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.