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.