Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Damp Squid – Jeremy Butterfield

It is, perhaps, appropriate that I should round off the year’s reading with such a fascinating little book (thanks, Heather) on words, grammar, and the history of dictionary making. I am a bit of a word nerd. Their history, various contexts, and their evolution are something I find endlessly intriguing. I am also aware that a formal study of linguistics and grammar are way beyond my capacities. It was a real pleasure, then, to pick up a book like this and understand it all.

Through an explanation of how modern dictionaries are compiled and the definitions of words are checked against everyday use, we are shown how the English language evolved, why the spelling of English words is notoriously quirky, and the ways in which certain words group together.

What I found most interesting is the way in which language evolves. This causes a great deal of anguish to those who believe there is a single correct form of English and that not using this is responsible for all sorts of moral degradation. But dictionaries, like rules of grammar, can only describe how language is used by people; they cannot dictate.

Language is a truly magical invention. I do believe that we should all strive to know it as best we can so that we might all communicate more effectively. That is not going to be done by learning rules, but through expanded means of use. We should all read more and more widely. We should all write more and explore the subtleties of the language. Perhaps, just perhaps, all those words would work a bit of magic and the future would be more peaceful.

Monday, 29 December 2008

The Dain Curse - Dashiell Hammett

This is a curious beast of a book. Written in parts for serialisation, the story is deliberately broken into episodes that avoid the traditional cliff-hanger of run-of-the-mill pulp mysteries. Indeed, it eschews the expected violent climax as well. It is this, in part, which lifts it above other detective thrillers. Hammett was never afraid to tell the story the way he wanted, rather than as convention expected.

Yet for all the move away from convention, Hammett is clearly an expert at those aspects of the story where so many others fail. The opening, though downbeat, is immediately intriguing. Even before we know what is going on, we are hooked. Delivered in a style that seems to be a weary seen-it-all narration, we are nonetheless treated to sharp descriptions, wonderful dialogue, and a spareness that takes us into the heart of the story.

Starting with a diamond robbery, moving on to a cult, with a bit of drug taking and a number of clearly unbalanced characters, Hammett leads us calmly through the maze, pointing out some routes, leaving us to find the others.

This isn’t a whodunit (although there are aspects of a puzzle about the work, and the solution is clear once pointed out) any more than it is a ‘thriller’. This is another case for the Continental Op. Yet at the heart of it, there are real people and whilst the nameless narrator may be hardened and made cynical by the things he has seen, he is a much more complex character. Indeed, we are never quite sure in the end what his feelings are for Gabrielle. It is not a relationship that could ever work, but they do seem to develop a genuine regard for one another as they book progresses.

The intriguing story aside (and Hammett gets better – his next novel is The Maltese Falcon, after all), Hammett can and should be read for the way in which he uses the language. Nothing is wasted, everything pared down to its essential. Yet he still creates rich sceneries and populates them with wonderful characters. Even the minor characters have a vivid reality that more florid writers never attain. And to top it all, he writes excellent stories.

Lyttelton's Britain - Iain Pattinson

For those of you not au fait with the world of BBC’s Radio 4, this derives from the hugely popular comedy quiz series I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue. This anarchic, funny, and extremely clever show kept me amused for years. By turns surreal and cheeky, it proved week after week that comedy can be subtle, gentle and side-splittingly funny. I have the stitches to prove it.

One of the many highlights was the introduction to each show, which toured the country. Humphrey Lyttleton would say something about the town in which the show was being recorded before introducing the teams. These short introductions played fast and loose with the facts, but they were always witty and often downright rude – in all sorts of ways. I suspect the only reason the show got away with it for so long is that Humphrey Lyttelton delivered these pieces with such charm and with perfect comedy timing.

Some of them have been collected in this small volume. It is not often the written word can make me laugh out loud. This book kept doing it.

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Alan Moor & Kevin O'Neill

It is interesting to chart the development of an idea over the three volumes of this work. In the first volume we are presented with an intriguing conceit, namely that there was a group of adventurers recruited by British Intelligence which operated at the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth. Drawn from the ranks of fiction they, of course, inhabit a fictional/alternative world, where the events in the books from which they are drawn actually took place.

Moore develops this idea inventively and makes wonderful use of characters and situations familiar to many, yet superbly melded into a unique vision. And whereas the characters are taken from books that persons of a certain age (ahem) would have read in their childhood, Moore is not afraid to allow these adult characters to have adult lives.

The first volume contains an extended prose piece by Alan Moore, recounting an adventure of Allan Quatermain that prefigures the second volume of adventures. Perhaps lacking the same impact as the first series/volume, the second set of adventures are set directly after the first at the time of the Martian invasion as imagined by H G Wells. The plot is again intriguing (if a little thin) and we learn a great deal more about the League and the fact that it is not the first of its kind. For me, however, it is ‘The New Traveller’s Almanac’ that makes this second volume. It gathers together reports of travels around the world made by various League members. Every fictional realm (ancient and modern) seems to have been drawn into this wonderful piece of work. Many are obscure and it is great fun trying to work out the references without resorting to the computer.

The third volume was compiled as a book (rather than released as a series of comics before being collected). This brings the tale up to date, set as it is in a post-1984 world that has a great deal in common with V For Vendetta. In this, Murray and Quatermain steal a dossier that contains fragmentary evidence of the earlier Leagues. Their adventures are interspersed with ‘reproductions’ of these fragments. Altogether a highly entertaining and worthy final volume to the series, bringing us a character that made me shudder even more than Moreau’s version of Rupert Bear.

Thursday, 25 December 2008

Gitanjali - Rabindranath Tagore

Gitanjali is a truly remarkable collection of poems. The title translates (from Bengali) as ‘song offerings’, which gives a clue to their dual nature. For these are love poems which, whilst they are couched in terms of a personal love, speak also of a love of the divine. They are love songs, they are hymns.

Each poem is short but rich in imagery. At first reading these images seem simple, conjuring an ordinary life that has been coloured by love. One can easily imagine them being written and left for the person the poet has fallen in love with. Yet these images unfold, layer after layer, to reveal deeper and deeper meaning. The poems also, as they progress through the sequence, become more openly spiritual. Yet they never lose their power as love poems, for that is what they are. The poet has fallen under the spell of the divine and recognizes it for what it is.

I have read this collection a number of times now and I have always found within it a peace that is not easily found elsewhere. There is much here that resonates with the world and with personal experience. Different parts stand forward depending on the times, but there always seems to be something there within these gentle and simple words.

If you do not know the work of Tagore, I would urge you to seek it out.

Time Bites - Doris Lessing

This collection spans nearly three decades and contains a wide variety of views and reviews. Topics range from Sufism to the destruction of Zimbabwe, from cats to a number of observations on writers past and present. As such it is a much clearer view into the mind of a remarkable writer than one gets from her fiction.

Two things are readily apparent. The first is that Lessing is (and knows she is) human. That is, she has all the warmth, empathy, and conflicts that go with being not just a part of the race but a keen observer of the same. Her passions are clear, his dislikes, equally so. And she is not afraid to speak of either.

The second thing that is clear is that she has a prodigious command of the medium in she works. Lessing is an unfussy stylist. She can say something powerfully and eloquently in a few words and feels no need to embellish that. And once something is said, that too is considered enough. No pretty frame. Just the picture.

There is a third element to Lessing that also becomes clear as you read this collection. A fierce and clear-eyed intelligence. Her knowledge is prodigious, but she is more than knowledgeable. She is also wise. She has learned to ask searching questions, the contemplation of which take us further forward in our understanding of the world. And she asks them in a way that engages us all. This is rare and it is a blessing for which we should all be thankful.

Wednesday, 24 December 2008

Mr Campion's Falcon - Youngman Carter

Margery Allingham and her husband Philip Youngman Carter would often talk through her books as she was developing them, so he was intimately familiar with the characters, the style, and the underlying ‘feel’ of her work. When she died, he completed her final book and wrote two more; one based on an idea of his wife’s and this.

For all his familiarity with his wife’s work, this is not an attempt to reproduce what she had done. Her voice is there, in the background, along with what they must have shared (such as a sense of humour), but this is distinctly Youngman Carter’s book.

Rather than go for a complex psychological portrait, this is a thriller with a reasonably complex plot, in which Albert Campion is allowed to be his age. The elements of the plot and the characters are fairly typical of this kind of book, but Youngman Carter handles it all with ease.

The writing itself does not push any boundaries as Margery Allingham was wont to do. A steady style and straightforward narrative are used to tell a well-thought out story. This may seem unremarkable, but the simplicity of the entertainment we are offered is a rarity these days and this work (from 1970) is all the more refreshing for it. A worthy successor to Margery Allingham’s Campion books.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Building A Bridge To The 18th Century - Neil Postman

I first read Postman’s work in 1972, just before going to College. It was his book Teaching as a Subversive Activity (co written Charles Weingartner). Since then I have read much of his work, which made this book a touch disappointing as it is a re-statement of his position on a number of interrelated issues – although it makes a fitting final book and does explain why he takes the position he does.

In essence, his argument is that we need to step back from the headlong rush into a technology driven future and take control of futures. To do this, we need to look at the eighteenth century and see how Rationalist notions of progress were balanced with Romantic dislike of the tyranny of the machine.

There are wider issues under discussion, but Postman believes we have ditched a balanced approach (and may have done so as a result of the pernicious effects of technological advancements). He doesn’t offer answers to his concerns in the sense of trying to sell a particular vision of the future. What he does, as he has always done, is urge us all to question the world about us and not take it at face value.

Indeed, the most important part of the book (as it was with Teaching as a Subversive Activity) is suggesting ways in which we can ask questions – and pointing out why this is likely to meet with resistance.

For those of you who do not know Postman’s work, I would urge you to seek it out. This book is a good place to start as it gives an overview of his thinking. His was an important voice in educational discussion in the ‘60s and ‘70s and he rightly became an acclaimed cultural critic. His writing style is easy, yet he makes very cogent and often fundamental points about the problems of modern western culture. And once you get a sense of his position from this work, his others are well worth reading, thinking about, and acting upon.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Jealousy - Alain Robbe-Grillet

Renowned for his ‘experimental’ approach to writing, Robbe-Grillet does not experiment with style, but with construction. Jealousy (more correctly Jalousie – as the jalousie windows play an important part in the work) is a series of images, often repeating, but never quite exactly so. Time is fragmented, perspectives altered, and obsessive attention is given to minute detail. As for plot… There is a hint of development, but it is impossible to say whether this is actual or in the eye and imagination of the narrator.

The work revolves around the relationship between A… (a married woman) and her neighbour Franck. The narrator is impersonal, although it can be assumed it is A…’s husband, not least because the work implies three people in the house and the narrator has an intimate knowledge of A…’s movements and actions. The story focuses on a trip that A… and Franck make to a town, making an unscheduled overnight stay when the car they travel in breaks down.

The obsessive replaying of scenes, the minute variations in which the narrator explores the possibilities, the layer upon layer of detail that paints a claustrophobic picture, suits the work well. There is no objective truth and we can never be sure how much the narrator’s obsession and jealousy is distorting the picture.

Although the work is low key, languid (as befits the setting of a banana plantation), there are hints of violence. A brief scene in which A… is described as sprawled on her bed (out of character with her careful, neat style). Further brief descriptions of what may be blood running thickly from the room and onto the veranda. Yet even this may just be a flash of anger on the part of the narrator, a fantasy revenge that never happens.

Robbe-Grillet has succeeded (for me) in producing an intriguing, almost hypnotic piece of writing. It has a cinematic quality, which is hardly surprising, but which is vividly realised. It certainly has every right to be considered an important work of literature. Not only is it an important work in terms of eschewing conventional narrative; it shows that psychological insight can be gained without once discussing or being let into the thoughts of the narrator other than by implication.

This is not a book everyone will enjoy (although I certainly did), but I do think it is a book that anyone serious about literature and about writing should read.

Saturday, 22 November 2008

V For Vendetta - Alan Moore & David Lloyd

This is the first time I have had the opportunity to sit down with the whole thing and read it straight through. I caught a fair bit of it when it first appeared, but had to rely on a friend bringing it to work. Consequently, the impact was lessened and I was a bit hazy about the continuity of the tale.

Dark, disturbing, morally ambiguous, this is a tale of the near future (well, the near past, now, but it has that same status as 1984 – the actual date is not important). In a world shattered by war, Britain slides into fascism, repeating the horrors of Nazi Germany with an ease that is both disturbing and highly believable.

Against this grim background rises the masked figure of a new Guido Fawkes, preaching anarchy (in its proper sense – not the version spun by our politicians). But this is no straightforward tale of good versus evil. For the good must be destructive in order to sweep away the bad; it must unleash forces over which it can have no direct control in the hope that sense will prevail and that a new, gentler and truly anarchic system will prevail. It is, perhaps, the third Luther Arkwright that should have been written.

But this is not just a complex political polemic. It is a well told tale with all the complexities of a novel. The characters have depth and behave in believable ways. The story develops along credible lines. And we are left to make up our own minds.

And on top of this we have a dynamic graphic element that works in perfect partnership with the story. There are no sound effects and no thought bubbles. The whole is achieved through speech and through action; and it is achieved with clarity and power (an achievement that I doubt could be matched in a straight novel). Much of the storytelling is carried by the pictures. They are not intricate, but they do carry detailed information.

If there is anyone who has doubts about the validity of the graphic novel as a serious literary form, they should read this.

How I Live Now - Meg Rosoff

This is not a book I would have picked off the shelf whilst browsing, or if I had, it would have gone straight back. The blurb doesn’t do the story justice and the cover of the edition I have… well, there is a whole discussion to be had about cover design, but not here.

This is a work that lies on the borderlands of dystopian fiction. A teenage girl, staying with cousins in the UK, lives through a period of war and we follow how their relationships develop. The background details are deliberately vague, although I suspect most young teenagers would take a bit more interest than this unworldly bunch – especially as their mother is involved in peacekeeping efforts.

Rosoff has a pleasingly spare style, one that suits her narrator’s voice. And her narrator, thankfully, develops. I prefer my dystopias to be darker than this (although this is far from light). Plus, there seemed to be more here than was strictly necessary. The basic premiss of a group of children surviving the break down of society during war is enough to make a good story. I’m not sure the extra layers added anything to the story, but they are handled without fuss.

Where this book did excel is in the honest way it handles the relationships between the characters. It is hard enough and confusing enough experiencing love and loss, but conveying these emotions simply and without false sentimentality is much more difficult. The key, I believe is in the simplicity. There is no need to dress these up. Rosoff shows us what is happening and uses the device of a first person narrator to best effect.

Now, about that cover…

Monday, 17 November 2008

The Adventures Of Alyx - Joanna Russ

This volume collects Russ’s first novel Picnic on Paradise together with the short stories she also wrote about the central character. In her own time, Alyx makes her way as a thief and an adventurer. Pulled from the distant past accidentally and with no hope of return, she is stranded in a world she does not understand amongst people who do not know what to do with her. Although that world is in our future, it casts a keen eye on the absurdities of our own time.

These are beautifully crafted stories. Russ handles words like a magician, creating characters, scenes, and stories with a seeming effortless use of language. The flow of language and the flow of story complement one another to perfection. The stories are powerful in themselves, but they also tap into an elemental power that comes with all good storytelling – the feeling that you are in the presence of a gifted bard who talks to you directly.

There is a natural talent at work here, some writers do have this. But it is a talent that has been nurtured with great care and which serves a bright, intelligent, compassionate, and fun loving mind.

One can only assume that such an accomplished writer is mostly out of print because of her chosen genre – science fiction. It annoys me (as anyone who reads these posts will know) that there are so many pioneering works of this nature that languish unseen, whilst the darlings of today’s literati plunder the genre and present the shiny baubles they have stolen from their excavations as something they have invented themselves, never quite daring to call it sf, never daring to acknowledge they are neither the first nor the best.

Joanna Russ was one of the first and she is still one of the best.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The Guérillères – Monique Wittig

This book tells of a future war between the sexes and celebrates the women who took part and the society they subsequently create. It was far from being the first novel to examine such a subject. It was the first to lift it from the misogynistic realms of lurid pulp fiction. This, in itself, is sufficient to mark it out as a landmark piece of fiction.

But Monique Wittig has gone way beyond this, for she has written in a manner in keeping with the new society she depicts. Early in the novel, we are told of a book that women carry known as a feminary. Essentially, it is a notebook containing printed inscriptions in which women write down thoughts, descriptions, and the like. The novel is exactly that.

Set out like an epic prose poem, like a Vedic collection of hymns, the book is a series of short, intense passages. Seemingly disjointed, these weave slowly together to create a rich tapestry that relates the story of the war and the lives of women after hostilities are over. The whole piece is mythical in quality, sometimes dreamlike, always a celebration. Certainly the descriptions of women in their new society are powerful, passionate, loving depictions of a people finally free of the slavery to which they have so long been subjected.

For me, this is writing at its best – passion, art, and exacting technique working together to produce a beautifully flowing text. It is a transcendent piece of fiction. There is, after all, a strong feminist message here, but we are never lectured. There is a vibrant sense of a new society about which we are told nothing and shown everything. There is poetry. There is a sense of otherness. It is a shame that Monique Wittig published so little. It a cause for celebration that she gave us this remarkable book.

Monday, 3 November 2008

The Müller-Fokker Effect – John Sladek

This was John Sladek’s second and his most experimental novel. Whilst it was rightly hailed by critics as being in the same league as Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 (although I think it is far better than anything Vonnegut ever produced), it is not such an easy read as his other work.

The usual cast of characters is to be found, and the targets of Sladek’s satire are ripe. I know some have criticised him in the past for trying to hit too many in a book, but for me it is a strength of his work. He knows that his readers are intelligent and that if he takes a few well-aimed shots, they are quite capable of seeing all the other absurdities for themselves.

But hidden beneath the satire and the slapstick (the riot at the end is… well… a riot) there is a strong work that focuses on the way in which so much of what goes on in the world is smoke and mirrors. Facades to fool others and, very often, facades to fool ourselves.

Like all his work, this is well written. The prose is concise; he has a great ear for speech, and is one of the few writers I know who can write a convincing party scene with all the comings and goings and snatches of conversation. The story, too, is beautifully structured and pays re-reading as he interlaces scenes and events in such a way that the full picture (and the significance of events early in the book) only becomes apparent toward the end.

Given that the structure and some of the content is ‘experimental’, some people might consider giving this a miss. It would be a shame if they did as it is a truly great book.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Lolly Willowes - Sylvia Townsend Warner

It is not often you pick up a book you have never read before and fall in love with it. For me, Lolly Willowes is one of those books. I knew of the author because of her excellent Kingdoms of Elfin, but for some strange reason I have never read anything else by her. Until now. Which just goes to show what an idiot I am.

This is a beautifully written book. The structure is simple, the narrative flows like a dream (literally and metaphorically), and whilst Warner has an assured and unique voice, it never intrudes. Even the impassioned polemic toward the end is so very much in character, that its universal appeal is also entirely personal to Laura herself.

Laura Willowes is the central character of the book. A self-effacing, maiden aunt whose life has been quiet and disregarded, she decides at the age of forty-eight to escape from her extended family in London and live alone in a small village. There, she gives herself up to the Devil in order to protect her freedom.

From my own perspective, the ‘Devil’ of the book is much closer to a primeval Myrddin figure, who is guardian of the land. For the purpose of the book, it is an interesting twist. Women who seek independence, who wish to be regarded as human beings in their own right, have long been regarded as ‘wicked’. Warner plays on this and subverts the idea. It will be interesting to discover whether this is developed in her later books.

The tale is told with a gentle, tender wit. Warner clearly loves Laura and applauds her independence. I could only wish that I had discovered this book (and her others) much earlier. I am pleased that I can look forward to reading them for the first time.

Sunday, 26 October 2008

To Write Like A Woman - Joanna Russ

A collection of essays in literary criticism and feminism may sound, to some, a dull thing. These are people who do not know the writings of Joanna Russ. To begin with, she knows what she is talking about. Not only is she intelligent, but she is also wise. These two qualities do not always go together, especially in this field. And as if that was not enough, she is a successful writer of fiction (fantasy and science fiction).

As a basis for tackling her subjects in these essays, that would be enough to set Russ apart from most other literary critics. But she has another quality that is even rarer. Her writing is clear. She avoids jargon, she avoids the dull and often meaningless schools of thought normally associated with literary criticism. And what we get are essays that cast a bright, often penetrating, light on science fiction and fantasy. They offer original insights into work, they expound the importance of good science fiction and fantasy, and they place such works firmly within the bounds of legitimate concern for feminists and students of literature alike.

Yet the heap of praise is not yet finished. For these essays are witty. They do not poke fun, they do not denigrate (and they are not ‘man hating’). They are fun. It is clear that Russ loves words, is passionate about her subject (and sometimes despairing at what the education system does to women), and clearly enjoys the process of writing about writing. The cherry, if you like, on the icing, on top of the cream cake. Yum.

If you read science fiction and fantasy and want to see what an original feminist thinker has to say on the subject; if you are a writer (of anything); if you want to see how literary criticism should be written (although I give you fair warning that you’ll find it spoils you, that other work will seem dull ever afterwards), this is the book for you.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

The Reproductive System - John Sladek

In a dusty, dying town a decision is made that will change the world forever. That could be the log line for a truly awful book or TV movie. But this is John Sladek and we are in for a rollercoaster ride of wonderful invention and barbed humour (or, in this case, barbied humour).

The town’s main industry is doll making (a single doll based on the town’s only famous daughter who became a child star in the movies). The town’s main industry is on its last legs. And at a board meeting they decide that the only way to revive their fortunes is to get a research grant from the government. All they have to do is decide what would interest the government. The answer: a machine that reproduces itself.

This is Sladek’s first novel and it is, perhaps, a little less tightly written than others, but it does not suffer from this. Indeed, the loose style fits the book perfectly. As his work becomes tighter, it becomes darker. Even so, all of Sladek’s targets are well in sight and they are ridiculed with a savage wit.

The machines, of course, begin to reproduce themselves. They begin to take over the world. A cast of eccentric characters become embroiled. Which sounds commonplace. Yet Sladek is a wonderful writer. Economical, sharp, clever, always quick to see a joke, just as quick to demolish the idiocies of the world about him.

Even better is that beneath this enjoyable surface, roiling with humour and satire, is a deeper discussion about the nature of the world in which we live and the way in which we treat it and our fellows. This never becomes a lecture; it never gets in the way of the story. It is the story. And this is Sladek’s real skill. It is a shame his work is now so difficult to get.

Wednesday, 15 October 2008

The Napoleon of Notting Hill - G K Chesterton

This was written (1904) in the ‘good old days’ when it was easier for an author to write a wide range of books without their editors, book shops, critics, or the reading public getting their undergarments knotted or going into ecstasies about ‘genre busting’ work.

Chesterton sets his work in the future, but this is not a work of science fiction. It is a device by which the story can be told most effectively. Chesterton’s future is unchanged from the world of 1904 – horse drawn cabs, top hats, astonishing complacency amongst the upper and merchant classes. By creating a familiar setting, the impact of the underlying themes of the work is heightened.

On the surface it is a frivolous and humorous tale of a future king (chosen at random by lottery) who, for a joke, draws up a charter that divides London into self-contained city states. Most people take it for the annoying joke that it is, but the Provost of Notting Hill takes it seriously. When the Provosts of other boroughs propose putting part of a road through Notting Hill (and demolishing a row of houses in the process) civil war breaks out.

Chesterton allows the book to darken. Barricades go up. Blood is spilled. People die. Urban warfare is described with chilling accuracy. The insanity of war is laid bare. And a decade after publication, there was not one person left in Europe who did not understand what that meant.

Within the tale, we find an examination of patriotism and of the horrors of a society divided against itself. It is also an examination of what happens when individuals are at war with themselves, unable to integrate seemingly disparate natures.

Chesterton manages all this in a well structured and well paced tale. The mood, as already noted, begins on a light note, becomes increasingly darker, and ends in the pitch dark after a finale that is quite breathtaking. Yet in all the darkness there is hope and there is rebirth.

It is a book to enjoy. It is a book to make you think. What more could you ask?

Monday, 6 October 2008

The Outsider - Albert Camus

We all have books that, no matter how far we have travelled since we read them, linger in the memory and become seminal moments in our understanding of the world. They don’t have to be ‘literary’ works. For me, they often are (although a definition of 'literary' is a task for another day), and The Outsider is one of them.

In part this is due to the fact that I read closely a number of times in a short period (one of those the original French – with a dictionary). But mostly it was the startling clarity of the language and the simplicity of the story. These same qualities struck me again when I read the book this weekend.

Vivid scenes are burned in the memory as if by that Algerian sun. And again I felt that awful sense of confusion when Meursault walks along the beach and shoots his victim. Blinded by the sun, dazed by the heat.

I know many people find the novel to be emotionally cold. And it is interesting to ponder what fate would befall a character like Meursault these days. He would probably be diagnosed as being somewhere on the autistic spectrum, neatly sidestepping the argument Camus was trying to make.

If you haven’t read any Camus because of that ‘literary’ reputation, you must at least give this book a try. The power lies in the open, straightforward honesty of the work. Indeed, for me it is one of the treasures of modern western literature. Compact, beautifully written (it was one of the works that made we want to be a writer), simple. That last is its real strength, the thing that separates it from lesser work. Many writers would have been tempted to over think the idea. Camus lets the very language show us the story.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

Starcross - Philip Reeve

This is the second of Reeve’s ‘Larklight’ series. Like its predecessor, it is a wonderful, delicious, ripping yarn. And as a bonus, the beautifully written narrative is copiously illustrated by David Wyatt. Between them, Reeve and Wyatt have created a reading experience that is truly pleasurable.

Of course, it is a given that you are able to enjoy this kind of steam punk extravaganza with its British Empire in space, ships flying under the power of Newtonian alchemy, and tongue firmly in cheek. If you don’t, then you may wonder what the fuss is about. It is certainly a very different kind of story to Reeve’s ‘Mortal Engines’ quartet – although an underlying similarity can be seen.

What all of Reeve’s work has in common is good writing. Having seen some of his early pre-publication material, it is clear he is an author that works hard at his craft. Having wonderful flights of imagination and construction alternative worlds and intriguing plots is one thing. Giving voice to those stories is quite another. And Mr Colfer, take note. The time travelling element was handled with far greater plausibility than your own recent attempt.

The Larklight books are a perfect blend of art and craft, lit by a vivid imagination and a wicked sense of humour. I am certainly looking forward to the next, and rather hoping there may be more (but only if the author and illustrator think they can do it justice, rather than because the market demands).

Sunday, 28 September 2008

Lud-in-the-Mist - Hope Mirrlees

A gentle fairy tale with allegorical overtones, this is written in a slightly naïve style that suits the subject matter. The allegorical side of the tale is deliberately understated (and wisely so). It would have been a very different tale, otherwise, and a great deal less convincing.

Through the personal journey of one man to save his daughter and his son from the land of Faerie, Mirrlees also shows how a world that is too ordered and in the grip of Law can be a dull, stagnant place. Dorimare is, on the surface, a rural heaven. Yet it lives too much in its own past. Rather it lives too much in a fantasy of its own past, never questioning the validity of decisions made in a time that has long gone.

The advocates of law and order come to accept that life needs a little chaos, a little wildness; that it needs to embrace the unknown rather than shun it. Yet this is not some epic fantasy, but a quiet tale, told within the confines of one family and focussing on the characters and relationships.

I’m not sure I fully understand Neil Gaiman’s gushing enthusiasm for this book. I am not sure it is a novel that has ever been forgotten (even if hard to get at times), nor is it the single most beautiful novel of the twentieth century. Indeed, it is not even unique. James Stephens, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and P L Travers all spring immediately to mind and there are many others.

This places Lud-in-the-Mist within a tradition that is both long and renowned. I suspect the enthusiasm that is often found for the text derives from my parenthetical comment. It isn’t always easy to find a copy and thus it acquires the aura of a cult work. However, it is well worth reading, simply because it is part of that tradition. And any book that belongs to a tradition given scant regard by today’s literati is worth lauding.

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Billion Year Spree - Brian Aldiss

This book is a history of science fiction. Partial, personal and, in places, thin. But it does not pretend to be anything but personal and partial. It is Brian Aldiss’s view of the history of science fiction. As a major practitioner of the field, however, he has written with a great deal of understanding and insight.

His objective, as stated in the book, was to put the genre in perspective. Starting with a definition of science fiction which he accepts not everyone will agree with, he traces the roots of the genre. From there he surveys the major developments through the decades up to the point of writing (in the early 1970s).

Its main point of interest is that it does not give undue attention to the ‘big names’. Indeed, many of them are rightly treated as hack writers – a profusion of works and popularity does not necessarily mean these writers are actually any good as writers. Aldiss is interested in the development of sf and very often the ‘big names’ are responsible for halting that development.

As a guide to the genre, it is a good place to start, provided you are prepared to explore further (and there is a comprehensive bibliography). And, of course, another thirty-five years have passed since this was written and a lot has happened in that time.

Saturday, 30 August 2008

Artemis Fowl And The Time Paradox - Eoin Colfer

I am in two minds about this book. On the one hand, it is well written. Colfer has a magic (sorry) way with words and his prose flows with ease. On the other, it feels formulaic. Nothing develops. Characters are brought on and moved off like pieces in order to advance a shaky plot.

Now, I know it is not meant to be great ‘literature’, but that hasn’t stopped genuine character development in the past. Here we are told about people’s feelings as well as being spoon fed plot development. As for the central thesis, well it might satisfy a young reader (until the clunky exposition on the paradox at the end), but it left this adult, who is normally happy to suspend his disbelief, feeling far from satisfied.

Given the potential for fun and mayhem inherent in the notion of time travel (and already embodied in the Artemis Fowl books), we are surprisingly offered a clunky plot that is simply a series of set pieces strung together, and way too much of an attempt to paint Artemis Fowl with a deep green hue. Set ups are obvious. The villain is obvious.

Don’t get me wrong. This is so far ahead of some books for children they are nowhere in sight. But you have to wonder if Artemis Fowl shouldn’t be given a good, long rest before an excellent series is spoiled by ever more formulaic additions.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

The New Apocrypha - John Sladek

As well as being a writer of satirical works of fiction, John Sladek wrote a number of non-fiction works. His particular interest was the occult and what he terms ‘strange science’ – not as an advocate, but as a debunker.

I read this when it first appeared in paperback thirty years ago and, seeing a second-hand copy in great condition, treated myself to a copy. It makes for interesting reading, although Sladek reins in his sharp wit (mostly) and goes for a sober discussion of his subject.

There are one or two occasions where he is happy to remain undecided, but on the whole he does a clear job of debunking some of the stranger idiocies that have beset mankind. There are also one or two occasions where science (as it will) has revealed more about a subject so that Sladek has been wrong-footed (but not very much). He is always on safer ground when looking at illogical or, in some cases, downright weird beliefs.

He doesn’t let scientists off the hook, either. They, too, are human and just as likely to err as anyone else when it comes to having closed minds and irrationally dismissing anything that runs counter to their own preconceptions.

Sunday, 24 August 2008

Bugs - John Sladek

Whilst the satire in this book is just as sharp as in his others, there is an extra helping of farce that would, perhaps, make it more palatable to a wider audience. There is also a less-obvious sci-fi theme (although it is a fictional tale involving science and, yes, there is a robot) which would, it is hoped, have the same effect.

The target of Sladek’s ire is his home country. Many of the absurdities to be found in ‘American’ society are ruthlessly exposed and mocked. This makes for some wonderful laugh out loud moments (something I rarely do with a book), but it also encompasses the very real pain and bewilderment that sits at the heart of a society that is still (as societies go) in early adolescence.

We see the ‘Moronic Inferno’ of the US through the eyes of a British writer, lured to New York with the promise of a big publishing deal and then set adrift in the wake of inevitable disappointment. He winds up, through a series of misunderstandings, in charge of a project to build a military robot. Dogged by spies, idiots, and on a collision course with fate that caused me to say, ‘No!’ out loud (something I do even less than laugh out loud), Fred Jones survives a wiser and deeply sadder man.

Along with the corporate world, the military, litigation, news coverage, and the poverty to be found in the world’s ‘wealthiest country’ Sladek also manages to get in his usual (and justified) swipe at the publishing world.

The book is a romp; sharply written and carefully constructed it is a joy to read. And having given pleasure, it leaves you with plenty to think about.

Saturday, 23 August 2008

A Matter Of Death And Life - Andrey Kurkov

Short and bitter-sweet, this is writing stripped bare of luxuries and all the inconsequentials of life. It is familiar Kurkov territory. Kiev. Someone adrift in a bleak, post Soviet world. Winter. Waiting. All delivered with Kurkov’s sharp, dark wit.

Tolya, tired (or maybe just bored) with life, decides to commit suicide by hiring a hit man to kill him. Being a Kurkov novel, things do not go as planned. And we are given a glimpse not just of personal struggles in a country still coming to terms with social upheaval, but also of society itself.

Yet, for all this, there is a curious life-affirming quality about the work. Perhaps it is because it deals with fundamentals, with birth, death, personal relationships. We see a glimpse of what is important in life.

It did not take very long to read this book. It is going to take a lot longer to absorb and ponder the detailed, often enigmatic picture it paints.

Thursday, 21 August 2008

A Clockwork Apple - Belinda Webb

Even before you open this book, you can tell you are in for a treat. That someone would tackle Burgess and give us a new version of his tale is bold enough. That the author produces a work that stands nowhere in the shadow of Burgess, but blazes with its own fierce light is extremely satisfying. I like A Clockwork Orange. I like A Clockwork Apple a whole lot more.

Belinda Webb has succeeded in creating a future for our own time. Or maybe it is a parallel. Whatever the case, it is plausible, richly textured and so akin to the urban world outside the window that is hard, at times, to separate the fiction from the fact.

This is not a pastiche or slavish reworking of Orange. The female protagonist of Apple is very much her own grrrl. The author has given a female perspective to the world and to the tale of disaffected youth, if one can put it so mildly – although grrrl Alex is not the violent auteur of Burgess, her one crime is to have the temerity to be her own person and defend herself against the slings and arrows.

In addition to creating her own vision, Belinda Webb has achieved another rare thing in books these days. She has written well. That may seem faint praise, but good, fluent intelligent writing is a rarity these, especially when it is there in service of telling a story rather than attempting to dazzle the reader with the technical skill of the author. And as if that wasn’t enough, the sustained first person narrative speaks with a genuine voice.

There is anger here, fire in the belly. It is tightly controlled both by the author and by her protagonist. Alex, for some (other characters and some readers alike), is a paradox. How can someone of such obvious erudition, intelligence, even wisdom, be so explosive? To me, the real question is why more people of such insight are not the same. How can people properly understand the society in which we live and not be angry?

As well as depth, as well as giving your conscience a bit of a kicking, this book is fun. I enjoyed reading it, and that has been a rare experience with new books of late. Beautifully crafted, it is stuffed with references and clever word play, all of which help to build a book with characters and an environment of great depth. Of course, dystopian literature is not to everyone’s taste, but an intelligent and well written book such as this is worth picking up for the joy of reading something that entertains and makes you think.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Hitler Needs You - Jack Trevor Story

Jack Trevor Story is very good at doing several things at once. Like all his writing, this book is comic, but it is also deadly serious. It is light, yet many layered. It is genre (insofar as ‘comic’ is genre), but mainstream. The characters at first seem overdrawn, bordering on caricature, yet they are in fact well-defined and very real, reflecting only their own creative vision of themselves and often captured with an intense accuracy produced from a few telling details. It is a rare treat to find all this in one novel, and that is before you consider the structure.

The tale begins as a mystery and slowly blossoms into a brilliant and affectionate portrait of a country heading towards war. It is not about the policy makers or those in the know, but about ordinary people whose daily concerns are more important and who struggle to make sense of the wider world. It is also a story about growing up. And, most of all, because it is about Horace Spurgeon Fenton, it is a story about Story.

The book rattles along at a breathtaking pace. Story doesn’t coddle his readers. He expects them to keep up because he treats them as intelligent (a good deal more so than many authors today). The writing is economical; every word, phrase, and sentence pulling its weight. The structure is the same. And what may seem like unconnected incidents, meanderings, comic asides, and interjections all tie together to create a satisfying coming-of-age tale in a rich and realistic setting.

I have said it before, but it bears repeating. If you are interested in good writing, if you want to learn from a master, then find yourself as many Jack Trevor Story books as you can. You’ll have to go looking in second hand book shops because his work is no longer in print. It should be in print. It deserves to be in print. And it should be required reading for any student of Creative Writing.

Friday, 15 August 2008

What Good Are The Arts? - John Carey

This is a genuine piece of iconoclasm and a book that should be a set text on every arts course in the country. It is a refreshing, no-nonsense, easy to read discussion that defines art, explores what it is and what it is not good for, and demolishes a great deal aesthetic theory from Kant onwards. Furthermore, Carey puts the case for why he believes literature to be better than other arts (because of its ability to be critical of the world and of itself).

In a sense, this was a book preaching to the converted. I have long held that the case(s) for art as a kind of superior aspect of human existence, the appreciation of which is open only to an elite are spurious if not downright malicious. They consider certain works of art to be more important than people, as having innate value; they consider some people to be more important than others simply because of their taste.

This has always struck me as bordering on fascistic, but I have never been able to articulate my arguments. Carey’s book has given me a good base from which I can explore further. I don’t have to rant any more and ask questions. I can now begin to articulate in coherent form what has always been a gut feeling.

Carey says at the end of this edition that a number of people have told him how liberating they found the book. That it gave them permission to like what they liked without feeling inferior about it. In that alone it has provided a great service. Yet it does so much more in an articulate and passionate way that gives you some hope for the future of the arts in general and writing in particular.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Mr Pye - Mervyn Peake

Drawing on his own background (his father was a missionary doctor and Peake lived on Sark for a few years with his wife and children), this work is a real contrast to the Gormenghast books that Peake was writing at the same time. There are some similarities. They are, for example, about closed societies where generations of settled existence are overturned. Yet the difference in tone is startling and suggests that Peake had the potential to produce a corpus of written work every bit as wide ranging as his graphic work and painting.

In a many layered text, the story tells of Mr Pye and his evangelical mission to the isle of Sark. We are presented with a beautiful pen portrait of the island. Its fictional inhabitants (no doubt based on real inhabitants) are also beautifully drawn, as is the society in which they live. It is, of course, an outsider’s view, but done with great affection and an artist's close attention to the details. He also has a wicked sense of humour. This is well illustrated with a long description of one of the islanders at a picnic. He finishes the paragraph with: ‘The effect was pure Little Miss Muffet until one saw the face which was concentrated spider.’

On the surface, this is a comedic romp. As Mr Pye does good, he begins to grow wings. Alarmed at this, he decides to do bad things (kicking over children’s sandcastles, for example) and is at first relieved when the wings shrink and disappear; only to be equally alarmed when he finds he has gone too far and has started to sprout horns on his forehead.

There are, of course, deeper layers. It is a story of friendship and love; it examines the motives of evangelists; there is a hint of the psychology of island life. Yet, like all great artists, Peake never allows this to get in the way of his story. He may have had serious points to make and we are free to extract them, yet nowhere are these forced on the reader and nowhere do they distort the structure of work.

Like the Gormenghast books, Mr Pye was well ahead of its time. It prefigured magical realism although keeping to a conventional narrative text. One can only imagine what wonderful works he might have produced had he not died so young and the world had had a chance to catch up with his idiosyncratic view of the world. He deserved a much wider audience in his lifetime. He still deserves it now.

Saturday, 2 August 2008

Tik-Tok - John Sladek

Like a good chocolate this is dark and bitter. Like a good chocolate it is food for the soul.

Sladek is a brilliant satirist and the targets he passed over in his Roderick books are set up here. Tik-Tok, like Roderick, is a robot; but where Roderick is often a bewildered soul trying to make sense of humanity, Tik-Tok is all too human in his ambitions and cruelty.

As always in Sladek’s work, deep philosophical arguments take place without once getting in the way of a good story. Tik-Tok is about morality and whether it is hard wired into us or something we must learn in cooperation with others. Taking the premiss that Asimov’s three laws are a con trick foisted on robots to keep them in a state of slavery, Sladek allows Tik-Tok to realise this and begin his career as a criminal, mass murder, corporate big-wig and politician, making it clear there is little to choose between any of them.

Beautifully constructed, full of word play and startling ideas, the story charts the rise of Tik-Tok from slave to his election as Vice President of the United States. Mayhem and murder ensue. And in the process, Sladek lays bare the steaming faecal underbelly of a society that has come more and more to resemble his dark and prophetic vision since the book was written in 1983. Private health care, with patients unable to afford more treatment thrown out onto the streets. A social system corrupt at every level where bestial humans prey on one another as well as on their slaves. The world viewed as a kind of meat grinder from which no one is safe.

Most frightening of all, perhaps, is that our sympathies lie with Tik-Tok, He may have recognised the con trick of Asimov’s laws, but he is still conditioned by his experience to become the psychopathic killing machine who makes art from the shapes suggested by the blood splatters of one of his victims. And being an efficient machine (hand crafted, built to last), he does it all so much better than humans.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Treasure Island - Robert Louis Stevenson

Oh, what a glorious book, to be sure. A simply told tale of pirates and treasure. Indeed, perhaps the tale. It set the standard and has given us so much that is iconic.

To start with, there is a map. It is always too small (someone should do an edition with a fold out parchment version), but it is a map. There is a young, semi-orphaned hero whose world is thrown upside down. There is atmosphere aplenty. There are phrases: ‘Pieces of eight’, ‘Yo ho ho and a bottle of rum’, and ‘Jim, lad’. They're really there.

Then there are the pirates, the gentlemen of fortune. Billy Bones and Blind Pew – you can smell the tar and salt air – striking fear in many a heart and both dead by the end of the first part of the book. Only a writer confident that he has something better to follow would do that. And he does. The one-legged man. What a creation, the most wonderful pirate of all – Barbecue, Long John Silver with his one leg, wooden crutch and the parrot on his shoulder. Parodied ever since, this is the original.

Silver is an intelligent villain who always knows which way the wind is blowing. It accounts for his longevity and for the fact that the other buccaneers fear him. Even Captain Flint (who happily created a corpse to stretch out for a marker to his buried treasure), a man whose foul shadow has fallen so darkly across everyone’s lives, feared Silver. Yet there is more to this man than evil cunning. His is a true intelligence, and somewhere beneath the habitual and casual violence, beneath the greed, there is a glimpse of some long stifled decency.

If you have not read this book, you really must. It is an exemplar of intelligent story telling just as it is an exemplar of good writing. Plot, themes, characters, all meld into a cracking good yarn. No false sentimentality, superbly drawn characters. There are many vivid moments that stick in the mind. Gunn’s desire for a bit of toasted cheese, the death of Israel Hands (yet another truly evocative name).

Adventure story it may be (and it has little pretensions to being anything else), but it also contains a great deal of depth that you are left to explore at your own discretion rather than having it thrust on you. And if you want a real treat, try to find the edition illustrated by Mervyn Peake. If ever a book and artist belonged together it was these two.

Saturday, 26 July 2008

The Traps Of Time - ed Michael Moorcock

This is an astonishing anthology of pieces that could only (although I would be happy to be proved wrong) have been put together in the late ‘60s. Ostensibly a collection of pieces of science fiction, it goes way beyond genre for along with stalwarts of the science fiction community, it also features work by Borges and by Alfred Jarry.

Each of the nine stories and the one essay are about time. There is no time travelling in the conventional sense. Instead the stories explore time from a metaphysical and psychological stance. Aldiss’s tale of an astronaut returned from Mars who finds himself living 3.3077 minutes ahead of everyone else reveals the frustrations of everyone involved, along with the moral conundrums. It sets the tone for the rest of the book; thoughtful, well written, original, and often haunting.

Other contributors are Charles Harness, Langdon Jones, J G Ballard, David Masson, George Collyn, Thomas Disch, and Roger Zelazny. Each has their unique take on the theme; each demonstrates a literary skill that would probably astonish those who consider science fiction to be the work of hacks. Much of it is, as is much of any other genre including literary works. Yet Borges and Jarry do not stand out in this collection as superior writers. They are amongst equals.

I suspect the collection is now out of print although copies can be found if you look. It is certainly worth keeping your eye open for, if for no other reason than that it demonstrates that recent forays by the literati into the edges of the sci fi ghetto and praised for their originality are treating ideas explored half a century or more ago and with a great deal more skill.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Non-Stop - Brian Aldiss

It is fifty years since this book was published. Fifty years! Makes me feel old. Unlike the book itself. Some science fiction dates very badly. This has not. True, I read a revised edition, but apart from Aldiss tinkering with one or two sentences to make his main character less chauvinist in his attitude to women I doubt very much has changed.

So why is this, rightly in my opinion, considered a classic? To begin with, it is original. It has taken a number of familiar sci-fi ideas and taken them off in new directions. This is not an easy feat, not even in the late 1950s. It develops its ideas well. The attention to the background detail that makes Aldiss’s society believable is exemplary, and it is done without pages of exposition. And the whole thing is well written.

Aldiss is a great story-teller. The narrative begins slowly with plenty of rich and intriguing detail. It is not particularly difficult to guess what is going on in the background, although there are enough twists on this theme to keep you guessing, even though the clues are there. But in a sense this is irrelevant to begin with. You are drawn into a fascinating and unusual society. Once there, the characters draw you into new discoveries, and the story picks up pace, taking you to a breathtaking finale, in more sense than one.

If you like a well-written story with strong ideas that also manages to illuminate something of the human condition along the way, this book is for you.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

The Drought - J G Ballard

This is the third of Ballard’s informal quartet of books that nod in cursory fashion toward the elements. Like the others, it might be described as a science-fiction novel of the sub-genre ‘disaster’. But like every other Ballard novel it is so much more.

When toxic waste dumped into the oceans is cooked into a molecular layer that prevents evaporation, drought inevitably follows. Not the parched summer of an English countryside, but the blistering furnace of a tropical desert. Society collapses, draining away as quickly as surface water. It is a stark contrast to the amniotic lushness of The Drowned World.

Across this parched landscape a small group of characters play out their lives. They are the usual collection – a mixed bunch of misfits whose casual acquaintance in normal circumstances brings them close together when their inner landscapes become an outer reality. We are shown brief, bright glimpses, like the painful glancing reflections of sunlight from a mirrored surface. And if we dare to approach that mirror, we will see something of ourselves.

There are moments in the book when you can wish a tighter editorial control had been exercised. Some descriptions fail because the language gets in the way – there are only so many time you can use ‘river bed’ in a paragraph before it becomes obtrusive. On the whole, however, the writing shimmers like heat from a baked landscape, offering glimpses and mirages, distortions of a reality that show truths with an unrelenting harshness.

It is also a poetic work. The images and themes are displayed and developed with a concentrated intensity that prefigures the direction Ballard takes with some of his middle period work. Whilst it would not work as a poem, it does show what a poetic sensibility can bring to prose. It certainly makes me look forward to the next book in this chronological re-read of Ballard’s work.

Sunday, 13 July 2008

The Man Who Was Thursday - G. K. Chesterton

I have seen this book described variously as ‘hilarious’ and ‘uproarious’. I think those reviewers need to get out a bit more. Amusing, maybe, this ‘melodramatic sort of moonshine’ as Chesterton accurately described it is an odd piece of work. It is true that there is a clue in the subtitle ‘A Nightmare’, but this seems to me to have been added as an afterthought in much the same way others have used the ‘and he woke up and realised it was all a dream’ device.

What starts as a fairly straightforward thriller (police infiltrating an Anarchist cell) and an astute observation on the absurd directions a surveillance society can take us, soon becomes a metaphysical investigation of faith and human behaviour. One cannot read Chesterton without this happening at some point, so he cannot be criticised for it. It does seem to me, however, that by presenting this as a dream or a dark fantasy, he is sidestepping the opportunity for something more substantial. But that, too, is Chesterton’s way and why, ultimately I find his work unsatisfying. Contrasting serious themes with a comic storyline can be remarkably effective, but I always feel that Chesterton misses the mark. There is a feeling of flippancy rather than a true understanding of the comic; a feeling of ennui, with the author losing interest before he finishes.

To this I must add, that Chesterton is a sloppy writer. I cannot, for example, imagine the opening sentence of this work getting past a modern editor. Mind you, having seen some pretty dire openings of books that are claimed as modern literature, I should perhaps revise that and say that Chesterton’s opening sentence wouldn’t have got past me if I was an editor. It is clumsy, just as a number of other sentences and passages are clumsy. Potentially beautiful, but spoiled by laziness – first drafts that should have been worked at.

For all this criticism, it is a book that should be read. As should Chesterton’s other work. He may not be the perfect stylist and he may miss the mark, but his work does fizz with ideas and throws out sharp, often barbed, observations that stick and worry and make you think. Nor is he afraid of being surreal, of creating fantastic structures that so closely resemble the real world that we are compelled to stop and wonder which is which. For this alone, he is worth reading.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Stand on Zanzibar - John Brunner

It is forty years since this book was published and it is a sad indictment that is as relevant today as it was then. The world it describes, with its political turmoil, eugenics, genetic manipulation, social unrest, over dependence on computers, population problems, designer drugs, and casual violence is our world; it is what our world will continue to be.

Brunner was a prolific author. He was also an author who worked hard to raise his game. By the late 1960s he was writing blistering works of social commentary. Angry books that showed the injustice and hypocrisy of the world and its ‘masters’. Stand on Zanzibar is perhaps the best of these works. The style is innovative and ideally suited to the content; the story of social woes is told through the personal trials of a large cast of characters. With some we catch vicarious glimpses into their lives, much as we would see into the lighted windows of people from a slow moving suburban train at night. With others we experience the transformation of their lives as they are sucked into the destructive maelstrom of events.

Several stories and themes run parallel within the book – the political tensions between the United States (a dysfunctional and overcrowded land groaning beneath the weight of eugenics legislation) and a fictional Asian country that professes to have discovered a way of genetically manipulating human foetuses to produce perfect children; the corporate takeover of an entire African country and the discovery of how it has remained peaceful for so long; the pressures on individuals who are unable to cope with the pace of change; the ways in which governments dictate and manipulate individual lives.

This may seem a recipe for an earnest trudge through 650 pages of sociological lecturing, yet Brunner’s well-honed skill as a story-teller lifts the whole thing well above this. It is a highly literate novel that treats its readers with intelligence. Which is perhaps why it has never had any impact on those who lead us. Which is also perhaps why what may have been considered science fiction forty years ago is fast becoming the bleak reality of the world in which we live.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Our Man In Havana - Graham Greene

This is one of what the author describes as his entertainments. As such it works admirably. It is a gently comic novel of deception in pre-Castro Cuba, with a mild-mannered vacuum cleaner salesman fooling almost everyone into believing that he runs a group of agents for SIS in London.

Well written, with a lightness of touch to be found with all good writers, the absurd situation unfolds quite naturally. Wormold, the central character, wanders through the mayhem with a charmed innocence (and it is role so admirably suited to Alec Guinness in the film adaptation). Some have criticised the book for not examining the horrors of Batista’s rule, for making light of a terrible situation. But the book is not about Cuba. That was merely an exotic location that Greene knew in which to set a tale about the incompetence of the British Secret Intelligence Service, for which Greene worked for a while.

Yet there is an undertone of seriousness about the book. Elements of the darkness of Batista’s regime do surface – in much the same way they would have bothered the expat community at the time. A discussion on whether a person is of the right class to be worth torturing is quite chilling. The violent deaths that occur in the book are quite casually treated in a way that sits uncomfortably with the notion of a comedy or an entertainment. And the way in which Greene portrays the SIS may be for the most part an affectionate parody, but it does have a harder edge of criticism for a Service that did (and still does) teeter on the verge of rank amateurism.

As with any good writer, Greene does not let these issues (or his wonderful descriptions of the way in which field agents live and work) get in the way of a good story. Well worth a read (or re-read).

Sunday, 15 June 2008

Nova Swing - M John Harrison

M John Harrison is, to my mind, one of the most under-rated authors alive today. His prose is rich and unselfconscious and he produces smooth, complex work. He conjures place, atmosphere, and character like a… I was going to write ‘magician’, but there is no sleight of hand here, and the only smoke and mirrors are those he writes about.

A sequel, of sorts, to the equally brilliant (sorry) Light, Nova Swing reads a bit like Roadside Picnic as written by Dashiell Hammett. It is cool, dark, a fable of the seamy side of life, lived in bars and fight clubs, docksides and beachfront promenades, mostly at night and into the early hours. But it is Harrison’s own book, very much his own. The world he creates is made believable in the detail – so much like our own world, yet so very different.

There will be many who never get to see this book as it will, if it is there at all, be in the science fiction section. Forget that. Ignore it. Harrison writes fiction. Excellent fiction. Some of it just happens to be set in exotic locations that are so beautifully drawn, it is breathtaking.

This is not a novel about spaceships and alien invasions. It is a novel of atmospheres, a tale of people making the best of their lives in unusual circumstances. These people are so finely observed I would not in the least be surprised to find that Harrison had lived on Straint Street for a year, drinking in the Black Cat White Cat, scribbling endlessly in his journals just like Emil, following Vic up and possibly into the zone. I, for one, hope there is enough material for another visit to Saudade.

Making Money - Terry Pratchett

Terry Pratchett doesn’t produce bad books, just some that are not as good as the others. This isn’t destined to be one of his classics, largely because it is a re-run of Going Postal, and if you’ve told a story, why revisit unless you like the characters? And if you like the characters, why not give them a chance to develop?

Here we find an amiable romp, with a collection of the usual suspects in terms of plot devices, and no sense of danger, no sense that the villains might actually be nasty, with a background cast of cheery city dwellers who belong in a musical rather than a satire. Which is a shame given the subject matter. The banking system has always had a very dark underside and the inept guess work by which international finance is run has the potential (often realised) to destroy the lives of millions of ordinary hard working people.

Indeed, perhaps Mr Pratchett’s fire has died down a bit. Not surprising given the recent news about his health. I do not know how that would affect the quality of his writing but certainly, his third Tiffany Aching novel was a poor parody of his own work. You could see a powerful story there trying to get out. But it was smothered by the incessant and weak attempts at making the Nac Mac Feegle into a comic interlude whilst rewriting a story already written. The same is true of Making Money.

Having said that, I would far rather sit down with a Terry Pratchett novel than most of our lauded literati. Even his not-so-good books outstrip them in so many ways. His subject matter, his style, his magical use of prose and humour, all combine to produce works that are far better studies of the human condition and human society than many an angst ridden piece of high literature. And he has given us a body of work that any five other authors would have been pushed to produce between them. Long may he continue to do so.

Friday, 6 June 2008

The War Of Art - Steven Pressfield

Of the myriad books produced for writers there are few that I would recommend. This is one of the few. And the reason is simple. It addresses a real problem faced by anyone engaged in a creative process and it offers solutions. They may not work for everyone, but they are sufficiently fundamental to make this a book worth reading.

It does not concern itself with elements of style or how to get an agent; it isn’t worried about how you format your work or what software you should be using. It goes to the very core and looks at the inner demon (or whatever you want to call it) that prevent us from working. It offers ways of combating that demon. Although, in the end, the author is realistic enough to point out that in the end it is down to the will power of the individual.

This is a sharp book, tightly written, insightful without waffle and, at times, downright earthy. The author says what he has to with real economy using short chapters that go straight to the heart of things. It does not ramble and it is not dressed up with pseudo-psychological statements. Which does not mean the author is talking piffle. Indeed, this is the common sense that is not so common. It spoke directly to me as a writer, clarified my thoughts, and gave me to think about and plenty to act upon.

If you have tried to embark on any long-term project that derives from what one might call your higher nature and have had trouble getting started (or trouble finishing), read this book. Think about what it says. Then get on with it.

Thursday, 5 June 2008

Roderick At Random - John Sladek

These continuing adventures of the robot Roderick have a different tone to the first book. Still sharply satirical, the book relies less on farce and dives into deeper and darker waters for where the first book relies on absurdity to make its point, this one uses reality.

The shift in technique also reflects the nature of the world seen now through the eyes of an adult robot as opposed to the former book in which the world was seen through the eyes of a child. And what a world. It is a mess of madness which Roderick finds more and more difficult to understand. I know how he feels.

As an example there is a strand through the story that is a frightening and uncannily accurate description of the direction publishing has taken in recent years. Central to this is the chilling image of authors working at computers that analyse each sentence in terms of projected sales figures. Yet even this is not enough for the publishing house in question. They find authors an inconvenience and have decided to have books written by computers. Some might think we have that already.

It is sometimes hard to remember this book was published in 1983 as its depiction of early 21st century life is all too real. Big business running the world, life and death decisions transmitted, quite literally, through crossed wires. A news media led more and more by sensation. Ordinary people sidelined and, for the most part, uncaring as long the bread and the circuses keep coming.

It is a world that Roderick can find no place in. He has been treated as a commodity by everyone he has met, yet is the sanest and most compassionate character of them all. These messages are subtly conveyed by Sladek’s tale but they are no less powerful for that. The author is a great writer and I suspect the only reason this is not considered a twentieth century classic of literature is that it was labelled sf.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Psychogeography - Merlin Coverley

I bought this on the strength of reviews and wish now I hadn't wasted my money. The book is badly produced (the author needs a better editor, proof reader, and setter), is extremely narrow in its scope, and concentrates only on those aspects of the subject that are already well known or easy to find.

As a subject, psychogeography predates civilization (pagan peoples knew how geography was integral to psychology). The concentration on recent urban p-g, and the insistence that only London and Paris really count (despite a nod to New York) ignores the long rural tradition as well as p-g in other urban settings around the world.

The author's knowledge and understanding of Alfred Watkins' work and its impact is poor. Which leads one to wonder just how well he really knows the rest of the subject. His attempt to assert that Ackroyd is outside the tradition as he is somehow conservative rather misses the point that urban p-g as a whole is both conservative and somewhat obsessed with the notion of a golden age.

Where the book does have a strength is in pointing out that for some people p-g is a method to some other end rather than an end in itself. Attempts to turn it into a science have so far met with failure simply because the amount of data required to make any form of realistic assessment are simply overwhelming. As an artistic method (particularly in literature and film) it is highly sucessful as it seems that an artistic sensibility and sensitivity are required to process and interpret a landscape and the figures that move within it.

There are better books on the subject. But anyone wanting to know what p-g is would be far better off seeking out p-g artists and writers.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Heart of Empire - Bryan Talbot

This is a sequel to The Adventures of Luther Arkwright. Such a bald statement, however, conceals a great deal. In the previous book we are presented with a highly complex story, rendered in detailed black and white drawings. The visual impression is one of darkness and drabness, entirely fitting to the portrayal of a puritan fascist dictatorship. Heart of Empire takes place twenty three years after the overthrow of the Cromwell dynasty and in tone it could not be more different. To begin with, the book is rendered in full colour. And the drawing style, whilst beautifully detailed, is lusher and more in keeping with the decadent royalist empire it portrays. For whilst it is colourful, the contrast between the bright colours of court life and the sickly, drab colours experienced by everyone is highly marked.

The story itself loses nothing for being less complex. Much of the complexity has been told in the previous story and lies in the background. Here we are presented with a counterbalancing tale that shows us there are many kinds of dictatorship. The puritan commonwealth and the royalist empire are two sides of the same coin. Subject peoples are still trodden into the dirt by an elite whose only concern is their personal well being.

It would be interesting to see a third volume. At the end of Heart of Empire a democracy is established. We know from watching the news every day that establishing and maintaining a democracy is no easy matter, and that democracies are just as easily corrupted to evil as any other political system. Perhaps it is time Luther Arkwright returned.

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

The Adventures of Luther Arkwright - Bryan Talbot

Comic? Graphic novel? Call it what you will (although this bears as much relation to the Beano as Ulysses does to Noddy goes to Toytown); this is rightly consider amongst the best works of its type.

Talbot is a highly accomplished graphic artist, an equally accomplished story-teller, and someone who is clearly concerned with something wider than both. This is a world in which the English Interregnum has lasted until the (or, rather, a) present day. Cromwell’s heirs run the country as a fascist puritanical state and Royalists fight a terrorist war. Into this world comes Arkwright, searching for answers. The full story is too complex to give in such a short space as this, save to say the complexity is not for effect. The adventures reflect real life and the use of science fiction as a carrier for the story (we are talking alternative universes here) enhances the deeper social messages.

What adds to an already outstanding story is the way in which Talbot weaves graphics, text, and the story into a seamless and rich tapestry. This is no straightforward comic strip. The detail in the graphic work is astonishing and there are many references to ‘classical’ works of art. Both text and graphics make reference to popular culture and some of the characters in the story bear more than a passing resemblance to real people. The arrangement of the graphics is also innovative with panels that seem out of place and which are difficult to decipher. These heighten the feelings of fragmentation and chaos that are central themes of the work. And then hit home with extra impact when they reappear in their correct context.

It is certainly a work that is worth revisiting and for anyone who has never tried a graphic novel, it is certainly ample evidence that this is an art form in its own right (although you may need a magnifying glass if you start with this as some of the text is very small).

Monday, 19 May 2008

Roderick - John Sladek

Superlatives are insufficient to convey the original impact of this book and the sheer fun I had in re-reading it. Sladek is a fierce satirist and this tale of the creation and development of the first robotic artificial intelligence has education and government as its main targets. But it is no haphazard attack. It is choreographed as tightly and as effectively as a Joss Whedon fight sequence (think Summer Glau in Firefly/Serenity - as a chap is sometimes inclined so to do), and it is just as deadly.

And as if this was not enough, John Sladek is a writer of enormous skill and intelligence (look out for his superb Masterson and the Clerks – a piece of true absurdist literature). He manages to weave deep philosophical discussions about the nature of identity into the tale without once interrupting the flow; he manages to knock a few iconic figures from their pedestals; he entertains with his wonderful sense of humour; and he treats his reader with respect.

A lot of the action takes place ‘off screen’. What seems a throwaway line or action in one chapter emerges a few chapters down the line as significant. Things going on in the background suddenly flower elsewhere. Whole scenes are conjured in a well placed phrase. His command of dialogue is superb. And the whole thing is told in a fresh and engaging style. Brilliant. Inspirational.

As ever, there will be people who don’t pick this book up because it is labelled science fiction. Their loss. It is far superior in style, content, and relevance to much of what passes for literature these days. I was going to carry straight on with Roderick at Random, but having just taken delivery of the new Del Rey Elric and a replacement copy of The Adventures of Luther Arkwright I have a feeling it may be a week or two before I return.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Brave New World - Aldous Huxley

Brave New World is a wonderful book and my latest visit was long overdue. This is a novel of ideas that Huxley later realised was, perhaps, simplistic. It’s overall thesis certainly seems to present a stark choice between two states of social existence. Yet it is more subtle than that and it makes effective and sophisticated arguments, most often when it stops being about ideas and concentrates on the individuals in the story. The moment, for example, when John finds a momentary peace is both touching and instructive. Wisely, Huxley chose to leave it alone.

Like Orwell’s later Nineteen-Eighty Four this is a dystopian novel. Unlike Orwell’s grim vision, Huxley saw a bright, well-managed and relentlessly jolly future maintained by carefully managed eugenics. The visions are equally frightening. However, where Orwell was warning us, Huxley was exploring an idea which, to him, seemed to have merit. Yet it is a strength of the novel that he is able to find as much fault with his own view as he did with the one he saw standing in opposition.

As a classic, of course, it is ‘one of those books that everybody should read’. So please don’t be put off by that. The story is simple, necessarily so, but powerfully told. The language is simple, yet manages to convey complex ideas. And when Huxley forgets about expounding ideas, it offers some startling and unforgettable imagery.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Saturnalia - Lindsey Davis

The author of the Falco series (of which this is the eighteenth) is the first to admit they are ‘light reading’. This does rather depend on your definition of ‘light’, but on the whole I would agree. They are entertainments, well researched and with an amusing take on life in the Roman world of the first century AD.

The series started well; hit what I felt was a rocky patch where the tone of the books seemed spiteful; and regained a sunnier outlook. Sadly, they have lost a great deal as the series progresses. Falco seems to have become infallible. The books lack tension or dramatic urgency. You know the main characters will come through with minor abrasions whilst new faces in the immediate background are the ones for the chop (one of the hazards of a first person narrative). The books have become a bit self-congratulatory.

Take this most recent story. There is a great deal in there that could have provided real tension, real drama, and dealt with social issues that are inevitable in any crime book. The search for an escaped high ranking prisoner felt contrived – stretched out for no apparent reason with a swift ‘why didn’t I think of that before’ as an excuse. The murder apparently connected with the escape is treated in lacklustre fashion and again feels contrived. You can see the plot devices sticking out like badly set broken bones. And the background story of the murder of down-and-outs and runaway slaves is so cursory as to be an insult. It would have made an excellent story in itself.

As for the conclusion… When you write a story with several threads you must either tie them together in an ingenious fashion that the reader just didn’t see coming (despite all the clues being there); or you must risk what this book achieves – an almighty anti-climax. The absconded prisoner is found and then some chapters later we have the murder solved. Then a bit later… you get the picture. What with that and the abrupt finish, I feel that Ms Davis needs to take stock and take a few risks.

I still enjoy the books. It is a remarkable feat to keep a series running for so long. The research is equally prodigious and rarely intrusive. And the author can write. It would, however, be good to feel that the main characters are in real danger; it would be good to have a more rigorous plot that flows naturally from the circumstances, rather than three stitched together to pad out the book.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Slaughterhouse 5 - Kurt Vonnegut

I am not sure when I last read this. It must be thirty years ago. It is interesting to see that it has stood the test of time. Almost. Or perhaps it is me that has failed. I do remember thinking it a great book when I first read it. Now? Almost.

The trouble is, it seems to me like it is trying too hard. There is one layer too many of artifice in there and it shows. The structure is fine. That was nothing new at the time and it works well. Besides, the form of the novel is explained within the novel in one of those internal consistencies of which the author is so fond. We are told what the book will be like. The use of science fiction tropes and the thinly disguised portraits of those within the sf world is also fine, although in the end unnecessary (unless as a rather hackneyed means of conveying mental instability) as I find it detracts from what I take to be the central anti-war theme.

Where it has not stood the test of time is in its voice. I suspect when the book was new I was forgiving of this and certainly less well equipped to consider such points. I found it annoyed me this time round. It is too self-consciously naïve, which in the end works to contradict itself. I was heartily sick of the repeated ‘And so it goes’ by thirty pages in, and felt I was being talked down to most of the time. This eroded any enjoyment I might have had in revisiting the novel.

I would still recommend it to anyone who hasn’t read it. It is still one of the better works of later twentieth century western literature, dealing with universal themes in an accessible manner. For me, however, its charm has faded. I would give it a B.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Penguin Lost - Andrey Kurkov

This wonderfully dark book is the sequel to Death and the Penguin. It is tightly written, sketching enormous detail with a few deft strokes. The story is deliciously absurd yet probably closer to the truth of the post-Soviet world than many learned investigations. And the underlying humanity shines through in poignant moments.

I have seen a lot of reviews that say this book is not as good as Death and the Penguin. I can only think these people are confusing ‘not as good’ with ‘not the same’. And thank goodness for that. It is good to see a writer resisting the temptation to duplicate a prior success. It is good to see a writer building on their evident skills and exploring new darkness, taking us into the shadow and the grim killing fields of Chechnya where Kurkov demonstrates the lessons learned in the Balkans are being applied with chilling efficiency.

Yet for all the grotesquery, I did not find this a depressing read. It is saved, perhaps, by the wry humour, by the moments of magic and, of course, by the presence of Misha. If you haven’t read any Kurkov before, I would urge you to read these two books and enjoy that rare combination of good writing and wonderful story.

Tuesday, 22 April 2008

The Caltraps Of Time - David I Masson

This is a remarkable collection of short stories. They are well written, erudite, and leavened with flashes of wit. What is all the more remarkable is that the ten stories in this expanded edition (the original contained just seven) are the only pieces of fiction the author ever wrote. And whilst every reading of the book leaves me wishing there was more, every reading also uncovers further layers of meaning and a richness that derives from the originality and elegant complexity of the work.

These are stories with two major themes – time and linguistics. The themes are treated in relation. Language changes with time and reflects the metaphysical stance of a people. The 1960s are explored through the eyes and language of a seventeenth century time traveller. The future is delineated by the language of those who live there. Our perception of time is affected by the situations in which we live. Yet all of this, whilst being the foundation of the stories is, like any good foundation, invisible. Built upon this solid and complex grounding are stories of ordinary people experiencing epic events.

Not only are the stories interesting in themselves, they had an enormous influence on the much younger so-called New Wave writers at the time they were written. This can be seen not just in terms of style and scope, but more directly in specific writers and their work. There are themes and situations that prefigure (or at the very least flower in concert with) Christopher Priest, Michael Moorcock, Robert Holdstock, J G Ballard, Brian Aldiss, Terry Pratchett, and many others. Masson opened many doors and his work continues to do so on re-reading. The stories themselves have, quite appropriately, stood the test of time.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

The Claw of the Conciliator - Gene Wolfe

This is the second book of what was, apparently, voted the greatest fantasy of all time after Tolkien’s work. It has been described as a ‘masterpiece’, ‘one of the greatest novels ever written’, ‘incomparable’… All I can say is, the people who voted haven’t read much, and those writers I have quoted really should have known better.

For me this is quite possibly the dullest fantasy I have ever read. The language is annoyingly twee. Not the awful mock medieval of Morris and lesser writers who think that is how fantasy should be written; just prissy. It could be argued that as this is a first person narrative, this is the language of the narrator. Exactly my point. He is boring, prissy, totally passive. A wimp. Not even an amusing wimp. The only thing that keeps me reading is the vain hope he gets torn to shreds at some point and the story is taken up by someone more interesting.

The argument that the language reflects the character may hold true, but why go to the bother of creating such a lacklustre set of books? OK, it may all happen in the next two. Threads may be pulled together, something might happen beyond the attempts at meaningful encounter, and the dull plodding in between. I get the feeling I’m going to be disappointed.

And I will be left wondering just how bad the fantasy genre has become that this is considered the best.

(In a rare admission of defeat, I have decided not to continue reading these books. I dipped in the remaining two volumes and just found more of the same. Life's too short. - 26 April 2008)

Monday, 7 April 2008

Ink In Her Blood: The Life & Crime Fiction of Margery Allingham - Richard Martin

I have long been a fan of Margery Allingham’s work. She is an intelligent writer, a consummate professional, a great teller of tales, witty, and not afraid to experiment within her chosen genre. Indeed, she was highly innovative, taking the ‘whodunit’ and the pulp thriller, shaking them up, and producing what she rightly insisted on calling a crime novel; that is a book that is first and foremost a novel whose subject happens to be crime.

There were many critics in her lifetime (not least some crime writers) who simply could not get their heads round the idea that a crime story could also be literary (in the sense of well written and dealing with more universal themes). Thankfully there were others who did understand what she was doing, as well as her many fans who much appreciated her books on the many levels that could be found within them.

Richard Martin’s book is a slightly uneasy mix of biography and literary exploration. He first of all assumes that his reader will know Allingham’s books well. And he does tend to jump backwards and forwards so that the biography is interrupted by discussion of groups of books. This means you have to think back to the context in which they were written, then hop forward again to catch up with more biographical detail.

Aside from that, it is refreshing to see a serious approach taken to books that many assume can be dismissed in the same breath as Christie and Sayers. Martin charts the progress of Allingham as a writer and her struggles to improve her work and develop the ‘genre’. For anyone interested in the process of writing, it is well worth reading (as are Allingham’s novels).

Friday, 4 April 2008

Coot Club - Arthur Ransome

In summary, this doesn’t like a particularly gripping book. A group of children teach two others to sail on the Norfolk Broads, with a subplot involving some idiot adults in a motor cruiser. No violence, no sex, no drugs, no loud music (apart from when the idiot adults are about), not much in the way of danger. Yet…

…I was gripped. Again, this is partly nostalgia. Not only did I read Ransome as a child, but at the time I lived in Norfolk. Norwich, to be precise. And we spent a lot of time in the countryside and visiting the fun fair at Yarmouth. The nearest I got to sailing (something I’ve never really wanted to do, despite enjoying these books) is when my brother worked for one of the boat hire companies.

So, I know the scenery of the book, and know it from a time when it was not much different from when the books were written. And with Arthur Ransome, the scenery is not just a back drop. The children live in the landscape. Their actions are dictated by the natural world. They are affected by the weather and their adventures are part and parcel of the world in which they live.

I know all about the arguments (accusations, even) that Ransome is middle class and these are the adventures of privileged kids. Maybe. So what. Shouldn’t they have adventures as well? Besides, when it comes to Ransome, this is only partly true. As with the physical landscape, the children are also part of the social landscape and they are remarkably mobile.

The other aspect of this book that has me hooked is that one of the central characters does something he knows to be wrong (casting a boat adrift) in order to protect a bird’s nest. It is done after polite attempts to ask the idiot adults to move their boat fail. And it sets the tone for this and other Ransome books. Because the landscape, the natural world, is not just integral to the books, it is also portrayed as something to which we owe respect and which we should treat with care. Ransome’s characters are sensitive to this. If they were real people, even though most would be in their eighties by now, I like to believe they would be fully paid up members of Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace and still be doing their bit to protect the wild places and the wild life that we share the planet with.

Friday, 28 March 2008

Mervyn Peake: My Eyes Mint Gold - Malcolm Yorke

Whilst this is a workmanlike biography of Peake, I cannot find it in me to get as excited about it as some readers have. To begin with, it has an annoying layout; it is neither wholly themed nor purely chronological. Instead, each chapter is roughly themed in a roughly chronological manner. Whilst this works all right for Peake’s early life, it gets in the way towards the end as the text is darting back and forth, trying to keep interdependent aspects of his life separate. I found this particularly exasperating during discussion of Peake’s illness as we were offered no insight into how his work and relationships began to break down.

Also annoying was the prissiness. A biographer cannot help but discuss their subject, but any judgements they make should be based on evidence drawn from their subject’s actions and works, not from their own moral fussiness. Goodness knows what Yorke made of Eric Gill in that biography when it is clear he found some of Peake’s work and life distasteful. There are points in the book when you can almost here the rubber gloves go on to avoid too much contamination. Yet none of this springs from Peake.

As an example, we are, on a number of occasions, told that Peake’s writing is cruel and unpleasant. And the imputation seems to be that this is because of something inherent in Peake. Yet other evidence from the same biography seems to refute this. As does a reading of Peake’s work with an open mind. Peake may have drawn, painted, and written of cruel things – it is hardly surprising given the things he saw in China and later in Germany, especially Belsen. You cannot witness such events without them turning up in your creative work, even if indirectly.

Yorke, like many people, seems to confuse the grotesque and the ugly with the unpleasant. He even suggests that Peake was also guilty of this. But I think Peake was far more subtle, knowing that these things are not inherently unpleasant, but that we live in a world where surface ‘beauty’ and fashion are prized above more important values; that such a world distorts and demeans us all. Peake was certainly no stranger to the ways in which fashions in art and literature kept the recognition he deserved from his door.

I make no bones about the fact that I am a Peake enthusiast. I have been since the Penguin paperback editions of the Gormenghast books appeared. They prompted me to search out his paintings and drawings – not an easy task in those days. I have read better biographical studies; his wife and one of his sons have written excellent accounts, John Watney’s early biography is to be treasured. The definitive biography of Peake has yet to be written. In the meantime, and especially if you know nothing of his life and works, this will do.

Tuesday, 18 March 2008

The Fall of the Towers – Samuel R Delany

I re-read this as an act of nostalgia. I saw a copy in a charity shop, and it had so many associations that I forked out my 50p and took it home. I remember first reading it in the late 60s, buying it solely because it was (dramatic music) a trilogy. There was something about the idea of a story that needed more than one book to tell that immediately promoted it to the realms of ‘worth reading’. The individual volumes were, for some reason, difficult to track down and even more unfathomable was the fact I then spent hard earned cash on the single volume version. It may have been that the title (deliberately or otherwise) tapped into Lord of the Rings. Perhaps it was love. Not of the book, but of a girlfriend. She read my copy and, I seem to recall, enjoyed it. My memory gets really hazy here, but going by things I do remember and my buying habits at the time, I would probably have bought this in the Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton. So, wrapped up there is enough nostalgia to keep anyone going.

But what of the book itself? The story is a meditation, amongst other things, on how economic factors drive societies into war; that the enemy is not some hostile ‘outside’ force, but ourselves. It is told through a series of characters whose disparate lives are brought together by events, and framed by an altogether unnecessary device. It is one of those (many) science fiction books that has an idea too many, as if the author had no confidence in the central idea and grafted on some aliens just to make sure.

The original books were re-written for this single volume edition. Not having the originals I have no idea what changes were made. Perhaps it was not originally conceived as a trilogy. The first book would stand alone, but may have needed later characters introduced much earlier to tie the books together. It certainly has that feel about it.

The writing is florid, a touch precious in places. In others there is the impression that Delany was, in this early part of his career, undecided about style. There are also examples that suggest Delany is (a) trying to follow ‘the rules’ but getting it slightly wrong and (b) deliberately trying to break the rules. That is, we can see the author at work. In the end, it is altogether too respectful of the genre to break free.

This does not make it a bad book. Rather it shows us there was a time when promising authors were given time to develop. Delany did not really hit his stride until a few years later with Babel 17. And having hit that stride he came back to this trilogy.

Delany is clearly a man of ideas and keen to explore important and fundamental issues. Although this sometimes gets in the way of the story (instead of each element being allowed to enhance the other), it is clear that his work needs to be approached with an eye to its context.

Was my nostalgia trip worth it? Well… yes and no. I enjoyed revisiting the book and certainly want to re-read more of his work, perhaps even look out stuff written after Dhalgren, the last of Delany’s works that I read. As for nostalgia – nothing.