Monday, 28 January 2008

The Borribles Go For Broke – Michael de Larrabeiti

Whilst the first book in the Borribles trilogy undoubtedly had its moments of violence, and was not backward in its use of appropriate language, it could be argued that this was in the context of a fairy tale. And in fairy tales (at least ones not eviscerated by the PC brigade) we expect gore, violence, and menace as much as we expect magic and love. With this second book, we see just how close to the real world the Borribles live and, as a consequence, the tale is both darker and more engaging.

Survivors of the Great Rumble Hunt reunite when one of their number receives a message that one of their number is in trouble. But this is no matter of an Adventure, because London has become an altogether more dangerous place. There now exists a special unit of the police known as the Special Borrible Group (or SBG for short) whose sole task is to capture Borribles and clip their pointed ears, turning them back into normal people – a terrible fate.

For anyone old enough to remember, the parallels between the SBG and the Special Patrol Group of the Metropolitan Police are obvious and no doubt deliberate. Indeed, the whole adventure could be seen as a damning indictment of the times in which it was written. Greed and exploitation, the use of violence to make people conform, rebellion, and the distorting effect that lust for money has on a society are all themes of the book.

Yet it is not a political polemic. It is an exciting and, at times, harrowing adventure with surprises and twists along the way. The adventurers’ loyalty to one another is tested; their bravery and integrity are put to the test. And they find some unexpected friends.

Second books in trilogies are often dull affairs. This one is not. It licks along at wonderful pace, stands firmly on its own two feet, introduces a whole new set of rich characters, and continues to be as cheeky and chirpy as bomb site full of sparrows.

Tuesday, 22 January 2008

Shakespeare - Bill Bryson

This is a workmanlike book. It wears its erudition lightly, skips through what is known of Shakespeare, and does a reasonable job of trashing all the loonies who claim Shakespeare didn’t write any plays.

But (and couldn’t you see that coming) I have to ask, what was the point of it? It was mostly a straightforward text, but there were occasional first-person interpolations that did little for me except destroy the narrative flow. It offered no new information or ideas. The information it did give was dealt with in such a cursory fashion as to leave it floating free of any useful context. There were no maps or illustrations. The whole thing lacked energy. Only once does the author hint at any real interest in the subject and it stands out from the rest of the book like the proverbial.

The best I can say of it is that there have been many bad books about Shakespeare and this was not quite one of them.

Sadly there are all too many books like this. They offer nothing new (come on Bill, a book on the British obsession with Shakespeare would have been much more interesting and could still have conveyed all the facts this volume contained). You get the impression they are contractual obligations or dreamt up one evening over one glass of alcohol too many. And because they involve well known authors, the financial resources of whichever publisher is involved get wasted on dreck instead of being used to nurture talent and produce books worth having.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

The Borribles – Michael de Larrabeiti

I read The Borribles when it was first published in 1976. And then wondered why it didn’t appear in paperback. It did eventually, seven years later. Which says a lot about the publishing industry’s lack of confidence in a strong and important work. The book was controversial at the time, considered violent and subversive. It certainly has strong anti-authoritarian and anti-materialist themes, and the central characters live in an anarchic society (in the true sense of the word). Nor does it gloss over violence and the consequences of violence. Yet it is no more graphic than many other children’s fantasies, and certainly has a stronger moral approach than many violent adult novels written at that time.

Although I have never found any suggestion, one wonders if there was not a degree of nervousness about the target of the Borribles’ violent exploits.

Borribles are much like the Lost Children of Barrie’s Peter Pan. They live in tribal communities in London (and other cities). Each tribe is identified with a London borough, but the main social unit is a street or house. Living wild on what adult society throws away (or doesn’t keep its eyes on), with companionship and story telling the most important aspects of their social existence, Borribles earn their names from an adventure. Most Borribles have one name, but some yearn for more.

The book is a quest. Eight nameless Borribles are trained for a pre-emptive raid against the Rumbles, sworn enemies of the Borribles. These highly acquisitive and militaristic creatures live in bunkers beneath Wimbledon Common. They are furry with long snouts and have trouble pronouncing the letter ‘R’, articulating it as ‘W’. Now sit down and think about it.

Told that the Rumbles are planning to invade Borrible territory, the eight set out on a mission to destroy the Rumble high command. With them are two extra companions: Adolf, German Borrible along for the adventure to earn himself a fourth name, and Knocker, one of the Borribles who trained the eight. His official position is that of historian (much as Celtic bards often accompanied armies), to witness and write up the official history of the Raid. But he also has another mission, tempted by the opportunity of gaining a second name.

That mission, based on the greed of others, leads to the death of half the Borribles on the quest and leaves open to question the motives of those who said the Raid should take place. For all that Borribles remain children forever; some of them do a lot of growing up.

For all the serious undertones and the important themes, this is an exciting adventure. The world of the Borribles and the Rumbles is created with great conviction, existing alongside the ‘real’ world. The characters are wonderfully drawn and the ways in which they are torn by different loyalties are handled with subtlety.

All three Borrible books are now available in a single volume, and anyone serious about quality children’s fiction should give this a try. It is an adventure worth taking. But remember. Don’t get caught!

Friday, 11 January 2008

The Invisible Man - H G Wells

Published in 1897, The Invisible Man is one of Wells’ earliest works. And along with others produced in that first prolific period, it was destined to become a classic, not just of science fiction (a genre yet to take shape), but of literature in general. Although not the first to do so, Wells certainly gave us definitive versions of time travel (using a machine), alien invasion, space travel, aerial warfare, genetic manipulation, and future history.

In these earlier scientific romances, Wells uses a technique that makes his tales credible and, as a consequence, more effective. They are told simply, are set in the everyday world, and concern everyday people. Granted his central characters are often eccentric men of learning, but Wells is interested on the effects these individuals have on their fellows and on society as a whole. That society is not always human society or in the here and now, but Wells always has an eye for moral and social questions and the effects of the misuse of science.

First and foremost, however, Wells is a great story teller. He draws wonderfully realistic (if often affectionately comic) characters and has a keen eye for place. The Invisible Man takes place, in part, in a rural Sussex that I recognise from my youth (no, I’m not that old, but some parts of Sussex have changed little in the last century – although I have no doubt there is already planning permission in place to concrete them over, build multi-million pound flyovers to save commuters a few extra seconds travelling time, and stick up hideous housing developments in places where flood water will constitute their only regular supply). And those locations I do not know are deftly described to provide a strong visual setting.

Wells is also of a period in which writing was recognised as a tool, a means to end, not the end itself. He writes clearly and skilfully, knowing the story and its subtly conveyed underlying messages are more important than any display of technical skill or linguistic pyrotechnics.

Don’t be put off by the fact this is a book that is going to be found in the ‘classics’ or the ‘science fiction’ section of a bookshop. It is a work of strong social observation, a work that explores the consequences of greed and obsession, a work that exposes our reactions to things we do not understand. It is also a great story. Read. Enjoy.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

Death and the Penguin - Andrey Kurkov

This is a dark, comic tale that could perhaps only have been written by a Russian, yet which transcends any national boundaries. Set in Kiev, it concerns Viktor, an aspiring writer who produces obituaries for a newspaper and his pet, a penguin called Misha. This alone would afford comic potential, but the story is about something else altogether – Viktor’s discovery that there are sinister undertones to his work.

It would be difficult to say more without giving anything of the slender plot away. Yet it is not the plot which is important. It is the absurd, almost surreal existence that Viktor leads in a strange looking-glass world that is, at one and the same time, depressingly real.

Kurkov writes in a deceptively simple style (an assumption based on the translation by, appropriately enough, George Bird). He uses short chapters and an episodic structure, sketching black and white vignettes that possess a surprising amount of detail. Many of the scenes remain vivid in the memory, perhaps because they are such everyday things with which we are all familiar. Yet they build, layer upon layer, into a highly complex philosophical and psychological study of a people and a country living in the aftermath of a failed social experiment.

Which makes it sound like a dull book. It is not. Shot through with dry, dark humour and leavened by a situation reminiscent of N F Simpson, this is a book well worth reading. Vibrant, beautifully constructed, and having plenty to say about social and personal responsibilities and morality, this is a book that should be read by British authors who would do well to consider how much better this is than most of the tired hack work that passes for literature in the UK.

Friday, 4 January 2008

Winter Holiday - Arthur Ransome

Winter Holiday has always been my favourite of Arthur Ransome’s ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books. Clearly at ease with the books and the characters he has created, Ransome tells a wonderful and wholly believable tale. I love the winter setting and the wonderful evocation of an already wild landscape covered with snow. I love the glimpse into lives hitherto peripheral to the stories. And most of all I love Dick and Dorothea.

By introducing new characters, we see the Walkers and Blacketts through new eyes, a great way of keeping familiar characters alive. It also added characters for whom outdoor adventures were something of a mystery. I was more like the Ds than the others and whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the other books, this was the first that actually included me.

It also a favourite because I read this during the winter of 1962/63 when the whole world seemed frozen and the adventures within the book could be echoed in the real world. We drove back from Gloucestershire trying to beat the worst of the weather; little knowing it was going to set in for weeks. Battling through snow, sledging, being the first home (from school) and lighting the fires, sitting in the breakfast room by the coke boiler doing homework… all seemed to me at the time (a boy interested in astronomy and writing) not so very distant from the adventures of the North Polar Expedition.

All of which goes to prove, as I said in my previous post, that some books have an emotional appeal above and beyond their apparent appeal. This does not mean they are no good. I happen to believe that the ‘Swallows and Amazons’ books are well written and as relevant today as they ever have been (if not more so). Accusations of privilege, middle-class values, and all the rest, really don’t hold up, not least when you remember Ransome’s own sympathies.

As chance would have it, it is snowing as I write this. I have an adult perspective on such weather now (as I do on the book), but both are still magical experiences. And we could all do with a few of those now and then.