Interesting premiss, but sadly lacking in any real tension which is a shame as that would have made it a first class novel rather than the run-of-the-mill example it turned out to be. But this is Marsh and even her also-ran efforts are well written and well constructed.
A Storm Of Wings – M John Harrison
The second novel set in and around Viriconium, a long life-time after the events of The Pastel City. There is a nod, here, to Wells and to Kneale with the insect-like aliens and their psychic effect, but viewed through Harrison’s inimitable lens.
Dorothy Richardson The Genius They Forgot – John Rosenberg
A concise biography of Dorothy Miller Richardson (and given the way she guarded her private life, it is remarkable there is as much material as there is) which displays how abysmally artists and writers can be treated in the UK. DRM and her husband Alan Odle were both amongst the best in their respective fields, yet they lived in abject poverty all their lives. Interwoven with the biography is a literary appreciation of DRM’s life work. As this is largely autobiographical it is interesting to compare the fiction with the fact. A desperately sad book, yet I couldn’t help feeling I wanted to know more.
Peter Pan – J M Barrie
The bittersweet tale of the boy who didn’t want to grow up. The final chapter gives me shivers every time I read it. And the whole book delivers on so many levels it is always worth a re-read.
When In Rome – Ngaio Marsh
Efficient, but ultimately there is the feeling this was written to fit an intriguing location rather than because the story came first.
Tied Up In Tinsel – Ngaio Marsh
Perhaps reading the books in quick succession makes them easier to ‘read’. The particular tricks of the author are easier to spot. However, the book is well-written, the puzzle is genuine and well thought out if under-developed.
Black As He’s Painted – Ngaio Marsh
Marsh hits form here with an intriguing thriller/whodunnit. She sticks well within the bounds expected of her genre, but nonetheless manages (with its setting and its nod to the after effects of colonialism) to convey a whole other novel lurking just beneath the surface.
50 Literature Ideas You Really Need To Know – John Sutherland
Part of a series of ‘50 Ideas...’ this would probably be a useful teaching tool for A level students – each chapter the basis for discussion. It starts well and clearly, if with a somewhat random approach. And it never clearly makes its mind up about whether it is a primer on literary criticism, analysis, and theory or whether it is about the creative processes involved in writing.
It is also a book that suffers all the problems associated with writing to someone else’s formula. Despite starting strongly, Sutherland clearly ran out of ideas or steam before he got to the fifty. He seems to have packed the end with some pretty trite observations on modern trends that are, perhaps, intended to make the book up to date whereas they just make it look silly.
It further suffers from the fact that the author cannot keep his opinions (offered as snide little asides) to himself; and sometimes it is difficult to know whether they are his opinions or those of the theorists he is discussing. Clarity here is essential and it fades the further you get into the book, as if perhaps the author didn’t quite understand his later topics.
All in all an entertaining read, but if you want something with depth, clarity, and a clear structure, this is not the book to go to.
The Letter Killers Club – Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
It is a real joy to discover an author for one’s self, especially one who wrote work that is so in tune with the kind of thing one likes best. Heartbreaking as well to learn of his life of rejection (hardly surprising in Stalinist Russia) and of how his life ended. At least he had good friends who preserved his work and saw to its eventual publication. And thus, the world of letters is a better place.
This novella grew out of an incident in Krzhizhanovsky’s early life. Living in poverty in Moscow he received word of his mother’s death. The only way he could afford to travel the hundreds of miles back home was to sell his only possessions – his books. Having gone through a period of my own when nearly all my books were sold, I can begin (but only begin) to imagine what that meant.
In the novella, this is the starting point. It tells of someone who has to sell their books and who then, on trying and failing to recall the contents of the books, populates their shelves with imaginary tomes. This, in turn, provides the material for many successful books of their own – something that had previously eluded them. Later in life, however, this author has become convinced that committing things to paper destroys the purity of their conceptions and starts a secret society where authors meet to speak their ideas to the air and fill a set of empty shelves so that their ideas remain pure and untainted by the interpretations of others.
The stories told at the club are philosophical, surreal, and exceedingly rich. Yet this is Russia in the 1920s. What, on the surface, appears to be a slightly offbeat conceit has much darker under currents. The notion that one must gather in secret to share thoughts, that one dare not commit them to public scrutiny, that the club itself begins to mirror the external world... all this and more is both a comment on the construction of fiction and its place in the world as well as casting a sharp eye on the political environment in which the novella was written.
The translation is well made and what we know of Krzhizhanovsky through his life is apparent in the writing. He was clearly widely read and had a unique eye with which to view the world. And although he is at times biting in his criticism of the world in which he lived, it never becomes polemical. He makes the stories serve his purpose.
I loved this so much I have just ordered another volume of his work and look forward to the day that his other writings appear in English. If you like modernist writing, if you like sharp writing, if you like to see how a writer can be subversive, how surrealism works, if you want a great example of outright good writing, you could do a lot worse than this.
Tous Des Monstres! – Jacques Tardi
An old adversary returns in another beautifully drawn adventure. Post WWI Paris is lovingly recreated and populated with the usual cast of bizarre characters (including clowns