Friday, 10 December 2010

I Shall Wear Midnight - Terry Pratchett

I was apprehensive about this. Wintersmith seemed to me to be a weak book – a novella trying to be a novel by padding out the Feegles. Happily, this one seems to be back on form (and it has a hare). There are few surprises as the plot unfolds, Pratchett relies on ideas he has used before, but he is the kind of author who does not need to worry about this (although too much information in the cover illustration could spoil it for others).

Tiffany Aching is growing up and faces yet another world shattering challenge. And wins. Of course. Which makes it all sound terribly dull. Far from it. Because this is a study of character. The setting is familiar both to Discworld fans and to readers new to his work. It is a small community. It may be quasi-medieval and rural, but the fact is most of us still live like that anyway, even in big cities in so-called democracies.

Nor is it just about an individual growing up, but that community. Because this book tackles terrorism and the ways in which it can be defeated. Unfortunately, this is a fantasy novel and the sensible approach to terror suggested is not played out in the real world where force and suppression make governments every bit as thuggish as the terrorist groups they spawned and now profess to oppose.

Tiffany knows that one answer is education. Open, unfettered, in which pupils are given the tools to think for themselves – sadly ironic at a time when in the UK education has become all about rote learning at a level sufficient to produce what was once called factory fodder. Except we no longer have factories. We no longer make. We no longer rely on ourselves and our immediate communities.

Or at least that’s how I read it. In other regards it is standard Pratchett fare. That is to say, superbly well written, superbly well constructed, humorous and serious in perfect balance, containing very real characters, and offering a wise insight into the world for which we should all be thankful.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Two Women Of London - Emma Tennant

It is very clear from the beginning what this short novel is going to be about. Not difficult when two of the characters are Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde. Yet despite working from such a well-known source, Emma Tennant has produced a work that is very much her own and which retains tension throughout.

The Jekyll and Hyde theme is used to explore a community of women and the forms of feminism they represent. This is done with such a light touch that the story is allowed to make its point without once become a lecture. There isn’t time. The pace is pushed throughout via the notion of someone collating witness testimony after an event. In this way we get different perspectives on the story.

Ultimately, we know what has happened, but the why is what becomes intriguing. That and the community (which must surely have sprung from the same influences that inspired Moorcock’s Sporting Club Square stories), living in a part of London I knew before it became gentrified in the ‘80s.

As ever, with a Tennant novel, the construction and skill of the author is as much a joy as the content. The way in which she conveys atmosphere and draws character with such apparent effortlessness, the way in which there is never any sense of a supreme proponent showing off just how clever they are, the way in which old and new ideas are melded and used to cast a new light in old dark corners… Excellent.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Doomsters - Ross Macdonald

I had intended to add this to the ‘other books read this year list’, but The Doomsters deserves a special mention. The framework of the book is fairly typical Macdonald. It is as much about personal corruption as public corruption, the plot is complex without ever feeling contrived, and the characters are as always fascinating. Indeed, they drive this story - sometimes sedately, sometimes with complete disregard for the safety of others.

What makes this so special is the depth of the psychological insight, set out effortlessly through the story and its inhabitants. It is about insanity, regret, the infinite shades of morality that lie between those two impostors ‘good’ and ‘bad’. It is about how we deal with guilt; it is about the nature of guilt. It is also an exploration of existentialism. Not bad for a book that on the surface is a noirish thriller about murder.

The other thing that makes this book so special is that all the above is the result of the plot. The story is key. The situations, the events, and the characters present us with the ideas and discussions without once breaking the narrative. Events happen within a couple of days. And apart from quite natural discussions with a psychiatric social worker, the exposition is the story.

Friday, 19 November 2010

The Erasers - Alain Robbe-Grillet

This was Robbe-Grillet’s first published novel and it broke new ground with enormous confidence. On the surface it is a detective novel of a peculiarly French kind - quiet, philosophical and so real you can feel the grit. If it was a movie it would be black and white. And the allusion to movies is apposite as Robbe-Grillet went on to be involved with some wonderful film projects as well.

So far so ordinary. Where Robbe-Grillet hacks through a hedge and builds a gate to a whole new field is in his technique. Given his success in film, it is valid to note that his written work is cinematic in the sense that we are given images, often repeated, often focussed on tiny detail, and from these we are allowed to construct a story. This is not so much abstract as cubist - we come back to scenes and details but always from slightly different perspectives. It is these that allow us a glimpse into the inner lives of the characters rather than straight descriptions of how characters are feeling.

Chronology is also dispensed with. It is not thrown out altogether; rather it is used in a way that reflects our inner view of the world. Whilst events may occur in a sequence, we very often revisit them when thinking of them, re-arranging events and our responses to them. Through this we are allowed to build up a comprehensive picture of what is happening in the novel.

Counter to the intuitive thought that a detective story becomes less enigmatic; this one becomes more complex as it goes on. The basic story is satisfying in itself, but the real joy is experiencing the way in which it unfolds through the minor detail and the slow composition of the whole.

If there is one problem I have with this particular translation it is that the translator clearly did not know the difference between a revolver and an automatic pistol. It makes no real difference to the story, but the two guns have radically different ways of working and it just bugged me. Perhaps I should brush up my extremely rusty French and read it in the original (although I fear if I brushed away that much rust there would be nothing of substance left to work with).

Highly recommended and an ideal place to start with Robbe-Grillet if you have never read his work before.

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

We Who Are About To... - Joanna Russ

A small group of people are stranded on a planet after an accident. They have limited supplies and absolutely no hope of ever being rescued. It is a simple premiss and one that has been explored before to the point of cliché. But Russ turns the situation on its head. Because instead of a stirring tale of survival against all odds, of populating the planet, blah blah, we have a tale that probably reflects what would actually happen.

One of the group, the narrator, does not see why they should bother attempting to survive. She would much rather they made their peace with themselves and died. This immediately makes her the enemy of the others who cannot grasp such a realistic attitude. The book is the record of her thoughts spoken onto a dictating machine.

Although the end is inevitable, the route there is swift and shocking. Yet it also manages to be full of compassion, wit, and wisdom. And the portrayal of the disorientation of starvation is heartbreaking.

Oh that all books were this well written, this intelligent, this wise, this amusing. It could have descended into a morose sludge, with thick layers of false sentimentality. That we go through the whole traumatic experience with something approaching calm and not the least self-pity makes this all the more powerful.

My admiration is doubled by the fact that Russ (like Ballard and others of that ilk) has deliberately chosen science fiction as a home base and always stayed true to that through her writing life, despite the fact it has probably condemned her quite undeservedly to a ghetto. This is a literary work of great power. It speaks volumes about the human condition, about the relationship of the sexes, about attitudes to life, about how we each cope when we know that life is ending.

The writing is sharp, controlled, and full of subtle imagery that gives it a depth which makes a return reading just as rewarding as all the previous readings. If you haven’t read any science fiction because you have been taught to believe it is all pulp nonsense filled with two-dimensional characters and outrageous plots, this would be the book to dispel all those prejudices.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

Kuldesak - Richard Cowper

Whilst neither the premis of the book (humanity emerging from a computer ruled underground enclave after two thousand years) nor the denoument (computer destroying humanity for its own good outwitted by a new evolutionary trait) is original, the strength of the book lies in the sheer skill with which it is written.

Cowper builds his world with the most subtle of brush strokes and peoples it with realistic characters. He does not explain anything. Through the story of a small group of people, he reveals their world and their culture; and whilst his light is focussed on a small group, we see enough in the half lit glimpses on the periphery to fill in some gaps, but still leave us wondering.

Like his other work, this demonstrates that the best science fiction and fantasy is every bit as well written as ‘serious’ literature and deals with equally serious subjects (in this case what it means to be human).

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

Room 13 - Edgar Wallace

Edgar Wallace is perhaps best known for co-writing King Kong and for ‘The Four Just Men’. For many writers that would be enough. It would certainly have brought in a decent amount of cash. But Wallace was famously prolific. 175 novels. Collections of short stories. Screenplays. He even directed. And died in debt - but that’s a whole other story.

It might be thought that someone who can produce so many novels would be turning out rubbish. Now, it is true that his work is not high art (however you care to describe that), but that doesn’t make it bad. He wrote thrilling yarns with strong storylines and interesting (if not always believable) characters. And sometimes he produced books and characters that are on a different level.

One such is Mr J G Reeder. Although he featured in only a handful of books (three novels and two short story collections) he has deservedly found a place in popular fiction as one of those characters that seem to exist independently of the pages in which they appear. Reeder is an enigmatic character. One can easily see him as a precursor of le Carré’s George Smiley. Apparently mild mannered, yet absolutely ruthless when the situation demands; intelligent; reclusive; and relying on his wits and a propensity for understanding the criminal mind.

Room 13 on the surface is a crime thriller, a bit of hokum to enliven the daily commute or unwind with after a dull day at the office or behind the shop counter. It is clear why his work was so popular. Escapism with a strong structure, sympathetic heroes, villains who get their just deserts, and enough intelligence for the reader to feel they have accomplished something more than a bit of time-wasting. That is a great combination for a best-seller.

Revolving around a story of forged money and revenge, the book rattles along with gusto. We are taken into the criminal underworld as imagined by the writer (and probably a long way from the truth). The action is leavened by ingenuity and enough exposition to colour in an otherwise sparsely sketched world. And through it all, almost like a haunting ghost, is the presence of J G Reeder. He doesn’t even appear until Chapter 11 and fades in and out of the narrative much as one would expect of someone who is several times described as on secret service.

And when the book is finished (with some unexpected twists), the character of J G Reeder remains. Despite only a few appearances, he does not fade as quickly as the other characters. There is a sense that he is still there, in the shadows, listening and watching.

This is a book (indeed the whole Reeder series) that any aspiring should read. They are instructive as to economy, plotting, characterisation, and pace. They are fun. And they have left us with one of fiction’s more intriguing characters.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

The Colour Of Rain - Emma Tennant

First published in 1963 under the pen name of Catherine Aydy, this is Tennant’s first novel. It recounts episodes in the lives of a group of privileged, empty people. A soap opera of childish adults, moving from one diversion to the next, pretending to be oh so civilized. But their world is like a sugar cage. Spun at random, colourless, flavourless and over sweet, brittle. It might be self-supporting, but it is obvious how easily it can break or dissolve.

All the activity is there, one suspects, to divert these people from the fact they stand on the edge of a great inner emptiness. If they did not fill their lives with the shiny baubles they can afford and the vacuous people who are all much the same, they would see the drop into nothing and like many when faced with such overwhelming existential horror; they would step off the edge.

Told largely through dialogue and a brittle prose that reflects the lives of its characters, this is an intriguing little novel. Although in some ways it records a very specific moment in time, that point when children stopped dressing like their parents, when music would influence a whole generation, when the ‘60s as a cultural phenomenon was about to begin, it also timeless. There are still people like this. The source of the money that allows such privileged living may have changed, but these people still flit like butterflies in their own little world. The horror of today is that they have such malign influence on the lives of others and in their own thoughtless way they fight to the death (usually someone else’s) to cling on to their privilege.

It is clearly a first novel from a time when novelists were expected to grow and were given time to do so by their publishers. But there is some fine writing here. Light, sharp, and full of an accurate social criticism that lifts the shiny surface and shows us what is beneath.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Romantic Egotist: An Unauthorised Biography of Jack Trevor Story - Brian Darwent

It is difficult to know where to start with this book. I read it because of my love of Story’s work, but I have to say I found the experience to be loathsome. On a very basic level, the book is badly written. The style is pedestrian. It rambles and, as a result, it confuses. It hasn’t even been properly proofed as spelling mistakes and typographical errors abound. As a biography it fails on a basic level. It cites no sources and seems to contain nothing that could not be gleaned from Story’s fiction (always a dubious prospect for whilst Story was known to mine his own life extensively for material, it was fiction he was writing).

Whilst we are offered a vaguely chronological amble through Story’s life, it is not placed in any but the narrowest social context. Rather like placing something on its own in a display case. Having no idea of how usual or unusual were Story’s circumstances in his early life, for example, it ends up being presented as something of a freak show. A person’s formative years are important to an understanding of their life, especially if their life is considered worth documenting. Without that background, without that context, we are adrift from the very beginning.

And this continues. Jack Trevor Story was a writer. Yet much of the work is glossed over as if the author of the biography didn’t want to talk about the books and other writings beyond mentioning that they were written at a certain time. To me this rather misses the point, particularly as some of Story’s work is now difficult to get hold of. Even a dedicated collector like me has only a fraction of his output. And where the work is mentioned, I could not shake the feeling that it was being sneered at.

This was a missed opportunity on a grand scale. Jack Trevor Story was a complex man whose life was equally complex, not to say complicated. He was certainly a highly talented, not to say unique writer - a man who never let his work settle into a rut. One would think that the point of a biography would be to try to unravel the complexity and explore the writer’s life and his work. In the end, however, we are left with the impression the author gave up trying, that it was all too much like hard work, that he expected Story to dictate his life to him in a coherent fashion. Story certainly wasn’t happy with what he saw of it. Neither was I.

Story’s life and work is fascinating, as is the milieu in which he worked. The opportunity is there to explore how publishing worked for the jobbing writer in the ‘50s and ‘60s and beyond; how the television and film industry treated writers (and still does); how someone managed to keep writing and producing fresh material despite (and because of) the events in his life. The opportunity is also there to place Jack Trevor Story where he firmly belongs in the top rank of writers of the second half of the twentieth century. Sadly, all that has been wasted.

If you want to know about Jack Trevor Story, do not seek out this book. It would be a waste of effort and money. Seek out Jack Trevor Story’s books instead. There you will find writing of rare talent that outshines much of what passes for literature today; that is genuinely comic; and which reflects the chaos that is modern life.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Steppenwolf - Herman Hesse

It is sometimes difficult returning to a book that you read in your late teens and have not re-read since then. There is a huge accretion of memory (often erroneous as memory can be) and emotion, especially when it is one of those books you recall as having had a profound effect. So much so that I went on to read whatever of Hesse I could find.

Returning to this, I am struck by two things that I probably didn’t consider on the original reading. The first is the language. My German has never been good enough to tackle something like this so I rely on translation. That means I do not know if it is the original or the translation that is so stiff-necked, so formal, but it simply felt at odds with the subject of the book. The structure is by no means standard for a novel. Hesse is happy to play with that. It seems unlikely he would be so in thrall to his native language that he would not know how to match the language to the various moods of the book.

The second is that for me, this will always be a book associated with adolescence and a flowering of my creative side. To my adult self it seems a juvenile work. Interesting, but a bit embarrassing, a bit too conscious of its literariness. This does not mean I do not like it. Every work as ambitious as this must be allowed a level of ‘roughness’ because it is venturing into places no one has been before.

Although a novel this stems from an age before writing courses and professionalisation of the art dictated current ‘axioms’. It is a novel of ideas. Whilst things happen (although not very much), the work is more interested in the development and exploration of ideas. The plot, such as it is, is a very loose framework on which to hang the discourse. Characters are almost irrelevant.

When I was reading the end section I was put in mind of the TV show The Prisoner (the original, not the appalling ‘remake’). That too had its faults, but it was nonetheless intriguing and explored many of the themes to be found in Steppenwolf - about identity, about being trapped, about escape, about trying to make sense and impose a pattern on an essentially chaotic world. And ending with a seemingly bizarre series of surreal events from which ideas and messages can be constructed to your heart’s content.

I am glad I took the time to revisit, and I would recommend it to younger readers as it is a book that anyone concerned with the nature of our inner lives should read; but it should be read early when it has time to imprint those essential messages, especially those about the way in which the life of the mind cannot be sustained without recourse to the feeding of the body and the senses.

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

The Moving Target - Ross Macdonald

As someone who much enjoys the work of Hammett and Chandler, it seemed only right that at some stage I would seek out Macdonald’s books. That it has taken so long is a bit of a mystery. I knew he was considered the heir to Hammett and Chandler, but somehow I had never got round to reading any of his work. It’s something I’ll be putting right in the near future.

Although not his first novel, this is the first of a series to feature his private eye Lew Archer. Archer is cast in the same mould as others of his ilk. He has been a policeman, served in Intelligence during the Second World War, has a broken marriage, is something of a tough guy, but is not as tough as he acts. Because his inner world is available to us through the use of first person narrative.

In the same West coast settings as Hammett and Chandler, Macdonald explores the same territory and uses the same settings, yet we have a view of the world that is from a slightly different perspective. This is partly due to the fact that Macdonald takes up the reins in the post-war era. I’m looking forward to his work written in the 60s to see how he observes the social changes of the time.

In The Moving Target, he notes how some men who flourished in a combat situation had trouble readjusting to civilian life and often fell into trouble or made a concerted move into a life of crime. This is introduced as a natural part of the story (a kidnap caper that goes wrong and exposes the ways in which upright citizens can be corrupted by the influence and presence of the corrupt).

By the time Macdonald wrote this book, he was had already proved himself as a writer. It is somewhat lacking in variations of pace. In part that is the race-against-time element of the story, but a few moments to draw breath would have produced greater contrast for the tension. Apart from that, this is a slick novel that pays great attention to detail, not just in terms of plot and character, but in the mechanics of writing as well.

It’s always a joy to find a ‘new’ author whose books one enjoys. I can see lots of pleasurable reading ahead.

Thursday, 5 August 2010

Dance Your Way To Psychic Sex - Alice Turing

This book is something of a literary earthquake. From the very beginning you are aware of a fault line; you know that in the depths there are tensions building. And as with all earthquake zones, the eye moves from place to place assessing the safe spots, the danger points, the escape routes, all in the knowledge that when the earth moves, all bets are off. Because when and where an earthquake is triggered and with what ferocity is wholly unpredictable.

Here, the seismic rumblings are of a personal nature. As the book opens, we follow Henrietta into the epicentre. And already we can feel the coiled energy that will release and turn everybody’s life upside down and inside out, knowing they will have to cope with a world full of aftershocks as they survive in the ruins and start the long process of rebuilding.

Such a novel could be unremittingly gloomy. Happily for us, it is not. The themes of love, loss, betrayal, faith, and illusion are handled well. There is no moralising, no sense that the author has an axe to grind, merely that she has an insight she wishes to share and the talent to share it in such an interesting and entertaining way. It treats serious subjects with sensitivity, yet it manages also to be comic. There are no knockabout routines, no custard pies in the face. The humour and the comedy are integral to the characters and to the situation – and much of what happens grows out of the characters in an entirely natural way.

Indeed, the book put me in mind of Jack Trevor Story, for it is a somewhat surreal yet convincing tale populated by characters who, for all their oddities and intensities, are wholly believable and deftly drawn. These are characters not always in control of their fate, who view the world with a bewildered eye, but who manage to survive. Swept away by the craze of Psychic Dancing, we are offered glimpses into the world of stage magicians and mentalists, as well as the lives of those caught out by success.

The author also does the reader the honour of treating them as intelligent. No spoon feeding of pap on plastic spoons. Rather, we are fed morsels of the best quality with a spoon that… Well, maybe there is no spoon. The writing is smooth and clear, like a good whisky; because it is also intoxicating. The story is well constructed and complex without resorting to tricksiness. The resolution is satisfying even if, like real life, all the ends are not neatly tied in a bow.

There were a couple of times I found myself wondering why it had been written in the present tense. I normally find this difficult to cope with, but the pace and content soon made me forget about it. It did however put me in mind of a film script and made me realise what a great television series this would make.

If you like an intelligent read that is both thoughtful and entertaining; if you like a book that is well written; if you like something a little out of the ordinary; then I suggest you buy this book. You’ll be doing yourself a favour and you’ll be supporting a writer who deserves much greater recognition.

Tuesday, 27 July 2010

The Bad Sister - Emma Tennant

Often billed as a retelling of James Hogg’s masterwork, it is a great deal more than that, and to suggest otherwise seems to me to belittle what the author has achieved. Indeed, this is Emma Tennant at her very best. Confident, intelligent, and searching, she has produced a novel of great simplicity and enormous power.

The simplicity lies not in the story which is an interweaving of many layers, but in the telling. A lesser author would have made a hash of trying to keep so many narratives moving forward in such a way. Yet we are never lost in these layers, just as we are never lost in the mysteries. Nothing is explained, yet we are never left behind, because the author paints such a convincing picture.

The narrative is tight, tense, and slips in and out of the surreal in a way that many so-called magic realist writers have never managed. Such seamless writing is a joy to read; the use of such techniques enhancing the story. And there is extra joy in the fact we are left to engage with the story at our own level. A fantastical show is put on for our delight, both entertaining and thought provoking. How far we wish to go in looking behind the scenery is up to us. The door is there should we choose, but it is never once pushed at us.

Jane’s journey is one of feverish nightmare, never certain what is dream, what is hallucination, and what is real. Her encounters, her memories, and her actions move in and out of these different realms. And the end of the book takes us out of the quintessential urban setting with its noise and business back to the wilds where one can feel the cool, green, damp and the loneliness that lies at the heart of this sad tale.

Buy. Read. Marvel.

Saturday, 17 July 2010

Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction - Jonathan Culler

Like other books in this series, this is surprisingly comprehensive for such a short text – especially given the complexity of the subject. The author takes an unusual approach to the subject, leaving an explanation of various schools of theory to an appendix. Instead, he concentrates on questions and approaches that are shared by these various schools. In this way, he is able to introduce the subject in a way suitable for complete beginners without compromising depth. You come away from this book with a grounding in the subject sufficient to move to more comprehensive introductions, especially those that look in depth at the various schools. For that, this book is to be recommended.

On the other hand, as someone who knows something about the subject, the book simply entrenched my own thoughts about literary theory. But I’m a writer and I have never really understood the vast edifice of literary criticism and theory that has grown up around works of fiction. To me it seems like a Gormenghastian labyrinth encrusted about some simpler core whose goal was to make the reading of works of literature a more pleasurable experience through the medium of a greater understanding of the text. It often seems to me that the subject of literary theory is no longer literature, but literary theory.

For a writer, these things are a distraction. The many different ways in which people pull a work apart makes the assumption they know better, that their view of the world is superior, and gives the impression that somehow they need to (a) find a sense of humour and (b) get a life. These are books they are discussing. They may be important. Some works certainly change the course of history. But the extremes of literary theory treat literature (when it remembers that is the subject) as the be all and end all. This ignores the fact that a huge proportion of the world’s population cannot read, and that of those who can, only a minority read literature for anything other than pleasure.

So, if you are interested, this is a good book to get you started. But don’t take it seriously. By all means think about the things you read and the assumptions that the author seems to be making about the world. But remember also to read for pleasure – elevating small sections of literary output is to create divisions that should not be there. It also contributes to the somewhat absurd situation in which works now touted as ‘literary’ by publishers are mostly vacuous. Many works of the past now considered canonical were popular works. We have, through the literary industry, elevated them to an imaginary strata fit only for the intelligentsia; those in the know; those with the wit to ‘understand’ them properly. People should be allowed to approach books for their own reasons and pleasures, not those dictated by others. Readers should certainly have the basic tools beyond an ability to read, but the relationship they have with a work or with an author should be personal.

Friday, 9 July 2010

Visitants - Randolph Stow

In perfect tune with the setting (Papua New Guinea), this seems to be a languorous work. Each of the main participants in the story take their turns to tell short fragments, building a complex, multi-coloured, mosaic. This too adds to the atmosphere, painting a picture of life in tropical climes, hopping from island to island, walking through the humid air, taking everything at a gentle pace.

But this is a deceptive novel. Using a real event as its starting point (the Boianai Mission UFO sightings of June 1959), the book explores ideas of what it is to be alien, to be a visitant, the effect of different cultures on one another, and how that impacts on individuals, especially those living in an alien environment. That said, this is not science fiction. The UFO event is a trigger, but everything else is very much down to earth and part of everyday life.

The characters are beautifully drawn; all the subtle detail extracted through the relationships each has with the others in the small communities through which they move. And whilst the book moves at a gentle pace it soon becomes clear that there are strong, deadly undercurrents. The notion of alienness runs at many levels. This is made especially clear by one of the characters toward the end and the way in which this reflected in the events is a masterful piece of story-telling.

It is a book that stays in the mind for a long time, with images clinging like exotic and heady perfume. Deeply moving, in places shocking, there is an alienness in the almost clinical observation of people and events. Yet the book manages at the same time to be warm and sympathetic. Well worth reading.

Sunday, 4 July 2010

The Entropy Exhibition - Colin Greenland

Between 1964 and 1973, the magazine New Worlds came under the editorship of Michael Moorcock. With a change at the helm, the magazine took off in a different direction. It wasn’t an about face as some have claimed any more than it was sudden, but there was a definite air of new direction and a sense that there might actually be a destination to the somewhat rambling pleasure cruise.

Originally a science fiction magazine, Moorcock encouraged the development of new kinds of writing. Science fiction was the starting place, but he (along with many others) was deeply dissatisfied with what science fiction had become – dull and so cut off from the mainstream it might as well have been on another planet (called 'The 1930s').

The time, of course, was ripe for revolution. Set firmly in a milieu of experiment and exploration that saw a blossoming of music, art, and socio-political concerns, it was inevitable that literature would also undergo an upheaval. That it cam from this particular quarter is something that most literary critics and theorists still fail to understand or acknowledge.

Very often, the change in literature at this period is attributed to the ‘gritty realism’ of the ‘angry young men’. Yet this was not a revolution. It stayed well within the bounds of what had gone before yet was feted as a step forward into ‘daring’ territory by people who probably thought not buttoning your collar under your tie was an act of revolution.

To the dismay of entrenched hard sci fi fans, a new tranche of New Worlds authors tore everything up (sometimes literally) and started again. From scratch. They questioned everything. Many of the experiments in writing they tried didn’t work, but they were exuberant, interesting, and for me it was a real joy to read them. They were keeping pace with the music and art scenes (which most of the rest of literature was not), they were political, and they dived headlong into inner space and came back with trophies and reports stranger than any that had ever been brought back from outer space. And they changed literature.

Greenland’s book concentrates on three of the core writers – Aldiss, Ballard, and Moorcock. And in discussing their work, he explores what motivated the revolution (ideas about entropy sit at the heart of much of the work that was written by these and other contributors); how it developed; how it became saddled with a label none of them wanted or agreed with (New Wave); what they achieved; and what the coterie of New Worlds writers really were.

One thing they were not, nor did they ever pretend to be was a ‘movement’. The whole point of what was happening at New Worlds was that serious writers were being allowed to experiment and find a genuine new voice for their writing. Science fiction was the ideal basis for this (and it is gratifying that all the great writers that grew out of New Worlds and rode the shock waves like crazed surfers – Ballard, Moorcock, Aldiss, Bayley, Zoline, Russ, Sladek, Harrison, et al) have never once turned their backs on their roots (unlike many so-called literary writers who have plundered the worst of sci fi for ideas and then had hissy fits when they got busted). Given that each writer involved with this was looking for their own voice, they could never be classed as a movement. The writing styles, the content of their work, the things they were experimenting with and trying to achieve were so diverse, differed so much from writer to writer that call them a movement is absurd. One only has to read statements some of them have made over the years to see how different they were as writers.

Greenland’s exploration of this is insightful and well written (and desperately difficult to get hold of). It casts light on what is often dismissed as a sideshow. Yet this really was a breeding ground for literary revolution. If you don’t believe that, then look out for a copy of this book, and then look out for Ballard’s The Atrocity Exhibition; Aldiss’s Report on Probability A; Moorcock’s two Glogauer books – Behold the Man and Breakfast in the Ruins; and the Moorcock edited New Worlds an Anthology published by Flamingo. They might not be entirely to your taste but it will demonstrate that these are writers who have immeasurably enriched the literary scene and who, in some cases, were so far ahead of the scene in the ‘60s and ‘70s that everyone else is still struggling not just to catch up, but to find any sign of the route they took.

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Albert Rides Again - Jack Trevor Story

Horace Fenton Spurgeon meets Albert Argyle; Story meets Blake (Sexton); past meets present; reality meets surreality; and the collision spills out into a metafiction of absurd humour that is so far off the wall, the wall can no longer be seen. This is, in fact, classic Story, recapturing (in 1990) something of the lighter hearted mood of his novels of the ‘60s. Yet the darker period through which he had travelled never completely lost its hold on his work. There is a harder edge beneath the romp.

Story ties together the chaotic lives of his two major ‘creations’ through the medium of Claude Marchmont, a tally man stepping into the shoes of the deceased Albert Argyle and inheriting all of Albert’s troubles. But the background story, offering a different perspective on A Company of Bandits (one of Story’s Sexton Blake novels) and mixing in various other criminal concerns, is just a vehicle. The true heart of this novel are the characters who, as in many of Story’s novels, are both caricatures and very real at one and the same time.

With a deft hand we are shown the chaos of human life and the way in which we muddle through against all the odds, how we are driven by some very basic concerns, how we find warmth in the dark from very simple pleasures.

Yet this work does something else. Quite apart from its wonderful character portraits and its cast of strange extras, it is a metafiction that wanders with ease between fiction and reality in a way that would make some ‘serious’ ‘literary’ novelists weep with envy. We move between layers of fiction (Albert Argyle had something of Story in him, but his books were as much a portrait of an age as anything else; Horace Spurgeon Fenton was a lightly fictionalised self portrait; we find mention of work that Story produced for television and film, as well as his novels), we move between past and present, we move inside and outside of the author’s head.

At no time, however, does Story lose sight of the fact he is writing an entertainment. The structure (in form of the story about a train robbery) is there and well constructed; the characters are (in terms of the novel) believable; and the whole thing zips along at a wonderful pace. You barely have time to draw breath; events are often confusing because of the pace although the reader is never cheated. If you treat the novel with respect and allow Story’s style to unfold, you are rewarded with an intelligent, exuberant, and first class piece of writing.

Wednesday, 23 June 2010

The Female Man - Joanna Russ

The Female Man is a truly astonishing novel. It first appeared in 1975 and I have since worn out two copies. This is my first reading of a new copy and it still surprises me, not to mention the awe and jealousy I also always feel. Awe that such a superb work can be written; jealousy that such a superb work can be written and I know I’ll never come anywhere near.

Words like ‘visionary’, ‘powerful’, ‘classic’, ‘significant’ have all been applied to this work. And they are all true. If you have not heard of the book it is probably because it also has two other labels: ‘feminist’ and ‘science fiction’. Yes it is both, because at heart it is about the experience of women and it uses the idea of alternate worlds to make its point. But it transcends those labels in a way that makes them almost irrelevant. Only almost, because Joanna Russ, thankfully, has never shied away from be a writer of sf.

In the novel four alternative versions of the same person are drawn from their four alternative worlds. And that’s about it. There are subplots, but the vehicle itself is more than enough to carry the dark wit that is used to explore what it means to be a woman. The different worlds offer different perspectives, such that we can also conclude that rather than four worlds we are offered a glimpse into four archetypes, jostling for room in a single mind.

We see a world that never climbed out of the 1930s and never shed the psychic straightjacket that most women wore throughout their lives. In another we see a world where men have long since died off (and it is no utopia). A third world is torn apart by a literal war of the sexes. And sadly my dull description does none of it any justice. Because Russ is an impeccable stylist, some who has a real power over words, someone who makes them run as smooth and warm as honey, as dark and rich as chocolate, as sharp and powerful as a storm.

The intricate weaving of the four tales contrasts and compares the experience of the women in their different worlds. The sparse action allows both character and ideas to have a life of their own that is every bit as intriguing and suspenseful as any action thriller. The writing is assured, subtle; at times laugh out loud funny, at others the sharpness leaves you bleeding.

It is also a work of metafiction. The author is present (she is one of the characters), and we are treated within the text to some accurate observations on how the book (and feminism in general) is and will be greeted by all the usual suspects. Yet this is no vitriolic polemic; no rant. It is a clever and compassionate piece of writing; a superb piece of science fiction; a well argued work of feminist philosophy; and to my mind one of the truly great novels of the twentieth century.

Monday, 21 June 2010

The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide To Eccentric & Discredited Diseases - Vandermeer & Roberts [eds]

Not the sort of book you’d read at a single sitting, this is a truly eccentric work. The premiss is simple. Invite a number of distinguished writers to compose an entry to a medical dictionary of imaginary diseases. The result? Something that is playful, hilarious and deeply disturbing, sometimes at one and the same time.

It is also extremely insightful, not just of the contributing authors (for in their contributions we see snapshots of their preoccupations and their unique view of the world), but also of the modern world. Download Syndrome (a compulsion to record everything along with the use of appliances for thinking and communicating) sounds like a very real Syndrome to me. Printer’s Evil sounds equally plausible – although I suppose it helps to have a slightly twisted mind.

If you like curios. If you like things that are just plain odd. Very odd. The very essence of odd. This is a book worth looking out for. However, it is not recommended for those who cannot read a medical dictionary without immediately being certain they have every symptom described therein. For such folk, reading this volume would be disastrous on a grand scale.

Monday, 14 June 2010

Tank Girl - Hewlett & Martin

Guaranteed to reawaken those fantasies of being a mutant kangaroo.

Virginia Woolf - Hermione Lee

During my teenage years I rode the train to and from school. Twice a day I passed the spot where Virginia Woolf drowned. Even given the changes since those dark days, the contrast always gave me pause for thought. I used to cycle and walk out that way as well, enjoying the peace, the wildlife, the beauty.

Naturally, I looked at Woolf’s writing; which was enough for me. The woman was a genius with words. I have since revisited her books a number of times, each exploration revealing more about her and more about me. Yet I could never quite wrap my head around the way her life closed in on her so acutely she could think of only way out.

Having now read Hermione Lee’s superb biography I now begin to understand. It is only a beginning, but that is usually the best place to start. I am not a big reader of biographies, especially of writers. As one myself, I know that the great bulk of their lives involves sitting at a table putting words on paper. Not very interesting in itself. And in many cases, their life is irrelevant to the finished product. But when the writer uses their own life and experience as the basis for their exploration of the human condition, then their life is often key to their interpretation.

The other reason I do not often read biographies is that they are usually dull reading. The author either sticks to recounting a series of events or tries to analyse them and ends up making a pigs ear of the silken purse they were first handed. Hermione Lee avoids all the pitfalls. Yes, she recounts the events of Woolf’s life. Yes, she attempts an analysis. But she manages both with great style, with vitality, sympathy, and considerable insight.

At no time does she shy away from Virginia Woolf’s difficult side (which Woolf herself was all too often painfully aware of), yet she treats this with an even-handed approach. Some of it can be explained, but people are often what they are and we have to take them as a whole. Just as we have to take the harrowing episodes in her early life along with the desperately dark inner turmoil that would squeeze the joy out of her life.

Unlike most biographies that leave me feeling like I know a character better, this one has left me feeling I know a real person a lot better. It is a model of biographical writing: scholarly and inclusive, warm and caring. I no longer travel past where Virginia Woolf died. I do not know if I will ever return to that part of the world. But I do know the unquiet ghost of my own lack of understanding will have begun to fade. I hope Virginia Woolf’s spirit has found peace because she has made my world a better place.

Tuesday, 1 June 2010

Queen Of Stones - Emma Tennant

This novel chronicles the ill-fated events that occur when a party of girls on a sponsored walk become separated from the world by a heavy fog. Set in Dorset, we follow the young girls as they wander ending, by a circuitous route, on the Isle of Portland. Cut off from ‘civilising’ norms, the girls quickly enter a dreamtime state in which they must provide all the explanations for events from their own limited pool of experience. The result is a potent mix of fairy tale, half understood (if keenly felt) observations of the adult world, and all the bits of knowledge that have yet to find a framework from which to hang.

All the normal tensions between the girls become exaggerated and all their obsessions become heightened. Alliances form and reform at great speed. The thin veneer of respectable behaviour is quickly stripped away. If this feels familiar, it is clear from the parallels in the book that Tennant is visiting old ground, but with a fresh eye. Applying a Carteresque sensibility to the question posed by Golding, we see young children becoming adults without the wherewithal to cope - physically or emotionally.

The episodes of what happened are interspersed in the novel with commentary by several adults. One is the author. Another is a doctor who has made a poor and outdated psychological assessment of one of the girls. These calm, reasoned voices contrast with the dreamy, chaotic, emotional journey of the children. They are dull and flawed; just as flawed (if not more so) than the elemental girls.

A sense of magic, of dream, and of raw emotional power, imbues this work. It throws out many more questions than it answers and remains the better for it. Any attempt to explain what happened (beyond that of the clearly flawed adult observers in the book) would have drained the work of any power. Readers of the book are treated as intelligent. The language, as ever with Tennant, is sharp and sparse, glimpses of events as the fog shifts, vignettes lit but sudden sunshine and just as quickly hidden.

I am not familiar with Tennant’s later work (something I intend to rectify), but revisiting her earlier work is enlightening. Based on those early works alone, she is for me one of the great writers in English, head and shoulders above the all the usual (male) names that get trotted out and laved with adulation.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Inverted World - Christopher Priest

On re-reading this I remembered why I did not keep what Christopher Priest books I had. This is because, in common with his other work, he has taken a single interesting idea and woven around it what is the dullest book I have read in a very long time.

The central conceit is of an energy crisis that brings modern civilization to ruin. One man’s answer is the discovery of a means of producing energy that involves putting a very large research facility on caterpillar tracks to follow an energy field as it migrates around the earth. All well and highly implausible - it is, after all, science fiction. The problem with this solution is that the energy field alters human perception of the world.

Two hundred years later, the research facility is still crawling along and we see its final days through the eyes of one of its inhabitants. And here it all falls apart. The notion of an inverted world is fine. It would make a good short story or even stretch to a novella. But a novel requires a great deal more than the working out of a single idea. For one thing it needs good characters. And this book singularly fails to deliver.

It fails on other points as well. There is no tension. The collapse of a small, fanatical society; conflict between those on the moving ‘city’ and the lands it passes through; interpersonal relationships are all painted in two dimensions with a prose that plods along at the same speed as the city itself. Which is slow. And we are told everything, jumping from first person to third person for no apparent reason.

This recent edition has an introduction by Adam Roberts (I had to look him up) which itself reads like a pastiche of a dull literary essay. It earnestly explains how clever the book is and all the uses of inversion to be found therein. Frankly, it felt like it was trying too hard to convince. Who, I am not sure. Not me, for one.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Report On Probability A - Brian Aldiss

It is clear that Aldiss’s self-proclaimed ‘anti-novel’ owes a great deal to a number of influences. Perhaps the most obvious and openly acknowledged is that of Samuel Beckett. Aldiss has a character named Watt, and the novel has a strong affinity with Beckett’s early work. We can also see something of Pinter in there, along with Robbe-Grillet. Yet Aldiss manages to stay out of the glare of such luminaries and create a shining work of his very own.

A house in a town is under close observation. In each of the three outbuildings is a character known only by an initial: G, S, and C; although these probably represent Gardener, Secretary, and Chauffeur as these seem to have been the capacity in which each of these characters was once employed. They each observe the house whilst trying to remain concealed. This gives each of them a limited viewpoint.

There are occasional forays across the road to the café opposite the house. This is owned by Watt. And that is all. Events are minimal. The observations and situation of each of the observers is given in minute and obsessive detail. In the process we learn other details and, in particular, our attention is constantly drawn to Holman Hunt’s painting ‘The Hireling Shepherd’ - also described in minute (although sometimes invented) detail.

Clearly this is a book about perception and how we can never see the whole of things; a book about obsession; a book about interpretation. This alone makes it a metafiction as there is a tendency when reading to try to interpret and make what you can of the limited information on offer. Yet the reference to Watt may also point to Beckett’s dictum ‘no symbols where none intended’.

The overall tone of the book is of a dream. The descriptions of the town and the bizarre snippets we are afforded as characters cross the road (a bloody bicycle carried on a stretcher, for example) give everything an air of unreality, drifting between one’s own psyche and that of the worlds created by the likes of Beckett, O’Brien, Robbe-Grillet - intense, enclosed, mundane, yet mysterious.

For me, this is an important work of literature. So why is it ignored by the mainstream? Why do we not see this book included in discussions of absurdist or surrealist literature? Why is it not cited in discussions of the anti-novel? Well, my edition tells me helpfully on the cover that it is a work of science fiction. And to be sure there are some short interpolated passages in which people from different dimensions observe what is happening in the main part of the novel. But they add nothing to the story and I (along with others I have discussed this with) suspect they were put in to make sure the novel made it into print. If you do get hold of a copy, ignore the bits in italics. Read it as a piece of highly-accomplished and extremely intelligent piece of literature.

Sunday, 9 May 2010

The Collected Stories - Katherine Mansfield

Although I have read some of Katherine Mansfield’s stories before, I have never had them collected in a single volume. And what a volume. All her collections (including those published posthumously) and all the unfinished stories. In a single volume. For £2.00. For this, Wordsworth Editions should be applauded (and there are plenty of other reasons for applause where they are concerned).

Mansfield’s work is highly influential. Rightly considered a major proponent of the modern short story, she excelled in a form that is much used but rarely perfected. Her language is luminous, and like light it opens up whole areas often otherwise in shadow, and does so without weight. We are offered glimpses of things we might not otherwise see, of emotions and relationships that would otherwise stay hidden, yet we are never left with the sense of that the author is trying to make a point.

Not all of her stories work. Some feel incomplete and others rely on attitudes that have been irrevocably changed by events. Some are a bit too well crafted and there is an immediacy in the unfinished works that has been smoothed from some of the finished works. However, even the least of her stories are so superbly crafted they are worth reading for the simple pleasure of experiencing language that dances.

The other thing that Mansfield’s work demonstrates is that short stories are an art form in their own right. To find the balance between brevity and depth; to leave the reader feeling that have been treated to something complete that could have been presented in no other way is a great deal more exacting than many believe. And anyone who is serious about writing short stories really should read Katherine Mansfield. It would be £2.00 well spent.

Hotel De Dream - Emma Tennant

In a seedy, decaying boarding house in London, the lodgers dream. Not exactly the best pitch you may have heard for a novel. But the Westringham and its locale are the sort of places one would wish to escape. And for many, dreams are their only refuge. Private worlds where they are in control. Sadly, for these lodgers, even that is denied them. Because the dreams begin to merge and they each other wandering in and out of their sanctuaries, disrupting events and fraying the edges of reality.

Emma Tennant handles all this with wit and a deliciously dark humour. Like an 80% chocolate, it is creamy, strong, with that bitter edge, but ultimately so satisfying you just have to have more. And it is a chocolate with an extra ingredient, because into the mix is thrown an author having problems with her characters who are plotting to kill her. And here, too, the demarcation between reality and fiction shows signs of breaking down. Because the below stairs staff (a vile, Beckettian character called Cridge) seems to be both real and a character from a book. Which of course he is.

It will be clear from previous observations that I enjoy surreal work that refuses to stay firmly on the page. Stories that leak into the real world, whether they are surreal like this or alternative histories, offer a great platform for exceptional stories as well as introducing questions about the nature of reality, about what makes us human. Entertainment and philosophy in one glorious package. And when produced by someone with a mischievous sense of humour, you end up with a book like this - one that proves that the intellectual can be fun; that entertainment need not be vacuous.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

A Tapestry Of Time - Richard Cowper

Like the first volume of 'The White Bird of Kinship' trilogy, this one is in two sections. The first concludes the story begun in the previous volume. It is an altogether darker episode in which prophecies come to pass, but not in the way envisaged by those who had transmitted them. Indeed, the end of the tale that began with the death of the Boy-piper can be taken as a defeat of all the hopes and aspirations of those who fought and threw off the strangling hand of the Orthodox Church.

The second part of the book moves us forward another 700 years and tells of two scholars who set out to discover what really happened all those centuries before - unpicking myth from fact and trying to decide just where (if at all) the difference lies. This acts a gentle counter-balance to the first part and wakens the possibility that the original vision of Kinship might finally be realised.

Written beautifully, as ever, this final book concludes the story in wonderful style and opens up many of the layers that were packed into earlier parts of the book. Not only do we have a complete story of religious revolution, we have a much more complex and ambitious investigation into how religions are shaped, often by disciples whose view of things are subtly different to those they follow.

This acts a commentary on the way in which Christianity, in particular, became the creation of St Paul who set the orthodoxies. In these books, Kinship becomes something other than originally envisioned under the guiding hand of Francis. But we have something deeper than that, because the books are circular. The scholars at the end may well have been the ones who wrote the stories down in the form we have just read them, so we are, at the end, confronted with the further possibility of yet another layer of interpretation - the intention of which is to restore the original vision.

Cowper has produced something quite profound here. A well written and gripping fantasy story that explores religious and philosophical questions without ever losing sight of the wonderful characters he has created. They drive the story rather than being stock figures designed to suit the author’s needs. And he has created a world without once feeling the need to expound on his world-building and explain it all. We experience the world as its inhabitants experience it; we know what they know and are therefore allowed to be confronted by its wonders and horrors without having a tedious tour guide whispering in our ear.

If you enjoy fantasy - this is a must read. If you want to write fantasy - this is a must read.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

Dying, In Other Words - Maggie Gee

I had not heard of this author’s work until a few weeks ago when I read an article in praise of her novels. I did some research and bought this, her first. And I am so glad I did for this is a deliciously cryptic novel in which Gee’s confessed influences shine through strongly. This is not a bad thing because, like all good authors, Gee has used those influences to help forge her own vision of the world. The writing is poetic and intense, yet never strays from the very simple need to tell the stories that surround this single event.

Moira Penny, a writer, is found dead one morning on the cold pavement outside her attic lodgings. A simple starting point that could have led to an upmarket thriller, Gee takes a sideways step into an alternate reality. All through the book we learn of the other inhabitants of the lodging house and of the crescent in which the house is situated. They are obsessional, deluded, and bizarre - almost to the point of cartoonish. Yet this is just the surface. Because as we begin to delve into the lives of these people through delicately painted vignettes that echo with madness, we are always conscious of the empty attic room where the mad person is traditionally locked away. And from there, the sound of typing clacks through the whole story.

One by one the characters are written out of the story. Dying, in other words. Flickering out like the flames of birthday candles. And as the novel progresses it becomes increasingly surreal, steering a twisting course along the borders of strange worlds that remain rooted very firmly in our own. The juxtaposition of mundane realities such as milk machines (a beautiful period touch) and the strange mental struggle of one of the lodgers who struggles to disentangle her own confused thoughts about whether she was a child or had a child make the work both odd and very real.

The whole piece is circular in nature. Whilst it builds on the opening fact that Moira Penny is dead, by the time you reach the end, all assumptions have been explored and subtly destroyed. We are left with the notion that the dead woman wrote the book after she died, that she never existed, that the end is the beginning and the journey is one that ‘begins’ in madness and ‘ends’ with the clarity of death. For me, the very best of the work came at the end of the book, the last of a collection of shorter pieces, perhaps written by the now dead Moira Penny. Beckettian in its scope and power, this is an extraordinary and visionary piece of writing to cap an extraordinary book.

Friday, 16 April 2010

One Last Mad Embrace - Jack Trevor Story

Oh, what a glorious book. It starts as comedy, drifts into farce, and ends as a surreal, almost poignant reminiscence. Along the way we meet a cast of characters already seen in his previous two Horace Fenton books. Most of them seem, at first meeting, to be larger than life, yet that is more to with Story’s ability to view real people through a magnifying lens that brings them closer and exposes their foibles.

There is also a story that drives the characters - a typically convoluted crime into which Horace Fenton has been dragged. Yet for all his apparent otherworldly innocence he projects, we are allowed to see a more rounded picture of Fenton. And that is one of the great delights of this work; the skill of the author propelling what could be dismissed as a comic romp into much more literary realms. The first person narrative is so smooth and realistic, you are not conscious of the novelistic conventions unless you look for them. It is not helped by having a world-weary writer as the narrator, because he knows all the tricks and conventions, he knows how to subvert the, and he knows how to throw you off the trail by talking about them in his narrative.

The three Horace Fenton books are the closest we get to autobiography from Story. It is often quoted that the more outrageous the incidents in these books, the more likely they are to be true. It is certainly true that Story led a chaotic and amiable life, always out of pocket, always generous, always working. Yet we should never confuse the reality with the fiction. Story may have used his life for material, but Horace Fenton is not Jack Story. Well... not quite.

If you like a comic novel which is a little less than PC; one that is full of warmth, with an eye to things that really count; this is for you. It’s not necessary to read the other two first (Hitler Needs You and I Sit In Hanger Lane), but it will certainly make the experience all the more enjoyable. And if you are a writer, these are a master class in smooth storytelling. All the more annoying that only the first of the three is currently in print. The others are to be found if you are prepared to look and be patient - a sad state of affairs when print on demand could make such wonderful books available to a whole new audience.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

A Dream Of Kinship - Richard Cowper

It is often the case that middle books of trilogies are extended back fill, something to act as a bridge between the first and last parts. A Dream Of Kinship avoids this; indeed, it doesn’t even come close to it because it strikes off in a different direction. And this, allied with Cowper’s ability to tell a sweeping epic through the very intimate story of a boy growing up, is a true indication of the author’s skill.

Taking the story forward from the first book, we follow Jane’s child from birth in view of the burning ruins of Corlay through to his coming of age. The events that surround him touch mostly on the fortunes of First Kingdom and the influence he has on events. Through this we learn of the wider story, the spread of Kinship and the collapse of an ever more aggressive Church.

Great events occur and people play their part, but Cowper knows the value of character in making a story more alive, more intimate. The emotional connection he forges with the reader makes the story much more believable; much more than many fantasies that invest thousands of pages in world building only to people it with cartoon like characters who act as ciphers to carry the story forward.

To many, Cowper seems slow, yet his storytelling is full of rich detail and beautifully evoked scenes. He builds a world and shows it through the very real people who live there, the ordinary folk who fish and farm and make pots. And if this richness was not enough, he imbues the whole with explorations of deep philosophical and spiritual questions, often sparked by lucent insights and seemingly off-hand comments. It is intelligent and treats me as if I was as well. I very much look forward to the final book.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Clone - Richard Cowper

Alvin works with chimps. They treat him kindly as he isn’t very bright. Which is why only Norbert really takes Alvin seriously when he says he has seen an angel. Not that Norbert, religious though he is, believes that Alvin has seen an angel, but… Before they can work out what has happened, Norbert the chimp is asked to escort Alvin from their forest work camp, across London to the laboratory of Professor Poynter.

The Professor believes in Alvin’s vision because she knows what Alvin really is – a clone, one of four young men who together form a gestalt entity. Mind wiped and separated years before after demonstrating immense psychic powers, the four are getting their memory back. But then things go wrong. Alvin and Norbert get caught up in a mass extermination, Alvin finds his angel only to be kidnapped by militant apes, the Security Services lumber into action, and a chase across Europe ensues.

This is a marvellous romp, a comic novel of great inventiveness, full of the deep questions one associates with Cowper’s work, deftly executed with some wonderfully drawn characters. Politics, the nature of identity, animal rights, the ethics of experimentation, and the relative merits of apples and bananas are all explored with a lightness of touch that makes this a wonderful read. The story is fairly simple, yet it is an excellent vehicle for exploring ideas and issues. And demonstrating the range of Cowper’s talent.

Friday, 26 March 2010

The Wanderground - Sally Miller Gearhart

This is a well-written novel that explores important questions. Yet it left me deeply unsatisfied. The novel posits a future in which the Earth has rebelled against the domination of men. They are confined to ‘the city’, the only place where technology (and male sexual potency) still functions. Whilst there are women in the city, some have moved to the hill country and created communities. There they have also developed telepathy, telekinesis, and the power of flight.

As a scenario, it is science fantasy rather than science fiction; wishful thinking rather than a genuine exploration of how the earth has been ravaged and what the consequences might be. But as, in part, a utopian novel, the important aspect of the book is the exploration of ideas about how a particular community works.

We are treated to a number of chapters that display the powers the hill women have developed, that tell us how wonderfully loving and ecologically conscious they all are. By half way I was beginning to tire of the sugary and highly sexist assumptions that underpinned this ‘utopian’ society.

The book is lauded for its questioning of the nature of violence and whether this is gendered based. Apart from a token argument toward the end that tries to shoehorn a bit of balance into the question, the book seems to start with and expound the idea that men are responsible for all violence and ills in the world, that all women and homosexuals are victims.

This seriously undermines what would otherwise have been a truly interesting work. Had this stark, black and white image been given shade and colour; had the storyline (such as it is) been better developed (so that the feeling of threat came across as more than the annoyance one might experience at a shoe lace breaking) and resolved with a bit more than, ‘Oh we’d better think about doing something about that,’ before getting straight back to life as normal; it would have been lifted into a different league altogether.

I do realise that these may actually have been some of the points that the author was trying to make – that utopia is all well and good, but it is boring, suffocating, shored up by the prejudices of those for whom it is utopia (and a hell for everyone else), as well as being extremely vulnerable to alternative visions of the world. Unfortunately, judging by the praise heaped on the book, these particular observations were either unintended by the author, or missed by the many who read it.

For all that, it is well worth reading, not least for the fact it is fantasy book that makes an attempt to tackle some of the most serious questions facing humanity. This can be done whilst still producing a well-written work. Such books exist. Sadly they are few and far between. We should treasure the ones we do have.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

The Road To Corlay - Richard Cowper

Richard Cowper (real name John Middleton Murry) came of illustrious literary stock. That sort of thing can destroy you as a writer, or it can make you. In Cowper’s case, it clearly had a good influence – even if he turned away from ‘literary’ writing and opted for the genres of science fiction and fantasy to tell his tales.

This gives us a wonderful mix of a highly accomplished writer allowing his imagination free range. The result is sophisticated and complex work that is also lyrical, accessible, and which touches on areas most sf&f writers steer clear of or do very badly.

In this case, the subject is religion. Most sf&f writers these days would give us a sixty thousand word prologue explaining the religion and all its by-ways; we would be ‘treated’ to pages of ceremonial and dreary descriptions of places and people before we got anywhere near a story. And then it would be handled badly.

There is nothing especially original about Cowper’s story – two religious cultures (one old, one new) clash. But instead of being portentous about it, Cowper tells us the story of individuals caught up in this conflict. Through their stories we learn of the wider conflict, but it always remains at a personal and sometimes heartbreaking level.

And if that was not enough, Cowper adds extra layers. All are beautifully portrayed; all treat the reader with intelligence. We do not need to have things explained if the writer weaves these things into their tale. We are given enough to see what the writer means, yet not so much that we cannot then apply our own imagination. Cowper does this wonderfully. The hints of ecological disaster, the way the past affects the future, the way actions have consequences, the way that failure to act also has consequences.

This book is the first of a trilogy and this edition contains the novella which inspired the rest of the story. I read them both a long time when they were first published, but have only now managed to find a set of all three. I am looking forward very much to seeing how Cowper develops what has happened so far. If he keeps to the standard of this first book, I am not going to be disappointed.

Saturday, 13 March 2010

Cryptozoic - Brian Aldiss

A story about time and time-travel – the basic premiss is that time is purely our perception of the continuum and with training of the mind we are able to travel in time. This becomes so popular it affects the economy and leads to social break down, followed by revolution and military dictatorship. Against this background, Bush, one of the more accomplished travellers is forcibly recruited by the military and tasked with assassinating someone who has taken time-travel to a further level and who speculates that our perception of time is the wrong way round.

Bush, of course, has no desire to assassinate someone who might be able to bring down the military dictatorship. Along with other rebels he manages to find the fugitive and learn his secret before others succeed in assassinating him. The plot sounds like something straight from a sci fi pulp magazine, but that background is thoughtfully handled and the emphasis of the book is on the internal world of the characters and their own precarious navigation through what just might be madness.

Aldiss never fails to surprise me. Even with books I have read before (this first appeared in 1967 under the title An Age), I am always surprised by the feel of them, the texture of the story, the approach to ideas. Mind time travel was not a new idea, but Aldiss explores the idea here and introduces a different slant that could perhaps have done with more exploration (although many others have explored the idea).

Well written and well constructed, with an ending that leaves you wondering, this is an excellent example of how sf can blend action and ideas and come up with something every bit as good as a literary novel.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

Bunny Lake Is Missing - Evelyn Piper

This 1957 thriller is an eye-opener. Like the Brand book, I sought this out because I once saw the film. And I’m glad I did. It’s riveting stuff. Dark, tense, suspenseful. And beautifully written.

Blanche Lake, an unmarried mother and recently moved to New York, goes the school at the end of the day to collect her daughter from the nursery. Bunny isn’t there. No one remembers Bunny being there in the first place. Blanche, already in a delicate psychological state because of her ‘situation’ and an overbearing mother, becomes frantic. The police are sceptical and, having looked through her apartment, can find no trace of a child having existed.

This is a nightmare that grips the reader from the very beginning and it does not let go. Taking place mostly in darkness, even the reader begins to wonder if, perhaps, Blanche is deluded and we are taking a journey into the mind of a psychotic woman. But little clues mount up and the motives of those whom Blanche meets in her frantic search are called into question.

This portrayal of a mind in turmoil and the paranoia it so easily engenders is wonderfully observed. The book is a blend of this psychological maelstrom (it rattles along at a breathless pace with no chapter breaks), and the best of noirish, gritty thriller writing. Although it lacks the overt violence of a Chandler or Hammett, the psychological violence is brutal and the sense of menace drenches the whole piece.

I have read criticism of the book’s ending claiming it is something of an anti-climax. It didn’t read like that to me. The final scene on the steps outside the school very cleverly wraps up the story whilst leaving so much unresolved that it is clear that whilst there is one level of resolution, there is a great deal more left of the night to be journeyed through.

Excellent stuff.

Monday, 8 March 2010

Green For Danger - Christianna Brand

This is a good, old-fashioned whodunit of the very best kind. Well plotted. Great characters. Great background. Well-written. What more do you need?

The action takes place in a hospital during the Blitz. An ARP Warden dies on the operating table. Although devastating to those involved, it is investigated and pronounced to be an accident. And then one of the nurses claims it was a murder and knows how it was done. When she is found stabbed to death, the whole can of ugly little worms is spilled.

I first came across this in the film version. With a screenplay by Sidney Gilliat and Alastair Sim as the detective (along with a notable cast), you can imagine how good it was – noirish, pacy, and full of menace, yet retaining an understated wit. I had been keeping an eye open for the book for a long time and was glad, finally, to get hold of a copy. It is every bit as good as the film. Well-written, it sticks to the conventions of the whodunit (there are clues from the very beginning and you are never cheated), yet rises above much of the genre to find a place in company with work by the likes of Allingham and Marsh (and better than Christie and Sayers).

I will certainly be keeping my eye out for more of Brand’s work.

Saturday, 6 March 2010

The Last Of The Country House Murders - Emma Tennant

Like a number of her early novels, the first impression is of a bit of ‘60s fluff – slightly weird light reading. But that is to do these books a disservice. Yes they are weird (sometimes completely off the wall surreal) – which for me is a good thing. Yes they are comic (in that apparently light-hearted foolishness that fools you long enough for the vinegar to hit the raw nerve ends) – which for me is a good thing. Yes they are short – a great virtue when confronted with the bloated corpses of books that are passed off as literature.

First impressions, however, are deceptive. This is multi-layered work that wears its erudition and its vision very lightly. Not in a throwaway sense, but in the way that elegant solutions always draw the ‘why didn’t I think of that response’. It is simple, yet a work of profundity at the same time. It is also prescient.

In some unspecified and not-too-distant future, Britain is collapsing beneath the yoke of a vaguely Orwellian state. The proles are literally beyond the pale and left to fend for themselves as best they can. Dangerous thinkers are isolated. Those previously wealthy are shut up in enclaves and allowed to die out, playing out their rituals in little theme parks. Those that are biggest threat to the state are kept distracted by endless tours and diversions. One of these is to be exactly what the title suggests.

This prefigures concerns that emerged in the ‘80s that Britain was fast become a heritage theme park and that the only industrial jobs left would be in museums, or in TV shows that harked back to a golden age. Country house murders, country house tours, all played on this cosy and rosy view of the past. But it is a past that never existed (and those elements that did were propped up then as in this future, by misery and servitude to an ethos that protects an elite). And because it never existed, attempts to recreate it soon fall apart. The planned murder goes completely awry. The agent of the state tasked with overseeing it, fails completely. And the proles storm the barricades.

Although we do not learn what happens afterwards (probably more of the same but with different masters), we get a glimpse not just of what is about to happen politically in Britain, but what the consequences might be. That there has been no revolution, no popular uprising, is not a defect of the book. The potential is there. Sadly, perhaps (or not) the British are supine when it comes to upheaval. They’d rather deal with the devil than throw him out and start taking responsibility for themselves.

Simply written (and clearly the work of an author being allowed by a publisher to develop their talent) this is, nonetheless, a highly accomplished work. Its comic element is reminiscent of Jack Trevor Story (anarchic, dark, well observed, and tending to the absurd). Its brevity, as I have alluded, is one of its strengths – the reader is trusted to fill in details and follow up on issues raised. It was and remains a breath of fresh air. Not to everyone’s taste, perhaps, but definitely to mine.

Thursday, 4 March 2010

Vineland - Thomas Pynchon

This book, appropriately enough, was a bit like listening to a harmless old stoner rambling on in the corner of the room. By turns interesting, funny, and strange, but for the most part following an internal road map that has no relevance to the outside world, stopping off along the way to point out stuff that to the stoned mind is probably fascinating, but to an outsider is a chipped old bit of concrete.

Thomas Pynchon is an author I feel I should like. I do remember being impressed with Gravity’s Rainbow when I read it in the ‘70s, but maybe my tastes have changed. Given the accolades on the cover, I couldn’t help thinking this was a case of emperor’s clothes. The plot is pure TV soap-opera schlock. The cast of weirdos aren’t very weird. There is next to no characterization – and the one character with whom one should have had any sympathy elicited none from me. Indeed, by the time I got to the end of the book I was hoping they’d all get run over or whisked off in black helicopters never to be seen again.

The whole gave the impression of being a uniformly dull slab of rock onto which someone had tried, without success, to carve an elaborate portrait of a particular piece of American history. They used the wrong tools, to my mind, as it seemed to me that the surface was barely scratched. Maybe that’s the haze of dope smoke obscuring the view. The paranoia of the period, the hope and betrayal, the self-obsession characteristic both of many hippies and most Feds (as well as the destructive cycle into which both became locked) have all been dealt with far better by other writers.

I had been considering looking at other work by Pynchon, but after this, I don’t think I’ll bother.

Thursday, 18 February 2010

Hello America - J G Ballard

This is Ballard on fine form and with tongue firmly in cheek. The book tells of a boat that sails from Plymouth across the Atlantic, making landfall on the east coast of America. But this is not the past. It is a hundred years hence, long after the USA was abandoned in the wake of a fuel crisis. Refugees had poured back to Europe and Africa and the land, abandoned and prey to geo-engineering, has become desert.

The expedition fights its way through the sand dunes of Manhattan and across the great desert until they discover the vast tropical forests that have grown up around Las Vegas. And that’s not all they discover. For living in the abandoned Howard Hughes suite they find a megalomaniac self-styled President Manson, firing off nuclear weapons to sterilise the creeping diseases that threaten his fastness.

The novel is a cornucopia of Ballardian imagery, liberally mixed with the iconography of America. Ballard never made any secret of his admiration for the USA. He loved the energy that made it great; he was equally aware that this same energy made it supremely destructive. He revelled in the paradox. And rather than trying to resolve this conundrum with a moral tale, he simply presents it in all its surreal and decaying glory. Although the ending is similar to his previous novel, both upbeat and mystical, this shies away from the more personal note of his Shepperton odyssey.

Ballard’s strength is not in his style. His writing is fairly straightforward, subsumed to the content. It is his vision that resonates and captivates. This canvas is, perhaps, gaudier than some he had painted, but that is entirely appropriate for the subject. Yet there is a great deal of subtlety there as well; in the shifting relationship of the various peoples, native or otherwise; in the descent into internal landscapes that mirror the outer world in such a way that it is never easy to know which is which; in the almost throwaway use of ideas that later and lesser authors have taken up and turned into genres dying even as they define them.

Tuesday, 16 February 2010

Princess Diana's Revenge - Michael de Larrabeiti

Some spiders spin webs so large there is no escaping them, especially if you bumble along in a haze of alcohol. Once trapped, the more you struggle to break free, the more you become entangled. And when the spiders are deranged…

The day Joe Rapps is released from Wandsworth after a three year stretch for killing two youngsters in a car crash, driving while drunk; he did not think he would live long. The father of the children was a well-known violent criminal. So when he is whisked away from London, presented with a luxury house in a quiet country village and a bank balance to match, he is just a bit suspicious.

It comes as little surprise to find he is surrounded by some very strange people. With disappearing nannies, someone shooting dogs, and a countess determined to avenge the death of Princess Diana, village life promises to be less than restful. Sucked into other people’s madnesses, Joe simply tries to keep his head above water and enjoy the luxuries thrown at him whilst he can.

This is a fun book with a dark streak running through its heart. The author has captured the both the beauty of the English countryside and the feeling of claustrophobia that can sometimes manifest itself in living in a small community. And over this there is a layer of doom, because struggling in the web of other people’s delusions – especially when they have psychopathic tendencies – is never going to end well.

Although best known for his Borrible books, Michael de Larrabeiti has written a number of novels. Like the others, this is well-written, imaginative, relaxed without being loose, darkly-comic, and offers a frightening glimpse into the obsessed mind. A great read.

Sunday, 14 February 2010

A User's Guide To The Millennium - J G Ballard

Having read bits and pieces of Ballard’s non-fiction over the years, it was a treat to add this to my Ballard collection and read them all in a short space of time. The pieces are, for the most part, reviews of books, films, and art exhibitions, but there are also other pieces. They are also short, 90 packed into a book of 300 pages. This makes the book ideal for dipping, should you so wish, yet allows you to soak up the intensity of each piece and keep reading. Dipping is fun; a continuous read gives you an altogether Ballardian experience. And as each piece is dated you could (and one day I will) read them chronologically.

Ballard as a fiction writer is well known (even if you have never read his work, you have probably heard of him and have some idea of the kind of thing he writes). He has never shied away from the fact he wrote science fiction; he has never been ashamed of being fiercely intellectual. Yet all this sits lightly. Whilst he did not eschew these things, he did not make a big deal of them either.

The same is true of his non-fiction. This pieces display a deep interest in a wide variety of subjects and show just how intelligent, imaginative, and original his view of the world was. Written in an easy style and leavened with humour, you know that even if you don’t always agree with what he has to say it will always be interesting and stimulating.

The other great thing about this collection is the insight it affords into his fiction. In the autobiographical pieces we see where many of the images that haunt his work originate; in the writings on art, we see how these images were enriched. His thoughts on science fiction show how he came to write what he did. Indeed, you might be tempted to think of this book as a user’s guide to J G Ballard. But there is always a gap there, a fence, a firmly closed door. Which is exactly as it should be, because although Ballard wrote about the cult of celebrity, he had the good sense and integrity to keep his own life to himself.

So if you want to understand Ballard a bit better, this is a good place to look. But don’t expect to learn everything; because although these pieces allow you a peek around the back of the scenery, as it were, all you will find is more scenery. The director is somewhere else, living his own life in the privacy of his own home with his family around him.

Thursday, 11 February 2010

Nine O'Clock Shadow - Jack Trevor Story

Nine o’clock. The time of execution. That’s the shadow falling across Harry Jukes. Wrongly convicted of shooting a policeman, his only hope is Sexton Blake who listened to all the evidence at the trial and believed Harry’s absurd, unbelievable story.

Like all of Story’s Sexton Blake adventures, this is tightly plotted and well told. Nothing is wasted (you can’t waffle when you have to write to a specific page count), yet the author manages to fill this with great detail and characterisation. It also proves you can tackle serious issues and explore ideas whilst remaining an entertaining read.

The plot turns round a coincidence. Coincidences don’t offer feature in good writing as it is considered implausible. Yet it is coincidences that spark the most interesting of stories. In this case, Harry Jukes helps himself to someone else’s car to impress his girlfriend. Unfortunately he picks on a car that has been used by a gang to steal a lorry load of arms to pass on to the IRA. After that, things go from bad to worse, as they often do in such situations. We get wrong-footed and all our decisions are hasty and lead us into great trouble. For Harry, that puts him on the side of the road with a flat tyre trying to get away from a helpful policeman who flags down a lorry. You can guess which one.

As Blake investigates and uncovers reluctant witnesses, along with the people behind the heist, we are treated to a portrait of late 1950s England. Coppers on bikes, capital punishment, wide boys, skiffle groups, and coffee bars (the most successful establishment in getting youth off the streets and drinking milk as Story wryly observes).

This is entertainment at its best.

Alice Fell - Emma Tennant

On the face of it, there is nothing to this book. It recounts the birth and early life of Alice Paxton, born to the housekeepers of a large house owned by the Old Man. And that’s it. Yet this is the most astonishing, magical, work. Surreal in content and written in a poetic style, it draws the reader into a bizarre yet internally consistent world. Nothing is explained in the way a conventional narrative might attempt. Rather, we are presented with a series of images – some still, some moving, all shot through a symbolist lens – that accumulate to create a gorgeous, rich tapestry.

As well as the life of Alice, the book portrays the fragmentation of worlds; the chaos of a collapsing old order from which is born the screaming infant of the new. Those who lived through world wars find themselves at a loss when trying to cope with the social revolution of the ‘60s. The quiet of the countryside with its old and long-established rhythms is eroded by the noise and bustle of new development, new ideas, and new attitudes.

Through all this, Alice grows and Alice falls; moving across a dreamlike landscape. The characters interact in a formal, dance-like way, caught in golden moments as they try to pick sense and meaning from the fast-whirling world about them.

Although this is a short work (like many of Tennant’s earlier work) it is dense, lyrical, and hypnotic, making use of simple language in a way that unlocks the most complex of ideas. Delicate like the decaying tapestries and books in the house, it leaves one with the sense that if not nurtured, the very words will fade into the mist that rolls off the downs around the Old Man’s house.

It is difficult to say more about this book. Its uniqueness makes normal modes of description redundant. All I can say is look out for a copy and read it. See just how good writing can be. Wonder why Tennant and writers like her are not lauded in preference to the turgid, self-obsessed drone of today’s literati.

Sunday, 7 February 2010

The Unlimited Dream Company - J G Ballard

This book suffers from two things. A perception that Ballard’s books are unremittingly apocalyptic and a title that would better have graced a Bradbury collection of short stories. There’s nothing to be done about the latter. As for the former, it is a misconception – the sort of label that gets fixed to an author and which sticks no matter what sort of work they write.

Of course, there is another label that has attached to Ballard which suits this book perfectly – surrealist. It is a master work of surreal imagination. And there is more than a hint of symbolist influence as well. This is not so much in the style, which is fairly straightforward, at times repetitive, but in the content.

The central character, Blake (a name that comes packed with visionary luggage), steals a small aircraft at Heathrow despite not being able to fly. He gets as far south as the Thames at Shepperton (just a few miles away) and crashes into the river. After the aircraft sinks, Blake finds himself on the river bank. And so begins a remarkable sojourn in the small town. The setting lends itself perfectly to the events that follow. Shepperton (where Ballard lived) is a typical small, riverside town in an extraordinary landscape. Surround by lakes, close to a huge airport and, of course, home to film studios. Against this backdrop, Blake begins to transform the community.

The inhabitants dream of flight and birds appear; they dream of swimming and the river fills with exotic piscine life. Blake becomes a pagan god and where he walks flowers bloom and trees grown. The whole of Shepperton is transformed and its inhabitants drawn into the transformation.

Mystical, earthy, exuberant, Blake casts his spell, transforming himself as well as the others until he reaches self-realisation. With the sick healed, the dead raised, and the town restored, Blake dissipates in a gentle glory.

Whilst this book contains Ballard’s signature themes of technology, sex, and alienation, along with familiar images, it is a life-affirming work shot through (appropriately enough) with prophetic flashes. And whilst society does break down, far from being catastrophic, it is both transformative and satisfying.

Tuesday, 2 February 2010

The Hole - John Davey

Sally Cross has a hole inside her; an emptiness left when her mother died that seems to be sucking the joy out of life and the life out of her. School is going down the pan with the added joy of having to cope with bullying. Her relationship with her father has hit bumpy ground and gets bumpier when she realises he has started to see another woman. Happy days they are not. And as if that was not enough, Sally begins to wonder if she is not going mad. Because things move, strange lights glimmer, the hamster levitates, and someone is leaving obscure graffiti in her school locker.

What might have been a run of the mill teen-angst work of doom and misery takes an intriguing turn once Sally decides to take charge and find out what is going on. She soon finds herself regretting it, catapulted into an alternate universe where she must confront a terrible evil. At this point the book could have become a run of the mill fantasy adventure, but the author avoids this as well.

With a lightness of touch and some startling and original images, John Davey creates a nightmare world with a nightmare logic. Sally and her companions must fight their way through making use of the skills they have to defeat the plans of the evil they find there.

The book is well constructed and well written. The character of Sally Cross is well drawn and we share her emotional ups and downs without the book ever becoming falsely sentimental. It keeps up a good pace but also allows itself room to breathe. There are moments of real horror, there is humour, and a satisfying resolution that nonetheless stays within the bounds of the real – the happiness is tinged with sadness.

I have read a lot of children’s and young adult books over the years. This ranks up there with the best. It is good storytelling based on plausible and realistic characters. It is unfussy. It is a great read.

Sunday, 31 January 2010

Vast Alchemies ~ The Life And Work Of Mervyn Peake - G Peter Winnington

I read this when it first appeared ten years ago and was lucky enough to acquire a copy a few weeks ago. The author is someone who knows his Peake inside out, upside down, and probably by touch in a darkened room. His research is meticulous (he went back to source material rather than rely on previous not altogether reliable works), yet he wears it lightly. The book also has the advantage of being comprehensive whilst remaining a sensible length. All of which makes an ideal biography.

This work also has an advantage over others in that it treats its subject with a great deal of sympathy. That is not to say it ignores Peake’s faults and foibles. But a great deal of rubbish was promulgated about Peake, especially during his illness in his final years. Some of his treatment was nothing less than barbaric; his decline was heartbreaking.

If you are a fan of Peake’s art or writing (or both), this is the perfect companion. It not only helps to unlock the source of much of Peake’s style, it provides an interesting insight into the creative process and how the artist interacts with a world that is clearly far more bizarre than anything that Peake created.

Friday, 29 January 2010

The Dark Light Years - Brian Aldiss

Cast as a comic space opera, this is a bleak and deeply disturbing tale of how we treat what we don’t understand. To make this plausible, Aldiss created aliens whose mode of communication was far too complex for inter-species communication to be possible. He also based his aliens on the hippopotamus, large pachyderms who wallow in mud and whose excreta is an integral part of their life. And having made them near impossible to communicate with and abhorrent to ‘civilised’ people, he sets up a tale that explores the bestial nature of human beings.

Aldiss is a fine stylist. The book is dedicated to Harry Harrison and in terms of style, could well have been written by Harrison. Aldiss clearly recognized that using such a stylistic framework (comic pulp science fiction) provides the perfect contrast to the subject matter. The comic approach (although it is by no means a comedy) exposes the visceral nastiness of the humans, the ineptitude of those who have good intentions, their self-absorption, their severance from the natural world (and consequent psychoses).

It is also a novel about morality, exploring through the relationships between the characters what it means to be moral and what it means to lack or disregard them. Deeply philosophical, it posits the Gaia theory in a throwaway line, fifteen years before Lovelock’s first book. All of this in a short, pacy book. A lesser author would have given us something five times as long (probably at the behest of a publishing industry that seems to think bigger is better), and nowhere near as interesting or disturbing. This is the genre being used to best effect.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

The Crack - Emma Tennant

Originally published as The Time of the Crack, this is deceptively light and simple, an intriguing product of the early 1970s. I had read extracts before now (chapters from a work in progress), but this is the first time I’ve read the whole thing – a surreal tale of how the southern part of England breaks away and sinks into the sea.

It is not a disaster story of either the Wyndham or the Ballard schools, but a whimsical, Carrollian, acid-fuelled romp. Set in London, the Thames runs dry and a huge crack appears, hills are thrust up, buildings distort and transform, troops of academics and psychoanalysts roam the streets. The plot, such as it is, hangs around several characters, the most important being Baba, the only bunny left at the Playboy Club.

Beneath the whimsy, however, there is a darker tale at play. There are hints with the fun that is made of trends and types of people, stripped pine kitchens, reversion therapy, capitalism, well-off middle-class eco-warriors, self-absorbed academics who argue about competing theories when reality proves them all to be wrong – all come in for a swift kicking. Yet these vignettes, when taken as a whole, show the very fertile soil into which society has sown the seeds of its own destruction.

As well as a deceptively simple content, there is a style to match. Straightforward, tightly written and constructed, the text goes to prove you can tell a good story and convey deep ideas with the simplest of language. The book is not partisan or polemical. It tells an amusing tale. But like the fairy tales that focus on the jolly goings-on in the sunlit woodland glade, you are also aware of the surrounding darkness of the forest, of the panting of wolves as they wait their chance.