Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Books read in July

Snuff – Terry Pratchett
Almost a return to form. The subject matter certainly lines up with the best that he has done – the way in which a wealthy elite regards the law as something to be ignored in pursuit of greed whilst at the same time demonising those least able to defend themselves. However, the edge is a little dull and yet again there is no feeling of jeopardy. Yes, this is Sam Vimes. But at no point in the book did I feel the he or his family would suffer. And when there is no uncertainty the story lacks the tension it needs.

The English Assassin – Michael Moorcock
Third in the original Cornelius Quartet and more layers of the story are peeled away. In the end of course there is no conventional narrative, which is somewhat the point of the book. Life isn’t like a novel; the world doesn’t unfold to a plan; our psyches are not built to deal with everything in a linear fashion.

So much for the structure. The content is a sharp observation of twentieth century culture from a ‘western’ perspective. Examining a number of possible realities (none of them all that appealing), Cornelius does what we all do: search for the best possible outcome amongst the detritus heaped on us by politicians, warlords, and greed-crazed industrialists (who are very often one and the same).

At all times this is done with erudition and with humour. As Mrs C says, just after her latest husband has been shot dead: “Yer gotta larf, aintcha?”

The Condition Of Muzak – Michael Moorcock
The title is a take on Pater: ‘All art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.’ Muzak, of course, is the pap you hear in lifts and other public places. As ever, an erudite commentary on pop culture with the many story strands of the entire quartet being given some kind of resolution (with many dropping into the start position of the first book).

There is a point toward the end of this book I always find the commedia del’arte references become a bit forced, as if the book is playing to that rather than the other way round, but this is more than redeemed by the fantasy Christmas which is then capped by the devastating finale – the death of Honoria Cornelius. Knowing what she has been (and you have to go to the Pyat quartet to find out more of that) plus the feeling that of them all she is the one that will live forever, a bawdy goddess, the simply told demise is both shocking and extremely touching.

For me the Cornelius quartet is the quintessential chronicle of the pantomime that was the 1960s. A bright, gaudy, bawdy show where for a while everyone could be what they wanted and dream of a brighter, cleaner world whilst all the time the money men are waiting in the wings to dismember the whole thing and sell on those bits from which they might hope to make a profit.

The Adventures Of Una Persson And Catherine Cornelius In The Twentieth Century – Michael Moorcock
A continuation of the Cornelius quartet but from the perspective of two of the main female protagonists. Although lovers, their lives expose certain disastrous extremes of the twentieth century – an inward looking self-pleasuring disregard for everything else; and the constant desire to meddle in the affairs of at the other end of the spectrum. Both tore the world apart, scavenging on the corpses left by the major conflicts of the time.

There is a weariness about the book. The characters are all tired of the parts they have been playing. The text also feels as if it is something that has to be side but that the author, like Una Persson, is tired of having to go over the same arguments, wondering if anyone is listening.

Despite that, it is a fine piece of social observation, especially the backstage stuff covering the 60s music scene.

Scrivener’s Moon – Philip Reeve
Back on form after the previous book in the series (which was not bad and probably a set-up for future events, but felt slow and something of a non-sequitor). Fever Crumb returns to London to find that progress into creating the first traction city is well under way. And that forces are massing to stop this step into municipal darwinism.

Exciting, fast paced, and suitably open ended, a great addition to Mortal Engines series.

Artemis Fowl And The Last Guardian – Eoin Colfer
One of the better (and possibly last) entries in the series, despite the bad copy editing. Come on Puffin, readers deserve better than this. Colfer has delivered his usual fast paced story. Nothing new, but a great read.

Maigret Goes Home – Georges Simenon
Intrigued by a message that arrives via a provincial police station stating that a crime will be committed during first Mass on a given date in a certain church, Maigret decides to be present. That the church is in the village where was born and where he was once a choir boy intrigues him further. And it is there, during first Mass, that the ageing Comtess keels over dead.

There follows a chilly psychological portrait of an inward looking society that is crumbling, a half dead institution pick at by vultures not waiting for it to die. And it is also Maigret’s memories that are savaged, leaving him almost powerless to act.

A spectator on the past, a spectator on the present, he watches as eveything unfolds in an almost gothic climax. And whilst it sounds melodramatic, Simenon as ever, through a barebones economy of language and plot, focusses on what really matters in the story and carries it through with great style.

The Theatre: A Concise History – Phyllis Hartnoll
A standard text on the subject and a set text for me when I was at college. It is exactly what it says on the cover – a concise history. It is however extremely informative, heavily illustrated, and has a short but very useful bibliography.

Recollections Of The Golden Triangle – Alain Robbe-Grillet
Set in an unspecified South American country, this is a typical Robbe-Grillet maze. A very simple linear exposition is told from different viewpoints and without regard to to any of the normal conventions of narrative. We move back and forth in time, the narrators change without any warning, symbols are discussed, not just by characters but by the author, and yet what sounds like it would be an unholy mess flows smoothly and, eventually, tells a story.

Of course, it is not the story set out at the end in a chronology of events. One point of the text is to demonstrate that a narrative is not necessarily (and probably never is outside a book or film) a chronology of cause and effect. Paths cross and re-cross building up a picture in much the way something is woven. Individual strands mean nothing. Follow a thread to its end and you see nothing. Stand back and let the process do its work and in the end you have a picture that makes sense. The beauty of a Robbe-Grillet is that the finished picture is merely a surface effect. He weaves in four dimensions, using colours that go well beyond the visible spectrum. Whilst we admire the picture, beneath it and deep within ourselves, doors have been unlocked...

The True Heart – Sylvia Townsend Warner
A modern fairy tale transposing Cupid and Psyche into late 19th century Essex. Sukey Bond is a beautifully drawn character who floats through life in what is an exceedingly deceptive novel. It seems simple and light (and the writing style suits this perfectly), but there are many layers to this. To begin with, it is rare for writing to convey both the sparkle in the author’s eye as well as the occasional flicker of a wink. And if you know your late nineteenth century slang there are more than few outrageous statements made in the guise of innocence (not least when Sukey finds herself in a brothel). And beneath that is an essay on the power of love that is uplifting and quite glorious.

Empty Space – M John Harrison
A beautifully written continuation of Light and Nova Swing. An experience such as this is difficult to express as a review. Nominally a work of science fiction, it is actually a work that explores metaphysics as well as physics, inner space as well as outer space (and, indeed, recognises that these are false distinctions), and the dynamics of personal relationships. The whole thing is a glorious feast of symbolism that will provide generations of students material for their theses, none of which will ever come close to exhausting the deep veins of meaning – although like the aliens who gave up trying to understand the Tract, the universe will be littered with these long abandoned and forgotten experiments in understanding whilst the thing itself will still provide pleasure and a rich metaphorical background.

Harrison (even in his earliest works) has always been a writer able to find ways of discussing ideas through action and events. And not content with that skill, he writes with a confidence, wit, and intelligence that leaves a lot of other writers gibbering incoherently on the starting blocks. Literate, entertaining, and clearly working at his craft in order to enhance his art. One could wish that we could say as much of many of our so-called literary authors.

Despite having written ‘straight’ novels, there is a perception that Harrison is a science fiction writer (or worse, a writer of fantasy). But like all good writers, he transcends that. For one thing, he always manages to turn any genre tropes he uses inside out and upside down. At the heart of his work are human beings trying to come to terms with being human. People who dismiss his work because of the way he chooses to explore these fundamental ideas are missing not just a treat, but work that leaves shadowy forms flickering just out of range of your internal sensors, teasing you to leave the gaudy neon life of the surface to explore the darker alleyways of your psyche where the real you is probably lost.

Snapshots – Alain Robbe-Grillet
A collection of short fictions. Not so much snapshots as short films lacking all context but that which can be derived from within. Children walking on a beach, people in the Metro, and so on. They are vivid and described in minute detail, but lacking that broader context it is initially difficult to decide what, if anything, is important. We are simply given a surface – a series of events and actions. Yet even this is illusion, because each reader brings their own context, creating a largely unconscious set of connections that create a story beneath the surface (we are a storytelling species). This may, in part, defeat the object of the author’s purpose, but it does demonstrate what an important contribution that Robbe-Grillet has made to an understanding and development of literary work.

Arsène Lupin Versus Holmlock Shears – Maurice Leblance
So glad to see this (along with three other volumes) in an omnibus from Wordsworth. Arsène Lupin is one of the all time great creations of crime fiction and deserves to be much better known. And not only are they significant in terms of the history of crime fiction, they are great fun. Written with tongue firmly in cheek, yet always presenting an excellent story, Lupin stands with Sherlock Holmes, Raffles, and Zenith the Albino – more the latter two than the former.

Lupin is the ‘Prince of Thieves’. A dashing Parisian who finds a challenge in the most difficult of robberies and whose humour and conceit make him both difficult to catch and a supreme annoyance to the authorities. Even Sherlock Holmes (her thinly disguised as Holmlock Shears as Conan Doyle was less than happy to see his detective made fun of) has trouble with Lupin.

Yet Lupin is not just a thief. He is, in his own way (as the second of the two stories in this volume demonstrates), a man of honour who will put himself at considerable risk to save the honour of someone else. For someone like me who enjoys French literature, who enjoys crime stories with a bit of flair, who enjoys something well-written and entertaining, this is a real feast. I hope Wordsworth can, over time, collect more of Leblanc’s wonderful stories and present them in their equally wonderful (and deliciously cheap) editions.