Saturday, 31 January 2009

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

It is difficult reading a book in adult life that you remember from childhood (although not very accurately in my case a – I clearly have it confused with another book as there were events I thought belonged to this story that did not occur). It is especially difficult when, as an adult, you wonder what the fuss and plaudits were all about. I remember this book seeming alien to me when I read it, but that was part of the appeal. It spoke of a place and of a way of life of which I knew nothing – it could just as easily have been another planet (albeit with a funfair). It still could, but for a whole different set of reasons.

Bradbury’s use of language is florid in places to the point of meaninglessness. It may aspire to the poetic, but poetry has to work for a living, not flap about sounding pretty. Whole chapters (admittedly short) went by and I had no idea what he was talking about or how they advanced the story or developed character or ideas. Some of the misogyny and the use of darkness and deformity as metaphors for evil left me uncomfortable – other than which, I was left emotionally unengaged.

The whole idea of a carnival (travelling fun fair) moving into a small community and acting as a catalyst for a whole host of events could have been richly developed. Instead, it felt hammed up, as if it was beyond Bradbury’s technical range. Indeed, it felt like a gaudy poster, promising wonders that failed to appear.

There is no doubt it has contributed in its own way to the mythologizing of small town USA, and of childhood; but it seems to me that like many books of this nature, it has refused to tackle the reality. It has simply taken what is already a deeply rose-tinted nostalgia and painted another version, this time with gothic overtones. As light entertainment (ignoring those rambling discourses) it was fine. Beyond that it had nothing to say to me.

Monday, 26 January 2009

The Case Of The General's Thumb - Andrey Kurkov

When the corpse of a general is found dangling from the ropes of a large advertising balloon, it sets of a chain of events that are at one and the same time bizarre and completely believable. A confusion and profusion of police and security officials from Russia and Ukraine chase each other’s tails through Europe; a tortoise is rescued; and some, at least, find a semblance of happiness.

In a plot that could have been a straight and highly plausible thriller, we are introduced to a cast of characters who make the best of the situation in which they find themselves. They are a bit closer to reality than some of Kurkov’s other books, although it is often hard to tell when the whole world is mad whether individuals are themselves unusual or just reacting to the unusual world around them.

The writing, as ever, is tight and evocative. We are constantly treated to scenes deftly described with a few phrases, dialogue that is believable, and a growing sense of tension. And, as with all the best thrillers, our expectations are overturned.

I know the slightly surreal take on life that Kurkov has is not to everyone’s taste, but it has to be admitted it is perfectly suited to his subject matter. I relish his work – not just for the subject matter and his view of the world, but also because he produces literary work without literary affectations and pretensions.

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Night And Day - Virginia Woolf

Delicate and extremely subtle - the conventional story line of Night And Day (a couple edged into an engagement that their social position expects find they each love other people) acts as a counterpoint to Woolf's exploration of the complexities of the inner life, especially during emotional turmoil.

Often dismissed as the 'least' of her novels, and talked down by Woolf (in public, at least) this is an important step on the way to her later work. The Voyage Out ably proved her capabilities as a novelist and as someone prepared to over turn the expectations of a novel. In Night And Day, she has proven she can write a seemingly conventional novel, yet with virtually all the action taking place in the inner lives of the characters. As such it is an intriguing exploration of the very nature of experience, of how people in relationships see each other and work round the different visions they have.

Scenes are set in exquisite detail and characters allowed to blossom like orchids – precious, rare, beautiful, and almost always out of the ordinary. The evocation of London seen through the eyes of Katharine (the central character and, thus, Woolf herself) is restrained but honest. There is little in the way of social comment, despite the work undertaken by some of the characters and there is no mention of the First World War which raged as Woolf wrote.

Yet there is a picture here of anguish, of looking at the world and not understanding, of trying to keep passions under control – all of which Woolf was experiencing at the time. There is also a portrait of innocence; of a class so wrapped up in itself that it is oblivious of the darker world beyond the warm sunshine in which it bathes. Woolf makes gentle fun of this world (her own) whilst also questioning the role of women in this society.

Because it is the most conventional of Woolf’s novels, Night And Day is often overlooked. But it is a solid and highly accomplished foundation for the work that follows; work that may not have been so dazzlingly experimental and successful had she not this solid platform from which to take flight.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Hopjoy Was Here - Colin Watson

And here it is.

This third outing into Flaxborough is every bit as humorous and complex as its predecessors. In fact, the plot is much more complex, which rather suits the basic premiss. For in this book, the mundane world of policing in a provincial town bumps up against the shady world of espionage.

This is no slick Bond thriller. Indeed, Watson gently lampoons the Bond character and books whilst paying homage to the grittier and more realistic kind of spy fiction produced by the likes of Len Deighton. There is also more than a nod in the direction of Graham Greene, but to say more would be to give too much away.

Convoluted, as I have said, the whole plot derives quite naturally from the events and the situation in which the characters find themselves. Whilst we see the funny side, and Watson adds a slight element of farce that is in keeping with the story, we are never left in any doubt that actions have consequences, and lies have a habit of biting back.

There is an uncanny prescience about the book (unless Watson changed the names in later editions) for it contains mention of a character called Sir Harry Palmer, thus elevating Len Deighton’s character (named in the 1965 film of The Ipcress File although anonymous in the books) above the mere major Ross (who is Palmer’s boss in Deighton’s books).

Altogether a thoroughly satisfying read and I cannot wait to get my hands on the rest of Watson’s books so that I can read them all again as well.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Bump In The Night - Colin Watson

You wait for ages…

This is Watson’s second Flaxborough novel (although it actually takes place in neighbouring Chalmsbury, and is linked by virtue of the appearance of Inspector Purbright) and it is an altogether darker affair than his first. That is not to say it is grim, the humour is still there, but the story is more sobering.

As before, the humour does not consist of jokes or set-piece ‘funny’ events. Rather, it derives from the characters and their situations, as well as the wry way in which these are conveyed by the author. And at no time does this take away from the realities of the story. It is not a farce, but a humorous observation of real life. Characters face the consequences of their actions, they life through events that could (and frequently do) happen to ordinary people. Indeed, one of the joys of Watson’s books is that ordinary people are shown in all their extraordinary glory.

The plot is satisfyingly replete with red herrings (and very intelligently incorporated they are), has a number of subtle twists, a bit of gentle character development, and plenty of acute observation. It also relies on genuine motives which are worked through in genuine fashion, despite the seeming bizarre nature of the crimes.

Having bought an omnibus edition, there will be a third one along in short order.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Coffin, Scarcely Used - Colin Watson

This is the first of Watson’s twelve Flaxborough novels and introduces us to the town of Flaxborough and Detective Inspector Purbright. For anyone who enjoys a quirky (without being absurd), complex (without being convoluted) crime mystery, it is an introduction well worth seeking out.

Watson writes with an economy and wit that is easy to read, the smooth surface of an assured and highly accomplished author who manages more in terms of characterisation, scene-setting and plotting, than many a ‘literary’ author. Indeed, he proves to me, beyond any doubt, that the best writing in the English language is to be found in genres such as crime or sf (along with what is undeniably some of the worst).

With no apparent effort, this book not only populates a believable provincial town with equally believable characters, it does so within the framework of a convincing mystery. On top of which it is funny. Not sly or witty (although there is wit), but genuine, good-natured humour. And whilst these books lack the dark and sometimes angry satire of Jack Trevor Story, they are on a par with his work in their observation of a place and time that also manages to convey a universal appeal.

As with all such accomplished writers, Watson’s novels (and his non-fiction study of crime fiction) are out of print. They are well worth keeping an eye out for next time you are browsing in a second-hand bookshop for they will entertain you and, if you are interested in learning what good writing is like, they will instruct you.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

Neverwhere (author's preferred text) - Neil Gaiman

I am always wary of such epithets as ‘Director’s Cut’, or ‘Author’s preferred text’. I have no objection to works being restored to the way their auctor intended, especially if they have been badly butchered or censored. But ninety-five times out of a hundred what we are getting is a self-indulgent, over-stuffed reprint that is cashing in on an author’s (or director’s) popularity.

Sadly, I think this belongs with the ninety-five. I found the story to be thin (very little actually happens – most of the book is padding, looking at the scenery, as it were) and the basic premiss flawed (someone who can open any door without a key, goes on a quest to find a key?). Ideas are not developed, characterisation is scant, there is altogether too much ‘telling’ and not enough ‘showing’, and some of the writing is downright sloppy. Given all the work that was supposed to have gone into producing this ‘preferred text’ you would think someone might have pointed out the rough patches.

I am at a loss (based on this and other Gaiman books I have read) to understand his huge popularity. His books are interesting enough, but if you strip away the mythos that surrounds the author, what you are left with is a mildly interesting entertainment. I do not find the ideas to be especially original (or well-developed). Like Rowling, and others of that ilk, he seems to have ridden a wave not of his own making.

If I had a copy of the book as it was originally published, it might be interesting to see what has been done with it, but I don’t and I won’t be going out of my way to find one.

Sunday, 11 January 2009

The Thin Man - Dashiell Hammett

In many senses a standard mystery tale, this stands head, shoulders, and a goodly length of torso above most other books of that genre. It is not just Hammett’s superb writing that elevate this work (although that would be enough on its own), it is the sense that the author has relaxed into his work – paradoxically so as this was his last completed novel.

There are other aspects to the work that make it such a wonderful read. The central characters, Nick and Nora Charles, are a superb creation (and a great deal more convincing than the movie versions). Thought to be based in part on Hammett and Lillian Hellman, there is a genuine rapport between the two with a sufficient edge of tension to make them realistic. The dysfunctional Wynant family is sharply observed, and the minor characters are that rare combination of grotesque and believable.

Nick Charles, once a detective, is drawn into a murder investigation against his will. He is happily retired, helping his wife manage her inheritance. But he has not lost his skills or his tough attitude to life. Acting as a catalyst to official investigations, he helps to solve the mystery and unmask the murderer. Along the way, we are treated to some wonderful scenery, great characters, confident plotting, and writing that is mature, assured, and unfussy.

As an adjunct, I read this in the Library of America edition of the Complete Novels (which I bought to replace my ageing paperbacks). This series of books (the idea derived from the French Bibliothèque de la Pléiade) is a real treat and excellent value. They are authoritative editions of an author’s work, built to last (acid free paper, solidly bound in hardback), and great value. It’s a shame we don’t have something like this in the UK. It would be a much more sensible thing for lottery money to be spent on than some of the projects that have been supported (and failed) in the past.

Saturday, 10 January 2009

Passing For Human - Jody Scott

I missed this book when it first came out (and only came across it as I’m obsessively filling in the gaps in my Women’s Press science fiction collection). This was my loss.

The basic story is fairly straightforward sf fare. Alien anthropologists study earth, despair at humans, decide they are a disease that needs wiping out, whilst doing battle with other aliens who wish to enslave humanity (and perhaps produce what would be the most frighteningly efficient and expendable race of warriors the galaxy has ever seen).

In the hands of a lesser writer that could have been a big, steaming pile of schlock. In the hands of Jody Scott, it is a funny, compassionate, and rip-roaring adventure that exposes the flaws in the alien cultures just as readily as it exposes our own.

The pace of the story never lets up, yet it finds room for serious contemplation of humanity’s woes. The style is easy, with an edge of noir. The central character is a bit of a tough girl which, mixed with her naivety about humans, makes for an intriguing and likeable character. Especially as she (in common with the other aliens) inhabits bodies she has chosen from Earth culture – Brenda Starr, Emma Peel, and Virginia Woolf. Who could not like that, especially the final scenes in which Virginia Woolf is involved in a running gun battle.

The humour, pace, and wry observation make this a rare and wonderful beast – a serious science fiction novel that doesn’t take itself seriously.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Screwrape Lettuce - Jack Trevor Story

Story moved from social realism delivered with wry humour (notably his Albert Argyle) novels, to more surreal settings that had a paranoid edge to them. Screwrape Lettuce is one of the latter. Here, attempts by Russian scientists to create a food stuff for rabbits to make them more sexually active (sounds crazy, but no dafter than the cloning of animals that have been reproducing themselves successfully for millions of years), end in disaster. The lettuce, which causes priapism in male mammals, is smuggled onto the black market and reaches England where it starts to create havoc, not least within the special police unit formed to track it down and eradicate it.

This is a very funny book, like his earlier work, and it is still sharply witty. But the humorous edge is not quite as smooth as in earlier books. Here, there is a jagged edge, an angry undertone. It never gets in the way of the story telling, but seethes beneath the surface, transforming the work into a diamond hardness.

In one sense it is easy to see why this angry undertone exists. The targets are worthy of anger. Violence against women, genetic manipulation, cruelty to animals, and a brutal attitude to sex that is seen as the norm by many men. And the British Police. Story had his own, good reasons for disliking the police and they do not escape lightly. Given this, it is a wonder that Story manages to create successfully such a farcical tale.

All the trademarks of Story’s work are here. The acute character observation, flawless story telling, wonderful description, and a sense of the absurd. And also a characteristic lifting away of the social conventions to show the often foetid underbelly of life. All done with an apparent ease and economy of language that tells you this is a real master at work.

Friday, 2 January 2009

Howl's Moving Castle - Diana Wynne Jones

Having watched the film again over Christmas, I decided it was time to revisit the book for the umpteenth time. And what it a joy it was to do so.

I’ve been a fan of DWJ’s books since they first appeared. I read Wilkin’s Tooth to various classes when I was teaching and have followed them ever since. Howl’s Moving Castle is one of my favourites.

Whilst it contains a DWJ trademark plot of complexity, this never detracts from the very simple story at the heart of the book. Fairy tale motifs are seamlessly woven into the author’s own vision and good use is always made of the comic potential (just how do you stop if you are wearing seven-league boots?). And all this told with a unique view of the world that is both charming (in many senses) and invigorating.

All in all, a great way to start the year – a well written book that is fun to read.

And a note on film adaptations. In this instance, the film departs from the book in a number of ways. Yet it also manages to keep the essential story and uses some devices that actually enhance it. I am still in two minds about the steam-punk Edwardianism, but it was nonetheless a well made film and enjoyable in its own right.