Friday, 30 December 2011

Also read in 2011

The Man Who Knew Too Much – W Howard Baker
Swords Against Wizardry – Fritz Leiber
Artemis Fowl And The Atlantis Complex – Eoin Colfer
Enchanted Glass – Diana Wynne Jones
The Game – Diana Wynne Jones
Murder In The Sun – Jack Trevor Story
Down With Skool – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
How To Be Topp – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
Whizz For Atomms – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
Back In The Jug Agane – Geoffrey Willans and Ronald Searle
Terror Keep – Edgar Wallace
Unexpected Magic – Diana Wynne Jones
I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison
A History Of Monks House And Village Of Rodmell – Julie Singleton
Slaughtermatic – Steve Aylett
Between Fantoine and Agapa – Robert Pinget
The Empire Of A Thousand Planets – Mezieres & Christin
That Voice – Robert Pinget
Captain Slaughterboard Drops Anchor – Mervyn Peake
The Old Man Dies – Georges Simenon
Maigret And The Minister – Georges Simenon
Maigret And The Young Girl – Georges Simenon
The Secret Kingdom – Jenny Nimmo
Maigret’s Little Joke – Georges Simenon
Maigret And The Old Lady – Georges Simenon
Pure Dead Magic – Debi Gliori
Maigret And The Headless Corpse – Georges Simenon
Maigret’s First Case – Georges Simenon
Maigret Takes A Room – Georges Simenon
Maigret’s Failure – Georges Simenon
Maigret And The Man On The Boulevard – Georges Simenon
The Others – Georges Simenon
Maigret And The Loner – Georges Simenon
Pure Dead Wicked – Debi Gliori
Maigret’s Memoirs – Georges Simenon
Maigret In Society – Georges Simenon
Maigret Loses His Temper – Georges Simenon
The Window Over The Way – Georges Simenon
The Magic Drum – Emma Tennant
Maigret’s Pickpocket – Georges Simenon
Maigret And The Nahour Case – Georges Simenon
Maigret Stonewalled – Georges Simenon
The White Cottage Mystery – Margery Allingham
The Crime At Black Dudley – Margery Allingham
Mystery Mile – Margery Allingham
Look To The Lady – Margery Allingham
Police At The Funeral – Margery Allingham
Sweet Danger – Margery Allingham
Death Of A Ghost – Margery Allingham
Flowers For The Judge – Margery Allingham
Maigret And The Hundred Gibbets – Georges Simenon
Dancers In Mourning – Margery Allingham
The Case Of The Late Pig – Margery Allingham
The Fashion In Shrouds – Margery Allingham
Lock 14 – Georges Simenon
A Crime In Holland – Georges Simenon
Mr Campion And Others – Margery Allingham
A Face For A Clue – Georges Simenon
Traitor’s Purse – Margery Allingham
Coroner’s Pidgin – Margery Allingham
More Work For The Undertaker – Margery Allingham
The Tiger In The Smoke – Margery Allingham
The Beckoning Lady – Margery Allingham
Hide My Eyes – Margery Allingham
The China Governess – Margery Allingham
The Mind Readers – Margery Allingham
Cargo Of Eagles – Margery Allingham
Mr Campion’s Farthing – Youngman Carter
Mr Campion’s Falcon – Youngman Carter
Maigret And The Enigmatic Lett – Georges Simenon
A Battle Of Nerves – Georges Simenon
Maigret Takes The Waters – Georges Simenon
The Friend Of Madame Maigret – Georges Simenon
Maigret In Court – Georges Simenon
Maigret’s Boyhood Friend – Georges Simenon
Maigret At The Crossroads – Georges Simenon
The Sailors’ Rendezvous – Georges Simenon
At The ‘Gai-Moulin’ – Georges Simenon
The Galton Case – Ross Macdonald
Maigret And The Tavern By The Seine – Georges Simenon
The Wycherly Woman – Ross Macdonald
Maigret And The Wine Merchant – Georges Simenon
The 50s & 60s The Best Of Times – Alison Pressley
My Friend Maigret – Georges Simenon
The Zebra-Striped Hearse – Ross Macdonald
The Chill – Ross Macdonald
The Far Side Of The Dollar – Ross Macdonald
Faustine – Emma Tennant
Black Money – Ross Macdonald
Backwater – Dorothy Richardson
334 – Thomas M. Disch
Honeycomb – Dorothy Richardson
The Instant Enemy – Ross Macdonald
Pure Dead Brilliant – Debi Gliori
The Goodbye Look – Ross Macdonald
The Lion Of Boaz-Jachin And Jachin-Boaz – Russell Hoban
The Tunnel – Dorothy Richardson
The Mathematics Of Magic – L. Sprague de Camp & Fletcher Pratt

A grand total of 139 books read during the year.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Ice Trilogy - Vladimir Sorokin (tr Jamey Gambrell)

It is unusual for me to give up on a book. It has to be very badly written or exceedingly dull. This was both. I know it is not the translation as Gambrell has proven her ability to move a work from one language to another with a great deal of skill and sensitivity to the original. But there’s not much you can do when the original is as bad as this.

All of which has left me wondering. Sorokin is, apparently, highly regarded. He has won literary prizes. Surely it is my judgement that is in error. Or not. Literary prizes, in my opinion, often go to undeserving but safe work. In Sorokin’s case, it has probably gone to someone who put their head a little way above the parapet and got lots of attention for it. It certainly hasn’t gone to them (on this evidence) for their ability to write.

I got part way through the the first book, Bro. It is plodding, dull, almost adolescent in its repetitiveness and peppering of the text with randomly italicised and capitalised WORDS, and by half way I had given up caring about the characters or their story. The potential was there for a story that could have turned the entire history of the Soviet Union inside out, but Sorokin has given no thought to structure or style (or if he did, he made the wrong choice) and ruined his opportunity in a story so dull I literally fell asleep part way through a chapter.

One for the charity shop.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Baga - Robert Pinget

A gentle and surreal fairy tale of a king and his first minister (Baga), written with humour and affection. This makes it seem a lightweight piece of writing, but on the contrary it manages to explore some deep themes; it simply does this without ever taking itself too seriously.

As a piece of social commentary, it is still relevant today (if not more than when it was written. Notions of sovereignty, war, and how those of us who just want a quiet life are forever thwarted by the psychopaths who want to dominate and cause misery are all prodded with a stick perfectly designed for the purpose.

If you have never read any Pinget before, this is perhaps a good place to start.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

Pointed Roofs - Dorothy Richardson

Before Joyce and Woolf, there was Dorothy Richardson, the writer whose work was the first expression of what was to be called ‘stream of consciousness’. And as first expressions go, it appeared pretty much complete and fully developed. For someone who was redefining the English novel (despite her experience of journalism), this is something to be celebrated. Sadly all the credit these days seems to go to Joyce and (often grudgingly) to Woolf. Richardson seems to have been forgotten.

Pointed Roofs is the first of an eleven novel sequence which records in detail the life of Miriam Henderson, a mirror of Richardson herself. Expressing her experiences – personal, spiritual, and intellectual – through her inner voice, Richardson explores a whole new technique for the novel. She also presents the female consciousness with a new and genuine voice – one which clearly states that a woman’s experience of the world is interesting, every bit as valid as a man’s, and vital to an understanding of human experience.

With all this theoretical baggage, it might be expected that the novel is heavy and stilted. Far from it. Beautifully written, it runs as effortlessly as a great river. The surface appears serene, but there are deep currents. Miriam leaves her family to become an English teacher in a German school for young ladies. At the fragile age of eighteen it is an adventurous thing to do, but something she feels to be absolutely necessary – an essential part of her growth as a person.

The text captures all the certainty and bewilderment of an eighteen-year-old on their first time away from home. Certainty that she knows how the world should be and how she herself should be, bewilderment because there is simply so much she does not understand, including her own emotional responses. She is only in Germany for a few months, but she grows, begins to flower, and begins to understand.

Each of the episodes, even the most apparently minor incidents, is vividly portrayed. The misery and humiliation of having her hair washed by the housekeeper, the hysterical atmosphere during the thunderstorm, the frisson of young girls becoming young women in a school where talk of boys is frowned on. These might not seem like much on which to build a novel, but they are so authentically drawn, one can sense the intensity and importance to the individuals involved.

Thursday, 6 October 2011

The Slynx - Tatyana Tolstaya (tr Jamey Gambrell)

It is rare to find a book in which all the elements come together so perfectly. The simple design of the actual book. A cover that exactly matches the content and overall feel of the novel. A translation that captures the spirit of the original as well as being accurate. And at its core, a novel that actually lives up the praise from the TLS quoted on the rear cover: ‘A postmodern literary masterpiece.’

I’m not au fait enough with literary terminology to know whether the book is modernist, postmodernist, pre-postmodernist, or just old fashioned ‘written recently in a style best suited to the particular story to be told’. What I do know is that it has the power of myth, the charm of a fairy tale, the complexity and clarity of the best literature.

Set two hundred years after a catastrophe known as The Blast, this tells the tale of Benedikt who lives in an unnamed enclave. Free of mutations, he works as a clerk copying books and lives a simple life. His world, however, is far from simple. It is partly a land of fairytale, complete with monsters; partly a dystopian landscape where memories of life before The Blast are confusing echoes in a neo-medieval world.

Full of playful ambiguity, humour and beautifully drawn characters, this work dances. It is true that owes much to a Russian cultural landscape, but you do need to know anything about that to appreciate what is a sublime portrait of human existence. There are haunting scenes, simple and touching without ever being sentimental. It is a wonderful literary experience, not least because the language is beautiful. You don’t often find a work that explores such fundamental issues that is also an easy read. This is in part due to the superb translation, but mostly due to the style – a deceptively homely approach that is rich and inventive.

If you worry that the novel has become dull, is dying, dead, or otherwise irrelevant, try this.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

The Little Saint - Georges Simenon

“If I were allowed to keep only one of my novels, I would choose this one.” So said Simenon of The Little Saint. On the face of it a curious choice. It is not the grittiest, not the most complex, perhaps not even the best written of his works. Yet it is obvious from reading the work, it is imbued with affection.

There are two main characters here. The first is, of course, Louis. Illegitimate son a street seller, he is small, delicate and with an otherworldly nature that sits at odds with his squalid and often violent surroundings. He lives with his mother, siblings, and a succession of men, some of whom take an interest and most who do not.

The early years of this child are told with realism and without sentimentality. The squalid conditions, poverty, disease, and promiscuous sexual nature are not glossed over. Nor are they sensationalised. Simenon tells a complex, nuanced story, even if it is not, to begin with, apparent what the story might be.

The other major character is the small section of Paris in which Louis grows up. This world expands as he slowly explores and is pushed out into the world. It is drawn with as much skill and affection as the inhabitants and together we get a very real sense of life in Paris at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Yet it the double portrait is filtered through Louis’s own sensibilities. And Louis is no ordinary child. He does not engage with the world in the same way as those around him. Not only is he drawn very strongly to visual stimuli in order to make sense of the world, he is, to begin with, extremely passive.

As he grows, he finds expression through painting. And as we read, we discover this is in fact a biography of a famous artist’s childhood. The adult years are glossed over because the book deals with the formulation of the creative imagination and the first exercising of the skills that allow that imagination a voice.

As with all Simenon’s novels, he has much to say, but he never once preaches a message. Much like Louis, if asked about a subject, he would probably have been tempted to say, “I don’t know.” Rather, he presents a complex portrait and pays his readers the compliment of having the intelligence to read and take from the work what they will. For me it is a vivid picture of poverty, of the growth of creative imagination, of the ways in which some people see the world differently.

It may be that Simenon’s fondness for the book stems from his own incessant creative urge. In it he was able to touch something of what may have been within himself, whilst also taking the time to explore a world he knew and clearly cared for. And as always with Simenon, it well written, concise, powerful, and very French.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Milkman In The Night - Andrey Kurkov

Let’s get the gripes out of the way first. To begin with, the translation. Whilst it is no doubt technically correct, it is possibly the dullest and most literal translation I have come across in years. Kurkov has been poorly served and a lot of the subtlety of his earlier writing (and which you sense is still there) has been lost. Indeed, the better known he has become, the worse has become the production of his books. Which leads to the second gripe. Proof reading. Do big publishers just not bother these days? Is it given to a semi-literate intern? One who doesn’t even know how to use a spell check (because some of the typos would have been picked up by that). It makes the book look shoddy and cheap. Which leads to my final gripe. Kurkov needs an editor. His early books were sharply written. Now they are bloated. I have no objection to a book being long if that is needed to tell the story, but we don’t need to know (time after time) that someone turned left onto this street and right onto that street before cutting through this alley and across that square, with asides that could have been lifted from a joke version of a tourist information leaflet for Kiev. It makes for incredibly dull writing in itself and ruins what would otherwise be a perfect book.

Now I’ve got that off my chest, I can affirm that I still believe Kurkov to be a writer who is streets ahead (turn left down this one and right down that one before cutting into an alley and across a square – even all those streets) of contemporary mainstream literary British writers.

On the surface this might seem a superficial romance in which the lives of various characters living in and around Kiev are slowly woven together. Slowly is the operative word. Even had Kurkov been stricter with his editing, this is a book that proceeds at a leisurely, almost somnambulistic pace. And appropriately so. It is about everyday life and everyday folk and the wholly bizarre and often surreal everyday world in which they (and the rest of us) live.

The slow pace and quiet presentation of events are, as always with Kurkov, both disarming and deceiving. Because when you get to the end, you realise that a revolution has taken place. And along the way, the everyday concerns of everyday folk (which sounds a lot worse than it really is) have been examined, turned inside out, put right way back, and turned through one hundred and eighty degrees.

The many interweaving plots are to complex to relate, although they are not at all difficult to follow once you have remembered who is who. The overall effect is one of gentle comedy and great affection for the people and their country. Don’t expect another Penguin book. The surrealism is much more subtle. Do expect to be charmed and drawn in and, gripes notwithstanding, find yourself immersed in a fantasy every bit as compelling as the real life it reflects.

Friday, 2 September 2011

The Zero Train - Yuri Buida

A lot of comparisons have been made to try to capture the essence of this short novel – Kafkaesque, Beckett with trains, you get the picture. And whilst these may be true to a degree, it is only a small degree. Buida has his own voice and his own approach. Indeed, like all good writers he has subverted everything without once straying from a path which anyone can follow. Most importantly, he has taken what many term Socialist Realism and used it to cast a blisteringly clear light on Stalinist Russia. That this would call to mind both Kafka and Beckett (and many more beside) is inevitable.

If that is his style, his subject is both simple and infinitely expressive, with a life beyond the episodic tale. A railway line is built along which travels the Zero Train. At intervals along the track there are stations and sidings, workshops, and all the life that is lived by those who maintain all these facilities. We are given glimpses into the long, bleak, and brutal life of one such place. It encapsulates the Stalinist era, but it also lays wide open the human condition. Those who arrive at the beginning, young, with hope, are ground down through the years. Those that survive are little more than that. Survivors. Their lives have been devoted to the Zero Train, the purpose of which is a mystery. When the train goes, they must go as well.

The whole book is a surreal tour de force. It sounds grim, and the realism spares no sensibilities, but at the same time it is a poetic work, and a paean to those whose whole lives were lived with the heel of the boot on their faces. Certainly a book worth seeking out.

Friday, 5 August 2011

Maigret Has Doubts - Georges Simenon

The great thing about Maigret is that whilst they are crime novels, they are not just crime novels. Yes, they are about a policeman and they recount his cases in a quiet, existentialist way, but they are also about the world in which the crimes occur. From small to large, Simenon never loses the sense that we are witness to actual events.

This is amply illustrated in the book. It is about a murder and its investigation. Yet all the time, Maigret has doubts as to the guilt of the perpetrator, who himself proclaims his innocence. Yet events and the people involved conspire blindly in such a way that the probably innocent man is executed.

This happens not out of the crime, but out of the social attitudes of those on the fringe, the ones called upon to fill in background detail for the investigators. Their snobbery, their desire to keep their own secrets hidden, their desire not appear foolish, their inability to express themselves, all add up to the damnation of a man who hadn’t the strength to stand against the wind.

As such this is an exercise in subtle character study. In fact, it is a master class. Simenon doesn’t tax us. He writes entertaining books. But neither does he assume that entertain need be simplistic. Rather, he opens the real world to us in a way we might not otherwise see.

His books are generally short, but I would much rather have this essence of good writing and superb observation than the bloated, so-called psychological gore-fests that pass for some aspects of crime fiction today.

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

The League Of Extraordinary Gentlemen - Century: 1969 - Alan Moore & Kevin O'Neill

I am reserving judgement on this latest outing of the League. I realise that Moore writes long story arcs and that you have to read the whole thing to appreciate the parts, but... Well, as I said, I’m reserving judgement on that. For this instalment, however, I have to say I was disappointed. The story is thin and the artwork lazy. I know O’Neill style is spars and sketchy, but there are panels in this book where it looked he couldn’t be arsed and the overall layout was, to be honest, dull.

On the plus side, for anyone who grew up in the ‘60s there is a great deal of fun to be had spotting the popular icons of the period in the background (and sometimes foreground) of the panels.

Jury out, until the series is complete, but for this instalment? I’ll give it three.

Monday, 1 August 2011

Nirvana Bites - Debi Alper

It is difficult to write a comic novel that deals with serious issues. Debi Alper succeeds magnificently. This is because the comedy grows naturally from the characters and the situation.

At heart this is a thriller, with Jen, desperate for a job, drawn into finding out just who has it in for Stan. Stan is a BBC executive and spouse of a Tory MP. He also has a secret life. And someone is determined to expose that and cause as much pain along the way to anyway who tries to thwart them.

As such, this is about people who live on the fringe - those who choose to be there and those who have no choice; all trying their best to get by. But those on the fringes are often prey to the psychopaths and morally righteous (the ones who preach decency with a big stick in their hand).

But whilst this is a moral story, it is not a moralising story. This world is expertly explored through the medium of the story. We meet interesting and thoroughly believable characters along the way. And, something of a rarity these days, it is well written - lively, intelligent, emotionally engaging, well constructed, with a satisfying conclusion that nonetheless left me wanting more.

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

The Sunday Books - Mervyn Peake & Michael Moorcock

Perhaps for completists, this is nonetheless a beautiful book containing a selection of the drawings and pictures that Mervyn Peake produced for his two sons while they were living on Sark. These are not finished drawings. They were done on Sundays (hence the title) with his sons sitting either side of him whilst he told stories and conjured fantastical worlds. Peake’s style is distinctive, and even in these quick works we see the start of the path that leads to his paintings and line drawings.

In this work, pirates abound along with fantastic creatures and the occasional cowboy. The stories that went with them were not written down, so the text has been provided by Michael Moorcock, a friend of the Peakes and long time supporter of Mervyn Peake’s work. An introduction puts the illustrations in their family context, and a suitably daffy story ties the selected pictures together into a narrative.

Moorcock has fun, with unobtrusive allusions to aspects of his own work and the wider world of comics and illustrated stories that were Peake’s own inspiration. And the reader of the book will also have fun, because these are pictures you can return to again and again. The line drawings are full of detail, the colour pictures are gloriously vivid, and evoke those childhood picture albums and annuals that I remember with great fondness.

If you can spare the cash, this is well worth it.

Monday, 11 July 2011

Mahu or The Material - Robert Pinget

Back in the day (which was a very long way back) when I was trying to learn French (most of which I have now forgotten for lack of practice), I struggled through a Pinget in the original, text in one hand, a stack of French dictionaries close by the other. That experience, along with Beckett’s wonderful (if somewhat loose) translation of one of his plays, was enough to tell me that Pinget was an author I liked.

And now there are translations of all his works available for me to take the lazy option. I would much prefer to read these in the original as there is (along with Robbe-Grillet, Beckett, and others of that ilk) something about the French language that lends itself to such innovative writing.

Mahu is thoroughly, charmingly and, appropriately (given the Saint Fiducia episode), barking. It is a delight from start to finish. Proof (if proof were needed) that exploratory and innovative fiction can be humorous and fun (which aren’t necessarily one and the same thing). There is serious intent here. Not just an exploration of human relationships and the unique outlook of Mahu, but also a quirky examination of the nature of fiction as this novel is the novel of the central character. Yet the serious examination of these issues and ideas is all the better for its surreal daftness.

It is an aspect of the French I have long admired (and which had me seriously considering a move to Paris at one point) that work ranging from the profundity of a Camus, Sartre, or Pinget sits with equanimity in the same metaphorical pavement café as a Simenon or a Lucky Luke comic and is take with equal measures of seriousness and enjoyment. We had it in the UK for a while in the late 60s, but then literature (like everything else in this benighted land) was seen as a money spinning commodity; a world to be colonised by pompous no-nothings who churn out dull twaddle.

All I can say is, ‘Vive la différence.’

Saturday, 9 July 2011

Wild Nights - Emma Tennant

Occasionally you’ll read a book that is so jaw-droppingly good, you will wonder how someone can take something as prosaic as words and produce such absolute magic. And magic of so many kinds. This is a piece of descriptive writing like no other I have ever read.

On the surface, a novel about family life; the smooth and the rough, the loves and the battles; the present and the past. But that really does not justice to what is a work of mythology as powerful as anything that steps out of the obscuring mists of the past. Indeed, if you want to know what elemental magic feels like, you only need to read this book. It is surreal whilst being grounded in the mundane. It is sumptuous whilst being ordinary. It conjures the most basic of magics out the world around us and casts each character in an elemental role whilst, at the same time, describing the everyday lives of people.

In this it proves that the real dramas, the highs and lows of life, the magic, the wonder, the mystery, are all to be found in the everyday, in the relationships we have with those closest to us and the world in which we live.

To have sustained such powerful and magical writing for page after page, to have served the reader with a rich feast without once faltering, is the mark of a truly great writer. It is a book that sings. It is a book that deserves whatever inadequate praise I can heap upon it. It is a book that has so much more to say about people and life than a dozen other writers could muster over a lifetime of writing. It is a book that deserves to be lauded.

Friday, 1 July 2011

Fremder - Russell Hoban

I was both bemused and amused by a quote on the cover of this that stated the book recalls Orwell’s 1984 and Wells’s The Time Machine. It does neither. If the work is akin to any other work of science fiction it is to Lem’s Solaris or the Strugatsky brothers’ Roadside Picnic. Because whilst it is set in a dystopian future, the story itself is about the individual and their sense of identity. It is much more about inner space than outer space.

Essentially the book is about Fremder’s quest to discover what it is that makes him unique. It is everyone’s quest who ever gave any thought to who they were and what it is that has shaped them. Hoban has simply used a future setting to accentuate the philosophical questions.

And he does it with his usual assured use of language, constructing a story that perfectly synchronises content and form. Indeed, this is one of those (many) books you can hand to someone who declaims all science fiction to be poorly written pulp about alien invasions. The story is complex, the imagery is striking, and the reader is made to work without ever feeling left behind.

Hoban is vastly under-rated, in my view. He is a fiercely intelligent writer, witty, one who has never settled into a rut or routine. He writes with equal skill for children and adults (in itself a remarkable achievement), and makes no compromise to fashion or the ‘literary’ world. As a result, his books are far more passionate and engaging than many that are lauded.

Saturday, 25 June 2011

The Ballad Of Halo Jones - Alan Moore & Ian Gibson

I haven’t read Halo Jones since it first appeared in the comic 2000AD and this is the first time I’ve read it in its entirety. It takes it to a whole new level. I always remembered it as powerful, it was clear I never appreciated the subtlety (although that may be as much to do with the print medium – the comic wasn’t exactly on high quality paper). Whatever the case, it was perfect material for 1984 and it just got better as it progressed.

Halo Jones is a young woman living in the 50th century. An ordinary young woman in a dead end existence, desperate to get out of the sink estate to which she had been confined. She was not particularly clever (although street-wise), she was not possessed of super powers or criminal tendencies, she was just ordinary. And therein is the power of the story, because she reflected the everyday experience of a lot of people.

In her determination to get out, she takes lowly jobs where she can find them, finds her old friendships and certainties breaking up or being destroyed, and ends up serving in the military as the only way of getting a roof over her head and food in her belly. And when she tries to walk away from that she realises there is nothing else left but the hell of combat.

Cheery stuff for a comic. Yet the story is leavened with wit and sympathy. And Halo is nothing if not resourceful. Although further stories were planned, they never got produced and it is in some ways fitting that she fades out of history.

The storyline is strong and subtle. Much of the back story (and there is a lot of it) is introduced without pages of exposition. The characters are beautifully rounded. And Moore is not afraid to kill people off in ways consistent with the world in which they live. He is not afraid to explore the experience of readers as well. The Glyph is, ironically, a memorable character.

Gibson’s drawing is excellent throughout. His use of light is extremely skilled, a new angle seems to be found at every turn, and his ability to conjure complex scenes in black and white without ever losing the important stuff in a fussy background fills me with awe. As for the colour cover of this edition – love at first sight.

The Ballad Of Halo Jones - Alan Moore & Ian Gibson

I haven’t read Halo Jones since it first appeared in the comic 2000AD and this is the first time I’ve read it in its entirety. It takes it to a whole new level. I always remembered it as powerful, it was clear I never appreciated the subtlety (although that may be as much to do with the print medium – the comic wasn’t exactly on high quality paper). Whatever the case, it was perfect material for 1984 and it just got better as it progressed.

Halo Jones is a young woman living in the 50th century. An ordinary young woman in a dead end existence, desperate to get out of the sink estate to which she had been confined. She was not particularly clever (although street-wise), she was not possessed of super powers or criminal tendencies, she was just ordinary. And therein is the power of the story, because she reflected the everyday experience of a lot of people.

In her determination to get out, she takes lowly jobs where she can find them, finds her old friendships and certainties breaking up or being destroyed, and ends up serving in the military as the only way of getting a roof over her head and food in her belly. And when she tries to walk away from that she realises there is nothing else left but the hell of combat.

Cheery stuff for a comic. Yet the story is leavened with wit and sympathy. And Halo is nothing if not resourceful. Although further stories were planned, they never got produced and it is in some ways fitting that she fades out of history.

The storyline is strong and subtle. Much of the back story (and there is a lot of it) is introduced without pages of exposition. The characters are beautifully rounded. And Moore is not afraid to kill people off in ways consistent with the world in which they live. He is not afraid to explore the experience of readers as well. The Glyph is, ironically, a memorable character.

Gibson’s drawing is excellent throughout. His use of light is extremely skilled, a new angle seems to be found at every turn, and his ability to conjure complex scenes in black and white without ever losing the important stuff in a fussy background fills me with awe. As for the colour cover of this edition – love at first sight.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Lint - Steve Aylett

This book is a joke. OK, it’s a bit of an in joke, but you only need to have a passing interest in pulp sci fi to get it. And even if you don’t it is surreal enough and daft enough to raise a smile or three.

In essence, this is the life story of Jeff Lint. It is also part of the life story of SF, and of the strange people attracted to it (usually the ones who are not interested in SF, but there for the money). It charts the ups, downs, sideways steps, and downright inside-out turnings of trying to make a living from writing and all the other bizarre things that writers have to do and put up with. That Jeff Lint is mad as a box of hammers (think Philip K Dick played by John Belushi) adds to the... dare I say... colour.

There is also a nod (and a wink) to the overlapping field of conspiracy theory – those promulgated by Lint and those that circulated about him. Most notably, the ‘Jeff Lint is dead’ industry, and its counter theorists who don’t believe he is dead. Even though he is. Possibly.

In all the fun, there is also a satirical edge, one that is not above poking fun (and sharp sticks) at itself, the sci fi world, and the complete lack of comprehension (and outright hostility) of outsiders. Also on display here is good writing. Not just technically, but in the ability to spin a joke into a book without it ever flagging. True, there is plenty of material to work with, but Aylett has the trick of writing dead pan. And the result is a biography that will now seep into the subconscious and squat there making me keep half an eye open for The Caterer comics whenever I pass a second-hand bookshop.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

A Princess Of Mars - Edgar Rice Burroughs

I first read this during a long summer in which I devoured books at a furious rate. Perhaps as a relief from A Level literature, I stuck to pulp and lightweight sci fi. Most notably, I waltzed through E E Doc Smith’s books and then happily lost myself in ERBdom. Tarzan. Pelucidar. And Barsoom. There were probably others, but I didn’t keep any of them so I can’t really remember.

What I do remember is that I enjoyed them Barsoom books without ever getting over excited about them. This probably had a great deal to do with the style in which they were written. At the time I was revelling in contemporary literature that was often ‘exploratory’ (an altogether more satisfying adjective than ‘experimental’, I feel). ERB seemed a little old-fashioned. Manly heroes, beautiful princesses, weird creatures. Yet even then I appreciated he had, in his way, produced exploratory work. And now...

I treated myself to the Barnes & Noble edition containing the first three Barsoom books. Beautifully presented (although shockingly copy edited), I have been able to wallow. Not just in a direct link to that summer, but in books that were much better than I remembered. Yes, there are manly heroes, beautiful princesses, weird creatures, and those gorgeous dying landscapes of Mars, but ERB knew how to put a story together and keep it moving with enough pace to satisfy those who wanted adventure and enough detail and craft to satisfy those who like a bit of depth to their entertainment.

And entertainment is what these books are. There isn’t much beyond that in the pages, but what there is sufficiently stimulating to lift these works out of the ordinary. ERB’s writing is workmanlike, clear, and only now and then prone to rambling attempts to give scientific explanations that inevitably sound flat these days. But he avoids the breathlessness that is a common fault of lesser writers in this area. And there were hundreds of them. Sensationalists rushing to get to the next cliff-hanger and leaving all semblance of story and character behind.

Great fun. And if the next generation of Martian explorers don’t find those long deserted cities, it’ll only be because they are looking in the wrong place.

Sunday, 12 June 2011

Under A Canvas Sky - Clare Peake

Anyone who knows me will tell you that I hold Mervyn Peake to have been a genius. As a painter, illustrator, poet and novelist he excelled. But there is one aspect of his genius that is rarely listed, but which should not be overlooked. In collaboration with his wife Maeve Gilmore (a superb artist in her own right), he was a genius parent.

If you want proof, read this book. It is there in several ways. To begin with, the story it tells. Clare was the youngest child of the Peakes and her father’s illness began when she was seven. The harrowing tale of this wonderful artist’s descent into a living hell has been documented more fully elsewhere. It still makes me cry. The perspective here is of a child. Clare Peake does not attempt an adult’s retrospective other than to explain this was her life and, as a child, hard as it was (and the pain emerges later), that is how it was.

To write so confidently and simply about this, as Clare Peake does, is a great gift. She tells her story. And it becomes clear just what wonderful parents she had, that their talents as artists spilled over into their care for their children. It was not conventional. On the other hand it was not outrageously bohemian. It was a childhood of love. Because the artistic genius of the parents did not make them precious, did not make them feel superior to lesser mortals (unlike some of the unprintable people they met along the way, especially when Mervyn Peake became ill).

As a combination of biography and memoir it does not gloss over the bad times, but neither does it dwell on them. This is no rosy-visioned romp in a perfect childhood; but neither is it a misery fest. The straightness, openness, and honesty of the work is also a testament to the genius of the parents who laid the groundwork for someone who has had to grow up and make a life of their own knowing they had famous parents. And it is clear from this work, those foundations were strong.

Having read widely about the Peakes, this is a fresh perspective. It tells a familiar story without once making you think you’ve been there before. No mean feat. The writing is beautiful in its simplicity, the story is told with equal clarity (and having grown up through the same period, I have to confess there was a great deal of nostalgia on my part and a nodding of the head in agreement with sentiments expressed), and I feel privileged to have been allowed another glimpse into the life of this family.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

A Web Of Air - Philip Reeve

There must come a point in a sequence of books when the author hits the wall. When you add to that the problems caused by writing prequels (in which the outcome is known if you have already read the original books), a degree of sagginess is bound to set in. That is the case with this, Reeve’s second prequel to his Mortal Engines books.

Having said that, it is still an inventive book. The ideas are there. The setting, the working out of the ideas… but the characters feel flat and the developing relationship between Fever Crumb and Arlo feels contrived. We are given no motivation for what happens between them (or perhaps I just missed it). And the same is true for the ending of the book, which felt like being served a slice of yesterday’s stale cheesecake after having eaten a slice of cold pizza.

Reeve starts from a high level, so this is not a disaster of a book. Mayda is certainly an intriguing, if wasted, setting; and we can but hope we return and explore the city in greater depth. Let’s just hope, if he does, the cardboard cut-out stand-ins are replaced with real characters.

Read it. Enjoy it (once it gets going). But don’t expect too much of it.

Monday, 30 May 2011

Options - Robert Sheckley

This book starts out in a fairly straightforward, if somewhat clichéd fashion. A space pilot is sitting at his controls when something goes wrong and he has to make a forced landing on a backwater planet. There he goes in search of a pare part. This being a superficially well-organised future, he heads for the nearest depot where spares are cached. This being a superficially well-organised future, they have every spare part conceivable except the one he wants. So far, so humdrum; but this is a Robert Sheckley novel.

There would be enormous mileage in this as a straightforward satire that exposes the sheer chaos of modern life and parodies the ultra smooth futures of much science fiction. Sheckley, however, takes a different turn altogether and in the course of this novel explores the meta narrative of writing a novel, well before it became the angsty province of ‘literary’ writers and with considerably more than a dozen of the aforementioned could muster between them.

On being told there may be a spare part on a different part of the planet, the pilot is given a robot to guide him through the dangers he will face. In keeping with the original premis, the robot has been delivered to the wrong planet and is programmed for an entirely different eco-system.

The journey starts out Carrollian and then gets bizarre. As attempts to progress are constantly thwarted, the author intervenes and constructs new narratives in an attempt to help the pilot reach his goal. Along the way we are treated to philosophical discussions and ideas, subverted pulp adventures, what appear to be entirely unrelated events (but which are, of course, the author trying to keep his narrative on course).

The result is exuberant chaos, shot through with hilarity and enough ideas to last other writers a lifetime. Yet it also manages to remain subtle. The jokes aren’t flagged or repeated to make sure you see how the author is. And it also manages to explore some of the fundamental problems of philosophy in an understandable way. What is more, this package is wrapped in a sure style; even when Sheckley is exploring and experimenting with language, it never gets to the point of self-indulgence or obscurity.

Saturday, 28 May 2011

Naked Lunch - William Burroughs

William Burroughs made notes during his journey to the otherworld that is Interzone and when he returned he formed them into a novel (for who would believe it was non-fiction?). In doing so, he created one of the most influential pieces of writing in the second half of the twentieth century. And it is influential not just in literary terms, but culturally in general, socially, and morally.

It is far too complex a text to treat properly in this form. A few paragraphs could say very little other than the fact that Burroughs taught a whole generation how to write anew, how to make music anew, how to view the world anew. For the breadth of his influence on a generation one need only look at the number of bands that have taken names from this and other books by him.

Yet this influence derived not so much from someone creating everything anew for themselves, rather it sprang from Burroughs honesty about the world he inhabited and an honesty in the way in which he recorded it. He drew on his experience (hence his insistence on writing what you know). The language and ideas come from the people he mixed with and the pulp literature of the day, much of the best of which also drew directly from the street.

Burroughs’ genius lay in the way in which he drew all that together, not just with honesty but with a vibrant prose and equally vibrant style that allows the reader to experience the hallucinatory weirdness of the world from the perspective of someone who gives not the slightest fuck about social, cultural, or literary mores.

The book still shocks and offends some (perhaps most) people. If there is shock and outrage it should be that our world is such that people feel the need to use drugs and gratuitous sex as an escape. Unfortunately, the outrage is often because someone has dared to expose the world for what it is.

All that aside, this is blistering writing: uncompromising, dark, and often very beautiful.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

The Story Of The Amulet - E Nesbit

The third of Nesbit’s books about the Psammead and the children who encounter this wish granting creature. (And yes, before I am again accused of simply rewriting book blurbs, I know the Psammead only appears in two of the three books and only grants wishes to the children in the first…). This one draws heavily on Nesbit’s knowledge of ancient cultures (especially Egypt) and her involvement with Socialism.

The children, parted from their parents and desperate for their return, are living in London with their Nurse. One day, whilst exploring shops near the British Museum, they come across the Psammead in a cage and, at the same time, acquire half an amulet. On returning home with the sand fairy and the ancient talisman, they learn that if they find the other part of the amulet they will be able have their hearts’ desires – the return of their parents.

A series of time travelling events ensue in which the children and, later in the book, an adult scholar who lives upstairs, have adventures. They travel to Egypt, Babylon, Atlantis, and a Tyrenean ship bound for the Tin Islands. They also go into the future, one that resembles Morris’s vision and in which Wells is revered as a prophet.

As to be expected, despite the hair-raising adventures, all ends well. This is typical Nesbit fare. Well written, informative without ever being dull, humorous, and socially aware without ever preaching. All in all a wonderful piece of escapism with the Psammead as bad tempered as ever

Jack On The Box - Jack Trevor Story

A collection of short non-fiction pieces peripherally connected with the television series of the same name (exploring similar territory and themes), these first appeared in the later part of the ‘70s. JTS was best known for his Sexton Blake stories and for his comic novels that together in a culture that tends to look down on pulp and comedy has done much to mask the author’s considerable talent.

I have written before, of his fiction, what a superb craftsman he was and this is evident just as much in his non-fiction. Economical, highly literate without once putting this talent before the subject matter, and always accessible without ever making any concessions. You have to engage with his writing – he has put in a lot of work and rightly expects readers to do the same.

And the result is a witty journey through his world. It is sometimes honest, sometimes heartbreaking, and there are times you want to kick his shin, but it is never less than entertaining and thoughtful. You cannot help but think how these things (love, work, family, and the absurdities of modern life) apply to one’s self.

And for writers it is also a journey into the experience of the majority of those who graft away at a keyboard. It is all too easy, if you read the literary pages of the papers, to assume that writers live privileged and refined lives, pulling in the dosh whilst doing an easy job in pleasant surroundings. The parties, the erudite chatter, the big fat royalty cheques.

As if.

Read this book and you’ll find out what it is really like. The hard slog writing, the hard slog selling, royalty cheques not worth the paper they are printed, living in cheap, rented accommodation; not to mention the strain on relationships (or the sheer luck of finding a partner who puts up with the depressions, moods, the need to tiptoe quietly when creativity is in full flow). It’s all there. Not exactly a coherent treatise on the writing life, but the writing life is anything but coherent.

Over it all, there is one impression it is difficult not to come away with. No matter how annoying JTS may have been at times, now matter what his faults (to which he readily admits), no matter how surreal the writing and his vision of the world, you cannot help but feel the real warmth of the man.

Friday, 6 May 2011

The Trouble With Trudy - Jack Trevor Story

A sequel to The Trouble With Harry, this takes up the story a year later. The same characters in the same location are suddenly inundated with the arrival of babies. When a runaway unmarried mother stumbles on the scene, followed in short order by an American Marketing Executive, the fun begins.

Clearly intended as a light piece to the darkness of Harry (although these terms are relative as Harry was anything but dark, despite the dead body) it doesn’t have quite the same edge. Yet it still manages to be well-written, thoughtful, with some excellent touches of characterisation, and giving just a hint of what Story would later develop as his major themes.

Whilst this may be a lightweight piece, it demonstrates that this should never be equated with sloppy writing. Story always gave value for money with his work and this is full of little gems. Moments in the narrative that made me smile and laugh, moments that made me re-read a phrase, sentence, and sometimes a whole paragraph for the sheer enjoyment of his craft, the ease with which his own voice shines through without ever drowning out the tale he is telling and the characters it involves.

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Kleinzeit - Russell Hoban

A novel about coming to terms with creativity really doesn’t sound like it would be scintillating. Indeed, writers who write about writing tend to be pompous, whining middle-class white men who have led charmed and privileged lives. Russell Hoban has always ploughed his own furrow (usually at 480º to everyone else’s) and has produced a delightfully surreal work that manages to be funny, philosophical, intriguing, so far off the wall there isn’t a wall in sight, and touching.

Kleinzeit, who works for an advertising agency, gets fired. Very quickly afterwards he finds himself in hospital with a recurring geometrical pain (his hypotenuse is a bit dodgy). Thereafter he is pitched into an adventure that has more than a touch of Lewis Carroll about it whilst remaining firmly a work by Russell Hoban.

Beyond that it is difficult to describe what happens. Kleinzeit encounters various characters and concepts, converses with Death, and falls in love with Sister. In the process his ailments fade and he begins to get to grips with whatever it is he is writing. Yet as you follow the journey, you realize you are in the hands of a writer who really should be celebrated as one of the great talents of literature.

This is, for all its themes, an accessible work, warm, beautifully written, full of momentum, overflowing with ideas, and great fun to read.

Saturday, 30 April 2011

Black God's Kiss - C L Moore

C L Moore, of course, being Catherine Moore. This is important. Even today, there are some who do not realise (a) that C L Moore was a woman and (b) just how important that was. And that’s before we get onto the book. Pulp fantasy has always had an image problem, not helped by fantasy art work (Paizo, take note). Yet like all branches of writing, above the 90% crap rises the 10% that is well written, innovative, and worthy of respect.

In a field dominated by men, the work of the few women writers tends to stand out anyway, but Catherine Moore went one further and gave us Jirel of Joiry. Because fantasy was not only dominated by male writers, but their protagonists were male as well. The only women were the ones you saw on the lurid covers. Helpless frails or dark, seductive (and invariably scheming and evil) priestesses or witches. Jirel was different. Oh, how she was different.

In the mid to late 1930s, Jirel was positively inspiring. A woman. Strong. Bold. A warrior and leader. Willing to tackle mortal and magical foes alike. Without once being portrayed as a clone of her male counterparts. And even in the company she kept (works by Lovecraft and Howard) she stood her ground.

Moore’s writing is rich. It is probably best to read these stories in instalments (as they were intended), because in one sitting it can be a bit much. But for all that, these are also beautifully written. Characterization of Jirel is complex and sensitive; the stories are simply but strongly plotted; and the scenes are well imagined and described. It is no wonder that not only did Moore open the way for many other women writers, especially in science fiction and fantasy, she set a high standard as the starting point for those that followed.

Moore was not the only woman writing sf and fantasy, but she gave us its first true female protagonist, someone who was far removed from the masturbatory fantasy art which Paizo has chosen to put on the cover of this collection. A shame. Given the huge amount of illustrative talent that exists, they could surely have found something more appropriate.

Monday, 18 April 2011

Asylum Piece - Anna Kavan

Anna Kavan – a character’s name from one of her earlier works, adopted by the author who went on to produce some astonishing work that is all too sadly neglected these days, despite the unflagging championship by her publisher. This was the first of her ‘new’ work, a series of interlinked vignettes that explore her recent experiences of breakdown and confinement in an asylum.

On the surface this does not sound like it makes for a cheerful work. And on the surface, it doesn’t. But this is not a dark work either. It is honest, at times chilling, often surreal, and offers the reader a glimpse into a troubled mind. Yet the overall picture is not one of derangement. Rather there is an underlying bewilderment. Why is this happening to me? And it manages this without once falling into self-pity.

This is down to the style. It is the simplicity that speaks of complexity, the straightforwardness that tells of a hideous maze just negotiated, the acuteness of observation that picks out the one slight detail which is most indicative of the inner state. It is the use of imagery and symbolism with such a light touch, you notice only the echoes and not the original call.

In some regards, the analysis of her own problems is extremely clinical. She reports events rather than trying to reproduce emotion. Yet this makes the work all the more effective, because it adds a layer of authenticity that histrionics would obscure: the sense of isolation, of looking in on one’s self, of trying to make sense of events when it is the world that seems deranged, of remaining unobtrusive in a Kafka-esque world where standing up gets one noticed by people one would rather not attract.

And the overall effect is intensely human and vibrant, all too aware of the prisons we make for ourselves as well as those made by others – physical, intellectual, emotional, metaphorical, and symbolic.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

The Dragonfly Pool - Eva Ibbotson

There is a great deal of the author in this book and it clearly draws on her own memories of the period leading up to the Second World War. Her father was a physiologist and the central character has a father who is a doctor. Ibbotson went to Dartington Hall School, which has transferred itself to the book as Delderton Hall. Bergania, the small European country that features in the book is not unlike parts of Austria, from which Ibbotson originated.

This reliance on her own experience allows Ibbotson to draw a compelling and realistic backdrop to a simple and powerful tale about friendship. True, it is aimed at a readership just reaching double figures, and once or twice points out things that an adult reader will long since have understood, but that does not hurt the book in any way. It does not talk down to its readers, it never breaks off a well paced story to fill in background detail, and it relishes the portraits it paints of the characters involved.

Tally, a young London girl is offered a scholarship to a school in Devon. Although she does not want to leave her father and aunts, she reluctantly agrees to go and soon discovers that not all private schools are the same. Delderton is a progressive school and there she blossoms. As a person whose only worries are for other people she is the driving force behind a cultural visit to a Europe on the brink of war and aids the escape of a prince from a country about to be overrun by the German army. Back in England they discover that fascists can be found in all walks of life and the prince must escape once again.

This manages to be an exciting story with welcome overtones of the anarchic humour of her ghost books. The characters are broadly sketched, yet have a core of realism that prevents them becoming grotesque. And it is packed with an impassioned view of the world that argues for the kind of education and upbringing that is all too often dismissed, especially by people who have no real knowledge of education. Yet that is never a lecture. Rather it forms an essential part of the story.

I can heartily recommend this to all adults, and especially those with children as it is not only a good read in its own right but comes from an author who can provide a bridge from the fantastical (do read her ghost books if you haven’t yet) to the magical in the everyday and sometime grim real world.

Monday, 4 April 2011

Mrs Dalloway - Virginia Woolf

A book that is often compared with Joyce’s Ulysses, Mrs Dalloway is, for me (and insofar as they can actually be compared), by far the better of the two. I appreciate the Joyce, but it sags under its own weight. Mrs Dalloway, on the other hand, is seductive because of its apparent lightness.

This is not to say it is lightweight. Far from it, but like all good literature it is easy to read and then stays with you for days and weeks afterwards as you mull over the content, finding yourself delving into deeper and deeper layers of meaning and structure.

The basic idea is simplicity itself. On a June day in 1923, Clarissa Dalloway prepares for one of her renowned parties. During the same day, Septimus Smith, a soldier whose shell-shock has taken him to the edge of madness is taken by his wife to see a specialist.

Through various stylistic techniques – principally stream of consciousness, but also the melding of direct and indirect speech with voiced and unvoiced thought, and the use of cinematic cutting – we follow these characters and those who surround them. Whilst the two principal characters never meet, their lives do make contact. And through the contrasts and the histories of the characters Woolf addresses a number of issues.

It is a subtle book with a dream-like quality: one scene suggests another and time is a fluid medium. We move from inner thoughts to omniscient viewpoint. And the whole thing simmers on a low flame of hysteria. Which makes some events all the more startling. And although there appears to be nothing in the way of commentary about the novel, it is once you go back and start thinking about the undercurrents that the flavour really comes through. Like an Eliot poem where the most banal of events and existences serve to make you wonder about the alternatives and just how inevitable it all is.

A book like this is difficult to sum up in a few short paragraphs. Virginia Woolf is a favourite author of mine (who would have guessed) and I would heartily recommend this to anyone, not just because it is a great novel, but also because of the technique. It is worth studying for that alone.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

The Prime Of Miss Jean Brodie - Muriel Spark

One could wish that all writing was this accomplished, but without such peaks, we would not be able to see the troughs or the other peaks beyond. Yet such literary peaks (unlike their geomorphological counterparts) are the easiest to climb. Deceptively so. And The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is no exception. For we have a short, simple tale of a teacher and the influence she has (or thinks she has) over a particular group of girls.

Packed into the 120 or so pages of this novel are endless and complex layers of characterisation and moral exploration, not to mention social history. And with the style of writing so beautifully mirroring the story itself, we are presented with a portrait that is by turns comic and tragic with all the shades between, and which is always compelling.

As the narrative progresses it becomes more sophisticated, maturing as the children mature and their understanding of what is going on around them increases. It makes use of remarkable leaps back and forth, of startling imagery (the death of Mary Macgregor, in particular, is one I always find deeply moving because of its inevitability and the way it is echoed in her response as a child to the explosive chemistry experiment).

The fragmentation of time, however, presents a seamless narrative, that makes sense in the way it is presented. It is what allows for such a compressed piece of work. For one could imagine a lesser writer being tempted to present us with a 1000 page epic embracing all social history and world events, Miss Brodie’s holidays abroad, and so on. But we need none of that in detail. We know enough about Jean Brodie to know how she reacts to these things as an individual. It is clear in the way she attempts, increasingly, to manipulate her ‘set’, how her mind works and has been influenced by her own life (of which learn surprisingly little) and larger events. In the small world of the school we see the larger world at work. In the Brodie set, we see how friendships develop and how minds are shaped, not always in the way the shaper assumes.

Muriel Spark’s writing here is breathtaking. It is economical without ever giving up on richness; makes use of poetic language and technique (particularly the repetition and variations on theme); manages to be modernist without once severing its links with the long and venerable Scottish literary tradition (which has, in any case, always been innovative); and paints a picture that lingers and changes as one continues to think of what kind of person Miss Jean Brodie was and the effects she had on her charges.

Monday, 21 March 2011

Running Wild - J G Ballard

Whilst The Day Of Creation seems to be a coda to Ballard’s earlier work, this novella prefigures the later novels. It is not a complete change. All the Ballardian concerns, ideas, and symbols are there, as is the trademark surrealism. But Ballard is no longer prophesying as the world he foresaw had, by the time of this work, come to pass. So Ballard lifts the body of society onto the table and with a sharp knife, flays the skin to let us look underneath.

Short and passionless, as befits the psychological report the story claims to be, this is nonetheless compelling, not least because of what is left unsaid; because of its implications. It also suits the world described – a safe, sterile environment, the perfect world as envisioned by a particularly unimaginative class of people who still hold sway over the world, bankrupting it whilst withdrawing into their elitist and protected enclaves. In this, Ballard is still a prophet because he foresaw that these people were taking the seeds of their own doom in with them.

Set in a small, gated community protected by the latest in security and serviced by those who live without the wire fencing, this tells of the massacre of the inhabitants and the disappearance of all the children. Theories abound, but very few people are prepared to face the truth. One such is the narrator who shows just how the children killed their parents and why.

This nightmare scenario probably does not shock so much now, but Ballard was there early pointing out that keeping children in a sterile environment is not a good thing. Over protectiveness and the ubiquity of digital entertainment have already given rise to concerns about social interaction and obesity. Take that to its extremes and one wonders how long it will be before the social problems lead to extreme psychological breakdown.

As always, Ballard writes with a visual eye. The scene is beautifully realised, the estate accurately drawn (although only sketchily as this is a short work). Indeed, the environment is the key and it is this that is given more space than the human characters that in habit it. They are unknown and, in the case of the children because they are sui generis, unknowable until found. And perhaps even then they would remain a mystery. The story is filmic in its quality and would make great television, provided the production team could be trusted to keep to the low key delivery that Ballard uses and which delivers this kind of story with far greater impact than thrills and spills.

Not, perhaps, a master work from Ballard, but certainly a thought provoking and eerie piece of work.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

The Day Of Creation - J G Ballard

What do you do when you have written a highly acclaimed novel that not only sheds light on the horrors of war, but which also sheds light on the roots of your earlier work? Well, if you are J G Ballard, you go back to those roots and reprise your earliest novels. But you do so with a whole new level of understanding and skill.

On the surface, The Day Of Creation belongs with Ballard’s first four (or three, as he would have it) novels. It does have a great deal in common with The Drowned World, The Drought, and The Crystal World (which in turn were born out of earlier short stories and The Wind From Nowhere). The world and society of the novels is dysfunctional. The central character is a doctor. The central character is an outsider on many levels, not least because of their descent into psychosis. And the whole thing is deeply symbolic. This might not sound like a particularly gripping read, but Ballard had an extra trick up his sleeve. He could tell a good story. And The Day of Creation goes well beyond those earlier works in terms of content and style.

Set in sub-Saharan Africa, the book tells of how a new river appears in the arid landscape and the effects it has on the lives of those who live close by. Mallory, the central character and local WHO doctor, has already been drilling in a dry lake bed to see if he can find water. The town where he lives has been deserted by most of its inhabitants because of a war between a guerrilla group and government forces. It is an uneasy dynamic that is thrown into chaos when a distant earthquake alters the level of a buried aquifer and releases water.

Mallory, already on the edge of sanity, is somehow convinced he has created the river. Torn between the desire to irrigate the Sahara and to destroy the river that will flood his drilling project, he steals an abandoned car ferry and sails upriver to seek its source. Chased by government forces, harried by a band of armed women, starving, diseased, he is driven by some inner force he does not understand. His only true companion is a young rebel soldier he calls Noon.

Whilst everyone else assumes his motives to be sexual, his relationship with the girl soldier is much more complex and forms one of the central strands of the book. It is developed with great subtlety because whilst it is a genuine relationship between two people, it also carries a huge weight of symbolism about the way in which Africa has been treated by outsiders and its own people. The river (named the Mallory), which symbolises Mallory’s own journey is a second strand that examines the relationship of people with the land and how they treat themselves.

The symbolism is powerful. The first time I read the book, I had vivid, potent dreams, much as many of Ballard’s early protagonists. They were not disturbing, but the book clearly unlocked something in me at the time. Whilst I was not affected in the same way this time (only the second time I have read this book), it did open many more layers to me. It is certainly difficult to avoid drawn parallels between the book and real events in Africa today, both sub-Saharan and Mediterranean parts of the continent. But life has provided more experience and Mallory’s search for himself, his journey back to his own beginnings, his search for love and a way to reconcile and heal all that he sees as awry and painful in the world make much more sense.

Ballard’s writing is also more assured. He was always a good writer, but there is a fluency about this work that is deceptive. It seems straightforward, less exotic than some of his earlier works, yet it manages to be more poetic and powerful as a result. And the final sentence, after everything has been lost, resonates not just with that loss, but with longing and hope, and with all the layers of meaning inherent in the book: ‘Sooner or later she will reappear, and I am certain that when she comes the Mallory will also return, and once again run the waters of its dream across the dust of a waiting heart.’

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

The Complete Poems - T S Eliot

It would be difficult to overstate the effect that Eliot’s poetry had on me when I first read it. Unlike Auden’s work which I could not find a way into, I felt that Eliot’s poetry was an open and inviting doorway into a place where you could look at the things behind the world.

Reading the two so close together has allowed me to consider why this should be so. In the end, it comes down to the very simple fact that whilst both poets are undoubtedly fiercely intelligent and pack their work with reference and allusion, I do not need to understand it to get anything out of Eliot. Auden it seems to me uses his intelligence to obscure and exclude. Eliot uses his intelligence to open up and include.

This is not to say that I do not understand the levels of Eliot’s erudition. Well… some of them at least. And it did no harm to my understanding that I was already a great fan of Shakespeare, Dante, and Conrad; and steeped in Arthurian literature and analysis. However, it is Eliot’s imagery that first hooked me. Those first three lines of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ were enough. Anyone who could write like that was going to have a permanent place on my bookshelf (and I saved my three pounds and bought the hardback of the complete poems and plays which I still have).

At school (this was one of my A Level set texts) we worked from the Selected Poems. No Minor Poems etc. No Old Possum’s. Whilst we had a good teacher, that selection did somewhat obscure two things about Eliot’s poetry. Firstly was the way in which it developed. His increasing pre-occupation with religion is more obvious when the poems are read chronologically. The second is the varying quality of his work. The minor pieces simply do not compare with the epic quality of the major works. But that is to compare Eliot with Eliot, because even the pieces written in ‘Early Youth’ are assured and redolent with the voice that would later shake my world.

Saturday, 19 February 2011

Dubliners - James Joyce

Joyce built a reputation on a remarkably small base of work, very little of it conventional. This collection of shorter pieces represents his earliest work and show an almost uncanny ability to use language. The pieces progress from childhood to death, from short to long, and they become deeper.

Each of the pieces is based around a moment of revelation, sometimes for the central character, sometimes for the reader, often for both. Yet at no point does Joyce lead. He gives each vignette in as near neutral a way as is possible, given his own developing style and method. Language used is appropriate to character, and sometimes seems a bit rough round the edges because of it; environment is just as important as those who move within it.

These are, to begin with, glimpses from the window, small moments of the kind we all see every day from the window of a bus or train. Little events that we cannot hope to embed in a wider context but which nonetheless are complete in themselves. As the stories progress that wider context begins to emerge and, indeed, we see some of these characters again in Ulysses.

The skill of Joyce is in writing pieces that leave us at first thinking: “I could have written that”; and then very quickly realising that we couldn’t. Not just because one needs to have been intimately associated with a place and its people, but also because one needs to have a natural ability to paint such detail with so few words.

Although I say natural, Joyce worked at his craft. But that simply increases the worth of the pieces because for all that he puts in; they still seem light and alive with the kind of energy one expects of a rough draft.

Although much is rightly made of ‘The Dead’, I still prefer the earlier, shorter pieces which for some reason remind me so much of the paintings of Tavik Frantisek Simon and to lesser extent Jack Butler Yeats. Moments captured. Frozen. Displayed for our exploration. Moments, also, that informed, shaped, and populated the imagination of Joyce himself.

W H Auden Penguin Poets - W H Auden

I am very firmly with Hugh MacDiarmid when it comes to Auden: “a complete wash-out”. I felt this when first introduced to his work in the early ‘70s. I still feel it now. The only time his poetry works for me is when he is not trying to dazzle with his intellect. For example, the first of his ‘Two Songs for Hedli Anderson’ (also known as ‘Funeral Blues’ and by its opening phrase ‘Stop all the clocks’). The simplicity of language and imagery is where the power of this poem lies.

There is no doubting Auden’s skill, his ability to use many poetic forms, or his erudition. However, for me (and I realise this is entirely subjective) all this produces is a smooth, glacial surface on which my interest is frozen and from whence it slides.

Friday, 18 February 2011

Modem Times 2.0 Plus...

This slim volume (hoorah for slim volumes) contains a new Jerry Cornelius novella, a short essay, an interview, and an outline bibliography. Whilst there is nothing spectacularly new in either the essay (on London) or the interview (by Terry Bisson) for anyone acquainted with Moorcock’s life and work, both are nonetheless illuminating, witty, and well worth reading – not just for insight into Moorcock, but also into the creative process. The bibliography lists (over eight pages) Moorcock’s phenomenal output – which would be amazing enough in its own right but which does include his journalism, musical work, or the less quantifiable contribution he has made over the decades to editing, encouraging, and promoting the work of others.

I am, of course, a Moorcock fan.

I have been reading his work since I was about seven (some of it before I even knew it was him in anonymous pieces in the likes of Look and Learn magazine). From his conventional rip-roaring fantasies to his non-genre work, from the conventional to the exploratory, I have devoured his output (and own most of it). One of the great joys of discovering Moorcock when I did was that you didn’t have to wait long for a new one to appear on the shelves. Interlocking works that he has, over the years, drawn together into a vast, multi-volume, work.

Jerry Cornelius is quintessential Moorcock. These comic strips, short stories, novellas, and novels encompass all his styles, themes, and concerns. Because Moorcock is more than just a fantasy or sf writer (which would be no bad thing). Moorcock’s work is informed by political awareness, a desire to explore and understand the human condition, and a great deal of warmth.

Modem Times 2.0 is a novella that demonstrates that over the years, Moorcock has lost none of his touch. It is a sparkling piece of work that uses old methods and styles to gain a new perspective on today’s’ world. Superficially light and, at times, knockabout (look out for the three literary worthies and their prizes), you find yourself suddenly aware of the depths of the piece. It is difficult to call it a novella as it does not have a plot in the conventional sense. The Cornelius stories (even those carried conventionally by a recognizable storyline) are more a method of bringing bits of the world into focus than they are stories with beginning, middle and end. It would be senseless trying to describe what this is about. You have to read it and tune into it. But I can say that it is eloquent, smooth, with an underlying flavour of the ‘60s still present for the tutored palate. Besides, any story that manages to mention The First Spaceship on Venus (the first movie I saw on my own at a cinema), just has to be one of the best things ever written.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

Empire Of The Sun - J G Ballard

It is difficult to find things to say about this book that people haven’t probably read elsewhere. As Ballard’s best known work (and for many people the first time they’d actually heard of him) and as one that has achieved great acclaim (not to mention being adapted as stunning movie of which Ballard approved and in which he makes a brief appearance) it has been dealt with in great length. However, there are some things worth mentioning because they get overlooked.

To begin with, it is a work of fiction. Because Ballard based it on his own childhood experiences of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai, there are some who think it is a recounting of those experiences. If you read Ballard’s autobiography, Miracles of Life, it is clear there are enormous differences. This is worth pointing out, because there are many who undervalue the book for this reason. Jim’s adventures may be based on Ballard’s experience, but they are a deliberate fictional account. The book is a carefully constructed novel, using all the literary devices applicable to such a piece of fiction. If it is read as a recounting of actual events, these other layers can be lost. And there are layers in plenty: levels of imagery concerned with dissociation, themes about family and companionship, arcs concerned with Jim’s development and understanding that occur despite all the obstacles put in his way – including the physical and psychic debilitation caused by starvation.

As a wok of fiction it is one of a minority of literary works aimed largely at an adult audience that has a child as its protagonist. Children do feature more in fiction now, but there was a long period where they appeared only on the fringes and even then only as a bit of colour to add realism. Quite why children have been neglected in this way is a mystery to me. They are ideal central characters because, as with Jim, they can view the world in a naïve way that points up its absurdity. Throughout Empire of the Sun, Jim experiences things which he doesn’t understand yet which are clear to the adult reader. This juxtaposition is an acute tool that heightens events and attitudes.

It is a work that is key to understanding Ballard’s other work. He himself said that he spent twenty years forgetting the events and another twenty years remembering them. It is certainly true that whilst the novels that follow Empire of the Sun address the same concerns and ideas, use the same imagery, they do so in a different way. It would be going a bit far to say Ballard had tamed his demons, but he certainly had the measure of them. The vocabulary of the Ballardian landscape is to be found in those war years. The empty swimming pools, the ruins, the chaos, the hallucinatory attention to detail, the closed worlds with their own sets of rules, the roaming bands of brigands, the fascination with machinery…All these and more informed Ballard’s imagination and shaped the way in which he narrated his vision of the world.

Finally it is a book that makes no pretension to being literary. By which I mean that Ballard allows the story to drive the language and very often we are treated to straightforward and unaffected prose. Which makes the hallucinatory episodes, the description of the gleaming Mustang aircraft, the stark portrayal of violence all the more powerful. Ballard strips the language back and keeps it out of the way of the compelling story.

I could say so much more. It is a novel that encapsulates the twentieth century in a way few others even come close to. It is powerful, unsentimental (at times savage), non-judgemental, and brutally honest. All the ambiguities and evils of conflict are set out for our inspection. And for all the atrocities it exposes, this is also a novel about the development of the artist because from all that happened to him and all that he learned of that period, Ballard became a writer of the deepest integrity who understand more than most just how surreal, absurd, and terrifyingly glorious the world can be.

Tuesday, 25 January 2011

The Lunatics Of Terra - John Sladek

Story collections are always difficult to assess unless they revolve around a theme or concern the same characters. Without that connection, you are left with disparate pieces written over a long period (in this case eleven years), often arranged out of chronological order, and placed between one set of covers in order to maximise their earning potential for the writer (and there’s nothing wrong with that).

Despite that, you know when you read a collection of John Sladek short stories, you are in for a treat. Doubly so as he has appended an Afterword to each piece which offers a little bit of context although, with Sladek, you always have to be watching over your shoulder.

The treat with these works is twofold. To begin with, Sladek is an accomplished writer. He knows how to make words work for him, producing work that is easy to read but which can be peeled back layer after layer until you realise there is no end, that this is the work of a sophisticated, brilliant, and slightly skewed imagination. Then there is the other skew. Sladek’s wit. He is a satirist with all the sharpness of acid in a paper cut. Which is to say it is no blunt instrument. Subtle, slight, and deeply biting.

And the range of his targets? Well… everything, really. But it is not an empty, lashing out. He does not suffer fools, especially people who do not use their intelligence. Yet beneath his devastating wit is a warmth often lacking in satire. As an example, Sladek had no time at all for flaky pseudo-science. But he still respected people whose beliefs led them to make or try to make a better world. He sent up all the tropes of science fiction, yet clearly had a love of the genre because he knew it inside out.

Sladek was also a literary writer. These aren’t just funny science fiction stories. They go way beyond that in much the same way Gulliver’s Travels goes beyond being a set of funny science fiction adventures. Human life with all its flaws is laid bare. And for Sladek, human frailty is, in fact, our saving, because ultimately, it is our idiocy that will throw grit into the gears of our plans for world domination.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

The Crock Of Gold - James Stephens

Published in 1912, this is a glorious book. By turns comical, witty, philosophical, spiritual, and whimsical – sometimes in a single sentence – it tells of the train events set in motion when a philosopher gives advice to a farmer that leads to some Leprecauns losing their crock of gold. This flimsy vehicle is what carries what is, essentially, a celebration of Ireland.

We meet philosophers (Druids) and their wives, free-spirited children who play in the woods, Pan (who is sent packing back to his Mediterranean stomping ground), Leprecauns, the Shee, and many of the old gods of Ireland. We also meet an array of mortal characters and, of course, policeman. No story of this nature about Ireland would be complete without its policeman – a race for whom there was, clearly, some affection if not much respect. In that, it is a natural precursor to the work of Flann O’Brien.

So far, it sounds somewhat light. Yet the story is infused with deep philosophical and spiritual insights, offered up in the form of discussion and illustration. And the closer these get to the realities of the modern world (in which this is set), personified by ‘the city’, the more sombre and disturbing they become.

The book is beautifully written. Lyrical, fluid, and highly assured. Stephens was a poet and novelist whose work is steeped in the folklore and mythology of his native land. Although little known these days, his literary worth was recognised in his lifetime, not just by the public, but his contemporaries in the literary world. Indeed, Joyce asked Stephens to complete Finnegans Wake if Joyce was unable to do so.

Stephens work deserves to be better known and if you ever come across his books (probably in a second hand bookshop) I urge you to give them a try. I bought The Crock of Gold forty years ago and it has given me joy and food for thought over the years (not least that my 1931 hardback edition is beautifully produced and cost 2/-).

Saturday, 15 January 2011

The Third Policeman - Flann O'Brien

This is a wonderful novel that delighted me no less on this reading than on any other. There are all sorts of clichés that could apply: quintessentially Irish being but one. That it may be, but it is so much more, because it takes that cliché, turns it outside in and downside up, gives it a bloody good shake, and then proceeds to subvert everything that emerges.

On the surface it is a simple tale. The unnamed protagonist, an unsuccessful farmer and pub owner, is obsessed with a fictional philosopher by the name of de Selby. Having written what he believes to be the definitive critical work on de Selby, he finds he does not have enough money to publish it, the family businesses having been run into the ground by one Divney. Together they plot to rob a wealthy local man called Mathers. During the robbery, the protagonist kills Mathers and buries him in a ditch.

Whilst burying the corpse, Divney makes off with the money and hides it, claiming they need to draw no suspicion on themselves. The protagonist does not let Divney out of his sight for the next three years, finally persuading him to tell him where the money is. Divney tells him it is under the floorboards of Mathers' house.

From this point on the slightly odd, slightly comical tale takes a double left hand turn up and off the wall. Surreal hardly begins to cover the protagonist’s adventures. He finds Mathers still sitting in his own house although the box with the money has gone. Mathers tells him of a police station where the policemen will know where the box has gone.

The police, however, are obsessed with bicycles, putting forward a strange theory about the way in which people riding bicycles swap their substance so that bicycles become more human and human become bicycle-like the more they are together. There are many other oddities and wonders, although none divert from the journey the protagonist makes to the gallows. But even that is not as it seems and the denouement takes us full circle, with the prospect of a large section of the book repeating in a cyclical exploration of absurdities. The text is peppered with footnotes referring to de Selby and his own philosophies creating a whole world beyond the novel.

For all its complexities and absurdities, this is not a difficult book to read. It does, however, repay close attention, because it is one of the great novels of the twentieth century. That claim is often made, but O’Brien ranks with Beckett and Joyce. It is a powerful book that taps the mythology of Ireland as much as it uses the national character (often in comic form) to explore universal verities.

Whilst many hail O’Brien’s first book as a masterpiece, I believe it is this work that consolidates his place as a literary genius and which takes the slightly shambolic form of the first book and creates from it a firmly structured work of modernist form that explores the inner landscape of humanity in a way few other books manage.

Friday, 7 January 2011

Mercier and Camier - Samuel Beckett

The missing link, if you will. Because if you want to know how Beckett went from the likes of Murphy and Watt to the trilogy and How It Is, or from Eleutheria to Waiting for Godot, you have to read this work. In both languages if you can. I no longer have my copy of Mercier et Camier, so must content myself with revisiting this by itself.

Written in French in 1946, Beckett shelved the work when he couldn’t find a publisher and it did not see the light of day again until 1970. It was written after Beckett had a literary revelation (partly expounded upon in Krapp’s Last Tape) about the direction his work should take. Stepping away from the shadow of Joyce, Beckett found his own darkness to inhabit, and his own style with which to explore a world whose boundaries he made ever smaller.

Mercier and Camier still has something of the feel of his earlier works about it, but the language is different and the setting, whilst still very much in the real world, has become a shade more surreal, a shade more abstract.

The book follows the fortunes of Camier and Mercier. They are, ostensibly, private investigators. What they investigate and for whom never enters into the book, although they do meet Watt and claim to have known Murphy. By turns comic and deeply philosophic and imbued with an atmosphere to which Robbe-Grillet owes some debt in The Erasers, this is a stunning work.

The stripped down language, ironic self-referencing, earthy subject matter, and railing against the absurdity of human existence are all present. Although not new to Beckett, they find their first, uniquely Beckettian expression here. The prose shows a promise of what is to come in his later novels and shorter pieces. The characters and conversation, the idle business of everyday life, introduce us almost completely to Vladimir and Estragon.

Mercier and Camier is considerably shorter than Mercier et Camier. Beckett rewrote each work rather than translated them. The original contains much that is uniquely French and which doesn’t move well to English idiom (hence the plea to read both versions if you can). Its brevity, clarity, and precise use of language make it an accessible read, although it does pay close reading to pick out the thematic echoes.

I know many people find Beckett obscure and difficult. He isn’t really. If you keep at the back your mind his love of silent movie stars such as Buster Keaton, if you watch a few Buster Keaton movies, then read some Beckett, you’ll have a taken a long step toward understanding him.

Saturday, 1 January 2011

Other books read in 2010

It was an extremely busy year for me. I read less and with the following titles was disinclined to comment, either because they were for research (and I've not included a score or so of titles on museums) or because my views on the authors had been made clear on previous occasions. Although not given to Resolutions in the New Year, I do hope to be able to read more in the coming months.

The City Of Shifting Waters – Jean-Claude Mézières & Pierre Christin
Murder – With Love! – Jack Trevor Story
The Late Anglo-Saxon Army - I P Stephenson
Tank Girl Two – Hewlett & Martin
Season of the Skylark – Jack Trevor Story
Lewes Past - Helen Poole
Beginning Theory - Barry
Zones of Chaos – Mick Farren
The Drowning Pool - Ross Macdonald
Violent Ward - Len Deighton
The Way Some People Die - Ross Macdonald
The Ivory Grin - Ross Macdonald
Vacation With Fear - Jack Trevor Story
Protection For A Lady - Jack Trevor Story
Find A Victim - Ross Macdonald
Alexandria - Lindsey Davis
The Barbarous Coast - Ross Macdonald
The Coming of the Terraphiles - Michael Moorcock
Profundis – Richard Cowper
Full Dark House – Christopher Fowler
The Water Room – Christopher Fowler
Seventy-Seven Clocks – Christopher Fowler
Bananas – ed Emma Tennant
The Mind Of J G Reeder – Edgar Wallace