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.