the new stock in, and screw the producer.