Tuesday 30 June 1998

Julian May: The Many-Coloured Land (1982)

Edition: Pan, 1983
Review number: 77

The Many Coloured Land is the first of Julian May's Exiles series set in the Pleistocene, and was one of my favourite speculative fiction books in my teenage years. I've been putting off re-reading it for two reasons: firstly, I was waiting until I had copies of my own of the four books in the series, and secondly, I was rather apprehensive that I wouldn't think it so good this time round.

The book still seems original even fifteen years on. The plot reveloves around time travel. While the book is set at a time when time travel is not understood in general, one working application is sure. In the wilds of Provence, a portal has been successfully set up, allowing one way travel to the Pleistocene era six million years before the present day. (Attempting the return journey causes passed material to age six million years almost instantaneously.)

The portal becomes used by people who don't fit in in the human polity, the commonwealth of human-colonised worlds, to escape to some kind of different world. Since recording equipment is destroyed before it returns to the future, conditions in the past are unknown; prospective exiles need to be desperate enough to consider anything better than their current lives.

The book tells the story of one particular group of exiles - one which will become significant in the history of the time to which they travel. May gives the background to each member's reasons for taking the journey, and the ideas they have for what they might do in the past.

Once they arrive in the Pleistocene, they discover a situation completely different from any they could have imagined. The world is run by two alien races, the Tanu and the Firvulag, who are in conflict though tied together as a single dimorphic species. (Humans are yet to evolve; until the exiles began coming through the portal, the aliens had used the semi-intelligent ramapithecines as servants, controlled through the power of their minds amplified by metal torcs.)

The remainder of the book concerns the different adaptations made by the travellers to this condition.

Why is the book so good? It takes several of the most important themes of science fiction (time travel, alien invasion, psionic powers, first contact) and weaves them together in a new and surprising way. This is complemented by a well-thought-out set of characters, presented in easily readable prose.

A.R. Myers: England in the Late Middle Ages (1307-1536)

Edition: Penguin, 1981
Review number: 78

Like D.M. Stenton's English Society in the Early Middle Ages, this book forms part of the Pelican History of England. It's aim is similar - to provide a popular level, short history which maintains high standards of scholarly accuracy.

Myers divides the period into four, and examines various facets of the historical picture with the same chapter headings in each section (basically looking at political, economic, social, religious and art history). He doesn't stop at the usual endpoint given for the English middle ages, 1485 and the establishment of the Tudor dynasty, and he gives convincing reasons why 1536 (the dissolution of the monasteries and the establishment of the Anglican church)marks a better division. (These reasons include the common policy of the late Yorkist kings and early Tudors, the lack of continental humanist influence, the continuing faithfulness to Rome and the monastic idea, and so on.)

A very good basic history, though the concise nature means that certain aspects need to be skimmed over rather too rapidly. One area where this is particularly noticeable is the unquestioning acceptance of the standard picture of Richard III's murder of the princes in the tower; even if Myers felt that the traditional view is correct, his omission of any argument is not really helpful.

Friday 26 June 1998

A.A. Attanasio: Arthor (1995)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton,  1995
Review number: 76

This is the second book in Attanasio's Arthurian series, following on from The Dragon and the Unicorn. It is somewhat different in character than the first book, which was very much involved in the spiritual aspects of the Arthur-myth; now that Arthor has been born, the emphasis is far more on the human characters who will be carrying out the drama.

Arthor has been hidden away from the machinations of his half-sister, Morgeu, until he is old enough to take the throne. In his early teens, he grows up to be a formidable fighting machine devoid of fear or any human emotion, driven by the psychological need to show himself worthy of his foster father, the cheiftain Kyner.

As the time for him to assume the kingship approaches, Merlin goes in search of Arthor. He leaves behind him, to manage the cheiftains gathering at Camelot, my favourite character from the book. The mason Hannes, who helped Merlin build Camelot, extracted a promise from him to grant any one wish. What Hannes asks for is that he would be able to work magic, and Merlin reluctantly grants this wish, telling him that the responsibility will be far greater than he expects. Hannes has no time to get to learn hiow to use his magical abilities, and a lifetime of deferring to aristocratic clients makes it difficult for him to overawe them.

Arthor has been sent by Kyner to return a Saxon named Fen taken hostage by the Celts to his tribe. The Saxon tribe involved is particularly fierce, and Fen doesn't expect either of them to survive (they would consider Fen a coward for being captured rather than forcing his enemies to kill him).

The tribe has also captured a woman named Melania, who has control of a pair of spiritual beings, lamias, who live on the fresh blood of horrifically slaughtered human beings. In rescuing her, Arthor releases one of the lamias who posesses Fen in a rather complex way, forcing him to chase them to have a chance of getting rid of the creature.

I enjoyed the book. Though it lacks the sweep of The Dragon and the Unicorn, it spends much more time on the characters and gains in a different way through that. It's certainly easier to get into; the vast prologue in the earlier book makes very difficult reading.

Alan Baker: Transcendental Number Theory (1975)

Edition: Cambridge University Press, 1998
Review number: 75

This book has been the standard survey of the theory of transcendental numbers for some time now - the first edition was published in the mid-seventies. The author is a prominent researcher in the field, and several chapters draw heavily on his own work.

My own mathematics training is in areas other than number theory, and I found large parts of the book difficult to follow. I have a copy of the basic number theory textbook written by Baker, A Concise Introduction to Number Theory, and I would have expected some discussion of concepts used in Transcendental Number Theory but absent from the more basic book.

The other problem is with Baker's writing style, and it is shared with An Introduction to Number Theory. His mathematics is extremely condensed in style, and it is often difficult to work out what is going on. In a survey this is less of a problem than in a textbook, but I still felt I would have found it easier to follow if I were attending a course of lectures based around the book at the same time as reading it.

Thursday 25 June 1998

Roger Scruton: The Aesthetics of Music (1997)

Edition: Clarendon Press, 1997
Review number: 74

An academic survey of the philosophy of the aesthetics of music must cast its net quite wide. To try to understand the effects that music has on us, and how we distinguish music which has aesthetic effects from sound which does not. The subject, comprehensively surveyed by Roger Scruton, takes in psychology, musicology as well as general aesthetics and philosophy.

A basic knowledge of philosophy and of music is required, though not to such an extent as to exclude amateurs like myself. The discussion is clear, though some bias toward (for example) tonal music does come through. Some of the general aesthetic theory becomes quite hard going, but it is worth while for the understanding of the later music-related discussion.

It is not a book which will change the way I listen to music, but it has certainly shown me the variety of issues which any theory of musical aesthetics needs to answer.

Wednesday 24 June 1998

Robin Hobb: Assassin's Apprentice (1995)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1995
Review number: 73

This is the first of Hobb's Farseer fantasy trilogy, set in the Six Duchies, a confederation ruled by a king who has a name supposedly related to his character. (From the days when they were truly appropriate the usage has degenerated so that the royal family are given propitious names at birth, such as Verity, Regal and Patience.)

The main character has no real name, so far as he knows; he is the bastard son of the "King-in-Waiting" (crown prince) Chivalry, and is known as Fitz or Boy. The book tells his life story from the age of five or so to his mid teens.

After a few years in the stables, he is tutored by the king's assassin, Chade, and begins to take part in the tortuous politics of the realm. The Six Duchies are undergoing a major crisis, being raided by Viking-like marauders who "Forge" their victims, magically making them lose all sense of community so they attack their kinsfolk, and rob and attack all they come into contact with. This is perhaps a fairly unsubtle parable about the dehumanising aspects of modern life.

As fantasy books go, it is not particularly original; there are plenty of series which begin with the adolescence of the main character (a prominent example is David Eddings' Pawn of Prophecy). The Six Duchies are reasonably convincing and the book is entertaining enough that I'm going to look for the rest of the trilogy in the local library.

Tuesday 23 June 1998

Ngaio Marsh: Death and the Dancing Footman (1942)

Edition: Fontana, 1968
Review number: 72

Another traditional crime novel, written during a period in which it is clear that Marsh was slipping more and more into re-using the formulaic plot ideas of the genre. Death and the Dancing Footman is from the snowbound-upper-class-houseparty subgenre; the houseparty is gathered by its host, who wants to bring together seven people who have good reason to kill each other (two brothers, lifelong rivals, and the girl who has jilted one for the other; their mother, whose face was ruined by an experimenting plastic surgeon; the plastic surgeon in question; his secret wife, who runs a beauty parlour and is having an affair with one of the brothers; and a rival beauty parlour owner). He has also invited Aubrey Mandrake, famous dramatist, whose shameful secret he has uncovered (he was originally named Stanley Footling), to act as an impartial observer of this grotesque "experiment in psychology".

Naturally, things go wrong; a series of dangerous practical jokes ends up with a death. The characters then have to live with each other for several days before the snow thaws and they can call in Inspector Alleyn to solve the mystery. (He naturally happens to be staying at a house nearer than the next town, from which the houseparty is still cut off for the time being.) The problem is that the murder appears impossible; the man accused of the practical jokes was in his room having taken sleeping tablets, and the rest of the household has an alibi provided by one of the servants, who stood outside the door dancing by himself to the music coming from the radio. (This is an activity I would have thought would lead Alleyn to arrest him immediately as a dangerous lunatic.)

Marsh writes well enough; she could obviously churn out novels within the genre with no trouble. Her best work is not completely contrained by the conventions of the form, but this novel is not really her best work.

Monday 22 June 1998

Alexander Solzhenitsyn: Lenin in Zurich (1975)

Translation: H.T. Willetts, 1976
Edition: Penguin, 1978
Review number: 71

As the title suggests, Lenin in Zurich is Solzhenitsyn's novelisation of the time spent by Lenin in Switzerland during the First World War, before he returned to Russia in 1917 to begin the revolution. The book follows on from August 1914, to become part of a series examining the origins of the Soviet Union.

The major part of the novel comprises chapters from a longer work, which means that you start with chapter 22 and it is followed by chapter 49 - a little disconcerting. I'm a little surprised it was printed in this form, as it is quite a short novel (around a fifth of the length of August 1914). The missing chapters do not make you feel any lack of continuity except for the jumps in chapter numbers.

I didn't enjoy the book, and the main reason for this was that Solzhenitsyn is totally unwilling to concede that any of the originators of the revolution might have had a pleasant, non-hypocritical thought. He writes the character of Lenin himself in the first person, and most of the thoughts he ascribes to him are contemptuous of the masses, of the aristocrats and of the bourgeois. His driving urge is seen to be to increase his personal standing by breaking up any movement within the socialists which looks toward anyone other than himself. The other leaders - of whom Lenin is also contemptuous - are not portrayed in any better light. Surely at least some of these people must have believed in what they were doing; surely at least some of them must have felt that a revolution would help people?

I have felt that Solzhenitsyn's standards went down after he moved to the West - or before that, when his output became more documentary in style rather than novelistic. Nothing that I have read in his output matches A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, Cancer Ward or First Circle. He has allowed himself to be overcome by his bitterness, and a one-sided writing style results. (In the earlier books, the non-prisoners are just as much victims as the prisoners, and this makes everything work much better.)

Friday 19 June 1998

Dorothy L. Sayers: Busman's Honeymoon (1937)

Edition: New English Library, 1977
Review number: 70

This was the last full-length Peter Wimsey story written by Dorothy Sayers, and follows on more or less immediately from Gaudy Night. The first half of the book details the preparations for Lord Peter and Harriet to get married, and enables Sayers to bring in many characters who will be remembered by fans of the earlier books in the series, from the architect from Whose Body to the retired burglar from Strong Poison to the senior common room of Shrewsbury College from Gaudy Night.

This part of the book is basically a romance about the long-term characters of the series, is not very serious and is quite fun. The second part tells the story of the honeymoon they have in a house they have just bought near the village where Harriet grew up. They have arranged with the former owner to pick up the keys on their wedding night, but he isn't there and they need to wake up his niece to get a spare set from her.

It's not until the next morning that they discover what had happened - the body of the owner is downstairs in the cellar. Peter and Harriet are flung into an investigation of a murder during their own honeymoon.

The expected result follows: in the face of bafflement by the police, Peter reconstructs the crime - a most ingenious booby-trap being used to commit it - and the murderer is caught. Unusually for this class of fiction, Dorothy Sayers had a good idea what catching a murderer meant - a lengthy trial followed by an unpleasant execution and untidy loose ends. She made a point of this in several of her books, and in this one it is really made obvious. The execution has a most unpleasant psychological effect on Peter, and leaves an unmarried girl pregnant with the murderer's child. This is almost contrary to the whole spirit of the detective novel, where everything is sorted out, and the murderer is an evil person who deserves what he gets. The ability to do this is something that raises the greatest practictioners of genre fiction above the other writers in the field.

Thursday 18 June 1998

Rudyard Kipling: Kim (1901)

Edition: Penguin, 1987
Review number: 69

Kipling's famous novel of British India, which made his name in the late nineteenth century, is still worth reading today. Kipling is rather out of favour today with the academic world; his work is routinely accused of racism. It's perhaps rather unfair to suggest this of Kipling; he was hardly as bad as many of the people of his own time, and Kim suggests considerable respect for many aspects of Indian culture.

Whatever else Kipling's book may be, it is certainly a good read, and was the prototype for many "ripping yarn" type stories. There is surprisingly little in the way of action when you think about it; Kim may become involved in spying, but he is hardly James Bond before his time.

There are certainly aspects to the story that have not endured so well. The odd remark strikes the reader as patronising (asides about the Oriental idea of efficiency and so on), and the idea that a white man could pass unnoticed through Indian society, even if brought up as though a native, is fairly absurd, as is pointed out in Edward Said's excellent introduction to this edition. (The introductions are one of the strongest points of the Penguin Classics series.)

One of the reasons Kim succeeds is because of the sympathetic treatment Kipling gives to the lama befriended and served by Kim. The lama is completely taken up with his quest for the river of healing, and is naive about the world while being extremely wise. His complex personality makes the comparatively sketchy nature of the other characters work well.

Tuesday 16 June 1998

Jeffery Farnol: Martin Conisby's Vengeance (1934)

Edition: Pan, 1970
Review number: 68

This is, of course, the sequel to Black Bartelmy's Treasure, and continues the swashbuckling adventures of Martin Conisby in the Caribbean. At the start of the book, Martin is stranded on his desert island once again. This time, he is alone, until the pirate lass Joanna is stranded there too. (This deserted island seems to get as much traffic as the Pool of London.)

She of course falls in love with Martin, though he spurns her in memory of his beloved, Joan, daughter of his hereditary enemy, Richard Brandon. Joanna, as a pirate cheif and beautiful woman, is not accustomed to rejection, and in a fit of anger destroys the boat he has been making to escape from the island (and her importunities).

Martin continues to resist Joanna even after they are picked up by her pirate crew, and he makes his escape as they are engaged with an English ship. This ship turns out to be commanded by his old friend Adam Penfeather, and has Joan aboard. They take Joanna captive, sinking her ship, and she claims that she is pregnant with Martin's child, thus causing Joan to turn away from him.

Still obsessed with his desire for revenge on Richard Brandon, Martin leaves the ship to head into the mainland and to the dungeons of the Spanish Inquisition, where he should be able to find him.

As you would expect, Martin is captured by the Inquisition, and is imprisoned in the same cell as Richard Brandon. The changes wrought upon Brandon in the years he has spent in the cell mean that he is now a gentle, humble man full of remorse for the way he treated Martin and his father in years past. The meeting with Richard finally persuades Martin that revenge is hollow; nothing he can now do could make his enemy suffer more than he has already, and the enemy is not the same person that he was when he committed great injustices against Martin.

Martin Conisby's Vengeance is a better book than Black Bartlemy's Treasure, thanks mainly to the interest of Richard Brandon's character - he is much less two-dimensional than most of Farnol's creations.

Monday 15 June 1998

Lindsey Davis: The Course of Honour (1997)

Edition: Century, 1997
Review number: 67

The Course of Honour is, like most of Davis' novels, set in the Rome of the first century AD. Unlike these novels, its main character is historical, not the private detective Falco. Caenis was a slave to Antonia, who was related to most of the early emperors of Rome. She received her freedom, and became the mistress of an obscure young senator (a Sabine rather than a true Roman) named Vespasian.

Though the two of them find true love together, Caenis forces a parting for the sake of Vespasian's career. The book details the struggles to survive for both of them under the emperors from Tiberius to Nero, of varying degrees of insanity.

Then comes the year of the four emperors, AD 69, and the first major civil war of the Empire, followed by the victory of Vespasian and his enthronement as emperor.

As usual, Davis writes well and with a good sense of period; the subject matter of this novel (the comparative richness of the characters in particular) means that it is a good deal less nasty than the Falco series. It is also more constrained by the "real history" involved, which is caused both by having real historical people as major characters and by covering a much larger sweep of history (one which is also covered in some detail by several more or less contemporary historians). These restrictions don't seem to handicap Davis; this book confirms to me that she is a writer of some stature, not just someone who can write well in a limited field.

Friday 12 June 1998

Anthony Trollope: The Small House at Allington (1864)

Edition: Penguin
Review number: 66

This was the most popular of Trollope's Barsetshire novels at the time when it was written, though critical opinion would not generally give it so high a position today. The romance between the main characters really caught the public imagination when the novel was published in serial form, though subsequent commentators have seen it as rather sentimentalised.

The book really centres around three people, though Trollope emphasises (as part of the narrative) that he didn't want to have a conventional hero and heroine as the main characters. Indeed, the major achievement of the novel is to present fully rounded characters that are not perfect nor completely imperfect.

These three characters are Lily Dale, the young niece of the squire of Allington (the Great House is the squire's home; the Little House is the home of Mrs Dale and her two daughters, the children of the squire's brother); Adolphus Crosbie, fashionable young man who proposes to Lily while staying with the squire's son and is accepted, though he later has second thoughts; and Johnny Eames, another young man who has loved Lily from afar for a long time but is too shy to have done anything about it.

A major theme is that of growing up; the novel is in some ways a precursor of "coming of age" films. Johnny Eames in particular is described as a "hobbeldehoy" at the beginning, a lad lacking in experience who has yet to become a man. His growth is through the experience of working in London, subject to the temptations of the great city, and responding to the events in Allington. Lily Dale grows up through her experience of rejection, and Crosbie grows up as he experiences the effects that his marriage to another woman whom he does not love have on his life.

Thursday 11 June 1998

Paul Doherty: The Rose Demon (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1998
Review number: 271

It is rare to find a modern novel which takes medieval religious ideas and supernatural fears seriously. The Rose Demon is really a horror story set in a medieval world stalked by the demon-possessed, witches and the spirits of the dead.

The myth of the Rose Demon, or Rosifer, is (I think) Doherty's own addition to the complicated medieval system of demonology. Inspired by the knowledge that one day God would become incarnate in the human race, and enraptured by the beauty of Eve, the angel Rosifer tried to seduce her before the Fall, bringing her roses in the garden of Eden. Now one of Lucifer's chief servants, he is still looking for a human being to love him of there own free will. The closest he can come is to act as an incubus or succubus (demonic lovers usually associated with witchcraft) or through possession.

The novel itself concerns his relationship with Matthias Fitzosbert, the illegitimate child of a village priest, who as a child showed some affection to a hermit possessed by Rosifer. But as Matthias grows up, the demon's continued relationship with him causes all sorts of problems (such as accusations of witchcraft) and involves him in the great events of his time: the end of the Wars of the Roses, the imposture of Lambert Simnel, the Spanish conquest of Granada and the discovery of America. Everywhere he goes, the demonic presence nearby involves him with the supernatural: ghosts, Strigoi (vampires) and witches, all portrayed as they are in medieval chronicles. His realisation of what possession means - Rosifer always possesses those near him, not Matthias himself - as he grows older leads to a horror of those things which bring the demon near, despite his solicitude for Matthias.

Few writers take the supernatural seriously in historical novels; the best horror writers always do, from Edgar Allan Poe and Bram Stoker to Stephen King. (Note that I did not say that they have to believe in it.) You cannot frighten with your tongue in your cheek, with the little concessions to twentieth century materialism made when neither writer nor reader takes these things seriously. The horror that can be evoked by ideas of demon possession (in believers) is worse even than the similar, twentieth century, horror of mental illness, because demons are known to be evil while an illness has to be seen as morally neutral. That is what Doherty is seeking to convey, and he really manages to do so.

P.C. Doherty: The Masked Man (1991)

Edition: Robert Hale, 1991
Review number: 65

Ever since Alexander Dumas wrote his classic novel, The Man in the Iron Mask, its subject has been one of the best known historical mysteries. Several of Doherty's early novels deal with such mysteries (the death of Alexander III of Scotland, for example), as did his Ph.D. thesis in medieval history (the murder of Edward II of England). In this case, he claims to have found new evidence to explain who the man actually was, and this is worked into the novel.

The story of the masked man is probably familiar enough. He was a prisoner in seventeenth century France, kept in a mask and forbidden to speak to (just about) any one, presumably so no one would know who he was. The mystery is basically to work out his identity, and why it was such a crucial secret.

The Masked Man is set about a century after the death of the prisoner. Ralph Croft is an English forger who has been sentenced to death in a French prison, only to be reprieved at the last moment. The relief brought by the reprieve is short-lived; Croft is visited by the Duke of Orleans, the regent of France and a man with a terrifying reputation. His pardon is conditional on an investigation into the story of the masked prisoner - whose identity even the French state no longer knows.

Croft joins two other men in his quest to find the truth. D'Estivet is a bullying, vicious man; Maurepas is quieter and more congenial (he also has a daughter of whom Croft becomes rather fond). One of them is seen fairly early on to be involved in a plot to overthrow the French government; Doherty brings in themes from a source I wouldn't expect a real historian to use, The Holy Blood and the Holy Grail.

Perhaps this novel is one best viewed as coming before Doherty hit his stride; the Corbett and Athelstan novels are far better, and the medieval period is his main strength, whether he is writing as P.C. Doherty or Peter Haining.

Wednesday 10 June 1998

Robert A. Heinlein: Time Enough for Love (1973)

Edition: New English Library, 1979
Review number: 64

Throughout his career, Heinlein kept on returning to the character of Lazarus Long, the man who lived for thousands of years. Time Enough for Love is the most extended work with Long as a central character.

The book is structured in two main parts. The first contains a series of (self-contained) anecdotes as told by Long during a rejuvenation session. These are of varying interest, and are designed to demonstrate Long's (and hence Heinlein's) philosophy of life. This philosophy is an old-fashioned libertarian one; everyone should be able to do all they need for themselves except women, who are to be protected at all costs. (All the women in the book are described as beautiful.)

The second part is the story of Long's return in a time machine to the period of his childhood, and tells how he falls in love with his mother and gets involved in the First World War. The incestuous elements here can be quite unpleasant if you think about it, but the fact that Long's apparent age is similar to that of his mother means that the feeling of repugnance is kept quite far in the background.

Like many of Heinlein's later books, the adolescent philosophy is a major stumbling block. Here, that is combined with an inflated length (600+ pages). Nevertheless, it is an easy read, while distinctly unchallenging.

Tuesday 9 June 1998

Abraham Pais: 'Subtle is the Lord...' (1982)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1982
Review number: 63

Subtle is the Lord... (the Einstein quote finishes "...but he is not malicious") is an excellent biography of Albert Einstein written by an eminent physicist. A fair knowledge of physics is necessary to read this, but reading a biography of Einstein which doesn't convey the work that he did is much less interesting to those who have such a knowledge.

Pais is not uncritical of Einstein. A major theme of his book is to answer the question of why, after the major achievements of special and general relativity and his quantum mechanics papers, Einstein produced so little work of permanent value in the second half of his working life. In fact, Pais suggests that the very aspects of Einstein's character which made the earlier breakthroughs possible meant that his work became more divorced from the mainstream of twentieth century theoretical physics as time went on.

Subtle is the Lord is rather less interested in the non-physics related activities of Albert Einstein, though considerable space is given to his pacifism and Zionism. There are other biographies which concentrate on these matters, and are much more interested in Einstein's private life. Pais' work is where to come for a definitive description of the way in which Einstein's work and life fitted together.

Friday 5 June 1998

Brian Bates: The Way of Wyrd (1983)

Edition: Arrow, 1986
Review number: 62

This book arose from an academic look at "shamanism" in pre-Christian, Anglo-Saxony England. Bates looks at this culture through the eyes of an outsider, Wat Brand, a priest sent to learn how the shamans work so that the church can combat them as they move into the area (I think) now covered by the New Forest. He receives an education in the way of the Wyrd (the principle governing the pagan world-view) from the shaman Wulf.

It's an interesting education, forcing Brand to question many of the assumptions of his own world-view. He is a convincing medieval Christian, which is more than many historical novelists seem to be able to manage.

The problems with the book lie with the world-view of the author. Wulf is given all the advantages; throughout his is assumed to be the correct, insightful way to live a life. Bates is clearly sympathetic to the shamanic and antipathetic to Christianity; and the introduction of many elements from different shamanic cultures means that Wulf is putting forward a strongly New Age perspective. (A quick glance at the bibliography will show just how wide these borrowings are; they are principally North American and Asian, and some of them come from studies on the use of drugs in ritual which I believe have since been discredited.) The author deserves some credit for making the pagan culture more vicious than the standard wishy-washy New Age rubbish, but he certainly doesn't give the church a fair deal.

Thursday 4 June 1998

George Bernard Shaw: Plays Pleasant (1898)

Contents: Arms and the Man (first performed 1894), Candida (1900), The Man of Destiny (1897), You Never Can Tell (1905)
Edition: Penguin, 1953
Review number: 61

As the introduction makes clear, this collection is intended as a companion piece to Shaw's Plays Unpleasant collection. Not having read the earlier collection, I'm not quite sure what makes a play pleasant or unpleasant; I guess that it's to do with whether it is trying to impart a non-dramatic message. The four short plays here are not really anything other than fun comedies; there is a hint of a social message here and there (particularly in Candida and You Never Can Tell), but it is incidental to the plays themselves.

The play I liked best from the collection, and the best known of them, is Arms and the Man. This is set in Bulgaria, then an exotic barely civilised location, during a war with Serbia. The main characters are a rich Bulgarian family, the Petkoffs. The spoiled daughter of this family, Raina, is engaged to the dashing young soldier Sergius Saranoff, currently at the front. As Raina is going to bed, a young man in Serbian uniform climbs into her bedroom through the window. She is initially scornful of his cowardice, but she sheilds him when Bulgarian troops arrive to find him. She calls him her "chocolate cream soldier", because he avidly eats her sweets. It is perhaps surprising to read in the introduction that Shaw was criticised for portraying a soldier in an unheroic light; attitudes were so different before the First World War.

Candida is about a man who is a genuine Christian and a genuine Socialist, James Morrell. He and his wife, Candida, are a couple who attract those around them; his preaching and public speaking draws hundreds, and she finds herself the idol of the lovesick young poet, Eugene. Neither of them understands the attraction they, or their spouse, have for others; that is their tragedy. The contrast is made between them with their ideals and Candida's father, Burgess, who is a most unpleasant capitalist only interested in the welfare of his dependents because he can make it pay.

Man of Destiny is virtually a two-hander; the other characters are tiny by comparison with the leads. The main character is Napoleon Bonaparte in his youth, as a young general in the French Republican army invading Italy - his first great success. He is at an inn in northern Italy, awaiting the arrival of dispatches. The lieutenant carrying them arrives, but they have been stolen from him on the way by a youth; he recognises a mysterious lady (whose identity we never discover) as the youth. Napoleon protects her, denying the possibility that she can be the same person. The play develops into a battle of wits between him and her.

The final play, You Never Can Tell, is a fairly straightforward comedy. The Clandon family have been living in Madeira, after Mrs Clandon felt forced to leave England following attacks on her feminist views. Returning to this country with her three children (Gloria, a young woman after her mother's heart; Philip and Dolly, who are young enough not to have quite outgrown their childishness), the family meet up with a Mr Crampton, landlord of a dentist who falls in love with Gloria, and who turns out to be Mrs Clandon's abandoned husband and father of the three children.

Wednesday 3 June 1998

Ann Granger: A Word After Dying (1996)

Edition: Headline, 1996
Review number: 60

One of the Mitchell and Markby series of crime novels. In A Word After Dying, the romance between Alan Markby and Meredith Mitchell has finally reached the point where they feel comfortable going on holiday together. They go to stay in a cottage belonging to Alan's sister and her family; needless to say, they begin to get involved in the death of an old woman in the small village.

The old woman, Olivia Smeaton, seems to have died perfectly naturally from a fall, but Wynne Carter, a retired investigative reporter who lives next to the cottage, has a feeling that something was wrong. As Meredith begins to investigate and pressurise a reluctant Alan into joining in, they quickly discover that the village is not the tranquil place it appears to be. Meredith begins to investigate a local coven, and soon a murder takes place.

If you enjoy the gentle tone of this series, they are all winners; this has one of the harder puzzles to solve (I didn't work it out). The books are all fairly similar, which is a criticism of most series, particularly in the detection genre.

Ngaio Marsh: A Surfeit of Lampreys (1941)

Edition: Collins
Review number: 59

This is one of my least favourite Ngaio Marsh novels. The crime is puzzling enough and the solution typically ingenious, and Roderick Alleyn is his usual urbane self; the problem is that I find it impossible to have any sympathy for the family at the centre of the story, the Lampreys.

The Lampreys are an upper class family always suffering from financial crises, yet unable to work or to save because of their frivolous background. Marsh keeps on emphasising the point that all who meet them cannot help but love them, because of their charm; this didn't come across to me at all. Returning to England following some years in New Zealand, they invite the head of the family to their London flat, where they hope to charm him into giving them some money. Following a grotesque set of charades and planned supposedly charming and spontaneous appeals from the various members of the family, he has a furious row with Lord Henry and leaves, only to be brutally murdered in the lift on the way down.

Under suspicion, the Lampreys show themselves at their worst, speaking French to discuss the crime in front of the PC they patronisingly assume won't be able to understand; the identical twin sons refusing to admit to which of them went down in the lift with the victim; lying about the refusal to give the money to them and so on.

The inability of the Lampreys to do anything of any use to anyone, their total parasitism on the "lower classes", and the way in which everyone looks on their egotism as charming because they are from the aristocracy - these all amount to good arguments for a socialistic view of the class system. I'm fairly sure Marsh didn't mean it that way, and it probably felt different at the time (though if I were reading this during the war and had experienced the hardship of the Depression I don't think I'd have felt very charitable towards them). It's difficult to read it without projecting 1990s attitudes, but I do hope we have moved on.

Monday 1 June 1998

Michael Innes: Hamlet, Revenge! (1931)

Edition: Gollancz
Review number: 58

This is a much earlier Appleby novel than the two Michael Innes books I had read previously, and much more in the detective fiction mould than the thriller mould of Operation Pax. In fact, the background to Hamlet, Revenge! is about as archetypal as you can get: an amateur dramatic performance of Hamlet during a country house house-party at which the actor playing a character who is killed (in this case Polonius) is actually murdered.

Everything is on a rather large scale; the amateur dramatic performance includes as Hamlet the greatest professional actor of the day, Melville Clay; the country house is at Scamnum Court, modelled on Blenheim Palace and seat of the Duke of Horton; Polonius is not killed by a sword stroke from Hamlet but is killed by a gunshot at the moment when his stage death would happen; and the fact that Polonius is played by Lord Auldearn, a major political figure currently co-ordinating some top secret defence work means that an espionage thread can be worked into the plot. The murderer has also been rather cheeky, by sending warning messages in apparently easily traced ways, and by taking apparently reckless risks.

I enjoyed John Appleby's unravelling of the plot greatly, and will be reading more to fill in his career from this early novel to the late ones like Silence Observed.

Jack Westrup: An Introduction to Musical History (1955)

Edition: Hutchinson University Library
Review number: 57

This book is not an introduction in the sense of a basic textbook of musical history, but an attempt to look at musical history and its methods to help students evaluate and understand both musical history texts and source materials of various kinds.

Jack Westrup looks at what the source materials can tell us, with a brief look at the development of notation, and develops an attack on many early attempts at musical history (particularly that of Burney) for their biased and subjective approach to the subject. His criticisms are not solely reserved for past writers; he takes modern historians to task for merely repeating statements from earlier work (particularly for making judgements where they clearly didn't listen to sufficient music themselves), and for taking at face value statements in musical memoirs. (He quickly shows that Berlioz's memoirs, to take one example, are more concerned with presenting the Berlioz as a particular kind of artist in a Philistine environment than with the truth.)

The second half of the book consists of brief examinations of some major themes in musical history, and the particular pitfalls that can be fallen into by the careless historian; these themes include the role of the church and patronage, both areas where the statements of composers and chroniclers are particularly likely to contain inaccuracies for political reasons.

A very thought-provoking book, which will influence the way in which I read musical history.