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).