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.