Friday 29 September 2000

David Gemmell: Dark Moon (1996)

Edition: Bantam, 1996
Review number: 634

Dark Moon is not a particularly successful fantasy novel. It is set in a world originally inhabited by the extinct Oltor, who were exterminated after inviting the gentle Eldarin and ferocious Daroth to share their lands when their own worlds were threatened by catastrophe, continuing in their altruism to add humans to the list of intelligent species. For the moment, the Daroth are no more, having been imprisoned by the magic of the Eldarin, before a war of racial hatred leads to the destruction of the Eldarin in their turn and the release of the Daroth once more.

It is a contrived tale of individual heroism (as many fantasy novels are, to be fair), with a trite environmental message - the great crime of the Daroth and to a lesser extent of the human race is that they wear out the magic of the land. The best bits of the novel are reminiscent of David Eddings, but it never truly holds the interest.

Jonathan Sumption: Pilgrimage (1975)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1975
Review number: 636

A fascinating study of the defining feature of the Middle Ages, its devout Catholicism, Pilgrimage views its subject through the aspect of it which provides the book's title. There are deliberate limitations to keep the book within manageable bounds - concentration on the period between 1100 and 1500, an emphasis on France and England rather than Germany, and interest in popular religious belief rather than the abstract theological arguments of scholars. Some important parts of medieval religion are sketchily covered as a result, though these are subjects easily accessible in more general histories of the period: the development of monasticism; the relationship between the papacy and Holy Roman Emperor (and, more generally, between religious and secular authority); the crusades (except in relation to religious enthusiasm and the invention of indulgences, both topics of great relevance to the history of pilgrimage in the later Middle Ages).

The importance of pilgrimage is really that it is probably the principal distinguishing feature of (popular) Western Christianity in this period. Its development and debasement - from a penance for serious sin to tourism and an indulgence to be gained by visiting particular shrines to obtain early release from Purgatory to an indulgence gained by cash payment - show much of the character of medieval belief as it developed and fed into the reaction against its excesses of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation. (The Reformation is not an important a theme in the book as it perhaps could be, and relating what Sumption says to the ideas of Luther, Calvin and other reformers is an interesting exercise for a reader with some knowledge of developments in the sixteenth century.)

Pilgrimage is also one of the areas in which it is possible to gain an insight into normally unrecorded, popular ideas about Christianity as opposed to those of the theological schools. It is of course a relative extreme of enthusiasm - a lot of the evidence for the beliefs of the common people is gained through official condemnation of its excesses - and the picture it points to is not particularly surprising - a greatly simplified and superstitious version of the intellectual subtleties of the church's official views - but it is of great interest none the less.

Alexander Kent: Enemy in Sight! (1970)

Edition: Hamlyn, 1971
Review number: 635

Another one of Kent's conventional naval adventures starring Richard Bolitho. Reading three or four of these in a few months makes them seem quite tedious in the end; the background plot details may move on (a new rank for Bolitho, for example), but everything else about them is pretty much the same.

In this particular case, there are fairly obvious problems with the plot, in the specific way in which Bolitho shows his brilliance in contrast to the incompetence of a superior. Stationed with the vessels blockading revolutionary France (to prevent an invasion of the British Isles), Bolitho spends almost all of the novel chasing backwards and forwards across the Atlantic after a French admiral allowed to escape by the indecisiveness of the commodore commanding Bolitho's assigned squadron. A continuous series of amazing and unlikely deductions enables Bolitho to divine what the escapee plans to do next and mount an attack. Each of these is foiled by the commodore until a wound prevents his interference. None of the mental leaps is really justified, and the contrast with the bafflement of the other British officers is almost comical.

Slipshod and poor, Enemy in Sight! does not reach the standards of the rest of the series, which is usually craftsman-like if never inspired.

Thursday 28 September 2000

Leslie Charteris: Prelude for War (1938)

Alternative title: The Saint Plays With Fire
Edition: Severn House, 1979
Review number: 633

To Leslie Charteris, it was clear well before 1938 that the posturing and aggression of the various continental dictators would lead to a new European war. The rise of the right in Germany had been attacked in the Saint stories before Prelude for War, and there had been an outspoken attack on Franco's methods during the Spanish Civil War.

Prelude for War, then, begins with a blistering attack on the Fascists of France (and, by implication, Britain) and the stupidity of those who believed in what they said. It is an attack from the point of view of an individualist (as both Charteris and his creation were) at those who are willing to give up the right to their own point of view at the urging of a demagogue. It is such a serious and strong attack that it rather overbalances this otherwise light-hearted thriller.

Thieves' Picnic and Prelude for War are the last two Saint novels to be retitled, and the only two where the new title has as much connection to the content as the original. The Saint Plays With Fire is rather a good title, for it refers not just to Simon Templar taking on the forces which brought about the Second World War, but to the way that the story begins, with the Saint attempting to rescue a man from a burning manor house, only to be unable to reach him in time because his bedroom door has been locked and the key taken away. When he discovers who the (now dead) young man was - a prominent Socialist agitator - and that the rest of the house party are staid right wing pillars of society, Simon begins to feel that something serious is going on. The involvement of the Sons of France soon becomes clear, but not why they are connected with the murder.

The attack on Fascism is a slight miscalculation from a structural viewpoint, but Prelude for War is one of the most interesting Saint novels.

Hammond Innes: The Strode Venturer (1965)

Edition: Collins, 1965
Review number: 632

Naval officer Geoffrey Bailey becomes involved in the affairs of the Strode Shipping Company which ruined his father's competing line when he receives an offer for the shares left him by his mother that will enable him to live comfortably. It is only after he has resigned from the navy that he is advised that the conditions of his mother's will do not allow him to sell the shares. He has, however, received an offer from one of the Strode brothers who run the company of a job with them, but when he visits the company he discovers that this was not communicated with either of the two elder brothers actively doing so. Bailey is given a job, though, because he has seen Peter Strode relatively recently in Aden; Peter is really the black sheep of the family, and his brothers want him to be tracked down so that he can be forced to play a part in the company affairs.

Much of the action of the novel takes place in steamers (including the Strode Venturer of the title) passing to and fro across the Indian Ocean, mainly in stretches of water which are among the least frequented in the world, and partly in the Maldives. This part of the novel is based on a journey made by Innes himself, and is the product of his sympathy for the Adduans of the southern islands and their attempts to escape domination by the north. (This journey is one of those described in Sea and Islands.)

Despite being based on Innes' own journey, the Indian Ocean scenes of the novel come across as rather artificial, never gripping the imagination as much as the boardroom manoeuvrings back in London. I'm not sure that the plot hangs together - it seems to me unlikely that the discoveries made by Peter Strode will turn around the fortunes of the company, at a time of a decline in British shipping in general. This leaves a feeling at the end of the novel that it has been unconvincing, despite some excitement.

Wednesday 27 September 2000

Ernest Hemingway: A Farewell to Arms (1929)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1957
Review number: 631

Novels about the First World War tend to concentrate on the Western Front. I have read a few about the Eastern (notably Solzhenitsyn's August 1914), but A Farewell to Arms remains unique to my knowledge. It is the first person narrative of an American volunteer in the Italian army, fighting in the mountains between Italy and Austria in some of the most obscure campaigns of the war.

In the past, I have never read anything by Hemingway, being rather put off by his macho reputation. One thing I had frequently heard about him, though, is that is prose is of remarkable quality. This is something which strikes the reader (when they pause for thought - it is too good to intrusively insist on its quality) all the way through A Farewell to Arms. While sticking to quite a limited vocabulary, it has a poetic quality: every word has a purpose. Descriptions are particularly terse. It is a style which owes more to top class journalism than to earlier fiction and is still striking today after seventy years of imitation.

The plot of A Farewell to Arms does not fit in with the macho image that Hemingway deliberately cultivated. Rather than being a tale of heroism at the front, most of the reminiscences of the narrator are set in hospitals behind the lines, in a desperate retreat when the Germans break through, or in flight as a deserter to Switzerland. The reader comes to care for Hemingway's central character, who is a very ordinary person, much more pushed around by events than shaping them.

Of course, by volunteering at a time when the USA was neutral to serve in another country's army, the narrator is a would-be hero. But the war in which he fights is far from heroic, and he himself fails (and is ironically decorated for bravery when wounded). He falls in love in hospital, but even this interferes with the performance of his duty as a soldier and in the end brings him nothing but misery, instead of proving the inspiration that the reader might expect.

J.D. Robb: Rapture in Death (1996)

Edition: New English Library, 1998
Review number: 630

How will the NYPD operate in fifty years' time? That is an interesting if unanswerable question. Robb's series featuring Eve Dallas takes most of the obvious answers - greater reliance on computers, for example - and creates traditional murder mysteries from them. In this case, a series of motiveless apparent suicides makes Dallas suspicious, particularly when it is discovered that the victims all have a mark, like a burn, in the same part of their brain. The investigation centres around the use of subliminal mood enhancement in virtual reality (a topic which has itself interested several science fiction writers), and produces a novel which is enjoyable and undemanding.

This series straddles the two genres of crime and science fiction, but there are problems with both aspects of this novel. The detection is by no means police procedural despite appearances, and is rather more intuitive (like a traditional crime novel), and the solution to the mystery is rather unconvincing.

From a science fiction point of view, the problem with Rapture in Death is that it is set as far as fifty years into the future. Much of the computer, entertainment and other technology described in the novel doesn't seem as far away as that to me; maybe ten or fifteen years. And the computer technology, in particular, is not very imaginative. I suspect that well before 2050 computers will be used far more proactively in policing than as the databanks (without voice or thought interaction despite the use of them in Robb's virtual reality machines) depicted here. (Mother of Storms, by John Barnes, is a much more convincing portrayal of the future use of computers.)

Nevertheless, an enjoyable read, best seen as a novel about the near future rather than one set fifty years from now.

Tuesday 26 September 2000

Mervyn Peake: Titus Groan (1946)

Edition: Ballantine, 1968
Review number: 628

Having recently watched the TV adaptation of this novel and its sequel, Gormenghast, it was interesting to re-read Titus Groan. It emphasised two things that I had already thought: that the atmosphere of the novels were excellently recreated, and that the casting was very intelligent.

The novel is really about the massive castle of Gormenghast and the endless life of meaningless ritual it contains. It begins with the birth of Titus, the heir of Groan, and ends with his instalment as Seventy Seventh Earl of Groan at the age of two. The little plot contained in Titus Groan is hardly comprehensible without the second novel, when several threads become particularly important, principally the machinations of kitchen boy Steerpike. Gormenghast is related to Peake's ideas about pre-Communist China, where he spent a good deal of his childhood. The ritual of the castle mimics that which surrounded the Emperors, though the latter had at least a religious purpose, proper performance supposedly guaranteeing good fortune for the country. That of Gormenghast is empty, and often seems to be invented by the keepers of the ritual, Sourdust and his son Barquentine (sensibly coalesced into one character in the TV version). Purposeless it may be, but it takes every moment of the Earl's time; someone somewhere must be really running things (what the kitchens produce imply immense riches), but that is not what the novel is about. It is about living a life pointlessly circumscribed by convention - and the ritual drives Sepulchrave (Titus' father) mad.

This madness produces the only really human moment in the novel, when Sepulchrave has his neglected daughter Fuschia arrange pine cones, thinking that they are books of poetry in his destroyed library. The two of them are the most fully formed characters, everyone else being some kind of grotesque exaggeration. (They also have exaggerated aspects, Sepulchrave being permanently melancholy, and Fuschia a romantic teenager beyond realistic possibility.)

Peake conveys a strong sense of atmosphere, as any successful writing about place must do. His style is deliberately obscure and florid to this end; at times, it does feel over elaborate (Gormenghast is better in this respect), but most of the time the images of the castle and its inhabitants are so fascinating that they overcome this.

Anne McCaffrey: To Ride Pegasus (1974)

Edition: Sphere, 1976
Review number: 629

To Ride Pegasus is not only an early McCaffrey novel which has now become the first of a series, it is also in fact a collection of four novellas, three of which had been previously published. They are all about what might happen if telepathic powers of various kinds were proven scientifically, and the early problems of an institute formed to develop and exploit these powers and protect those who possess them.

There certainly doesn't appear to have been a great deal of rewriting done, which leaves the four stories rather superficially united. The first one sets the scene, and they are ordered by their internal chronology. The oldest story, Apple, which is also the best, was published again in the later collection Get Off the Unicorn.

To Ride Pegasus is not one of McCaffrey's best novels. In the shorter structure of the novellas, her characterisation never becomes more than perfunctory. Her style is not fully formed, and much is reminiscent of earlier writers (E.E. "Doc" Smith's First Lensman and A.E. van Vogt's Slan frequently come to mind). There is a logical problem, of which it is clear that McCaffrey is aware, in her treatment of several of the psychic abilities, particularly precognition and the ways in which foreknowledge might change events and invalidate a prediction. There are also other difficulties, such as where the energy comes from and how it is channeled - at one point, the clothing on a fashion store mannequin is stolen by a telepath; it just disappears and reappears elsewhere, something that would require vast amounts of energy.

Richard Kadrey: Metrophage (1988)

Edition: Gollancz, 1988
Review number: 627

The problem with cyberpunk as a subgenre of science fiction is that there were too few top class writers involved. Apart from William Gibson and Bruce Sterling (and perhaps K.W. Jeter), it would be hard now to name another cyberpunk writer from its heyday, the mid eighties. The influence of the genre - which is considerable - is really the influence of Gibson and Sterling, together with that of the film Bladerunner.

Kadrey's first novel is one of the forgotten cyberpunk also-rans. It is told from the point of view of a drug dealer in decaying Los Angeles, who gets caught up in the events which surround an epidemic of a new virus rather like leprosy which is decimating the city. There are naturally clear parallels with the AIDS scare, at its height at the time of writing, but Kadrey doesn't really have anything of interest to say about contemporary events, something which prevents his novel being first class.

Like many first novels, Metrophage wears its influences on its sleeve, and it is actually quite interesting to catalogue them as you read it. The principal immediate influence is of course William Gibson, and the earlier writers who helped form Gibson are many of them clearly direct influences as well, from William S. Burroughs to Raymond Chandler. The whole coverage of AIDS and especially suspicions that it originated in a laboratory is the one thing without which the novel could not have been written, though earlier plague themed science fiction such as The Andromeda Strain probably plays a part.

Metrophage is not a great novel, but (for the unsqueamish) it is an enjoyable read.

Monday 25 September 2000

Kim Stanley Robinson: Blue Mars (1996)

Edition: Voyager, 1996
Review number: 626

The final volume of Robinson's Mars trilogy is set furthest into the future, and covers the longest period. The work that has gone into terraforming Mars has borne fruit, and by the middle of the ninety or so years described in the book it has become possible to walk outside unprotected in the low-lying parts of the planet.

Thanks to improving longevity treatments, there are still some of the original First Hundred colonists alive, and the book concentrates on them as the story of the Martian inhabitants develops, through a series of crises mainly concerned with the relationship between overpopulated Earth and Mars. Blue Mars follows on directly from the ending of Green Mars, as the planet becomes an independent political entity in the wake of the second revolution.

Blue Mars is easily the least impressive of the trilogy. This is because it is the most remote from the present day, which makes it more distant from Robinson's strengths as a writer. The plausible, detailed, and interesting science of Red Mars is its main virtue. The further away from today's science that the story goes, the more Robinson has to resort to fairly vague generalisations; the more he tries to concentrate on character (his major weakness); and the more he writes about politics (where he tends to sermonise). There are two very long and tedious sections which really drag the novel down: the political arguments leading to the drafting of the Martian constitution (an attempt to imagine a post-capitalist socio-economic structure which turns out to basically embody the US constitution with a weaker president), and the search to discover a cure for the memory problems experienced by the oldest of those given multiple longevity treatments.

It is a pity that this trilogy ends with its weakest novel, particularly when it began so well.

Lisa Jardine: Worldly Goods (1996)

Edition: MacMillan, 1996
Review number: 625

An interesting idea, Worldly Goods looks at the Renaissance through its attitude to possessions. Two particular objects stand out in Jardine's analysis, the collection of carved gems belonging to a Gonzaga Cardinal, which eventually became stuck in the vaults of the Medici bank, as part of a complex system of pledges on loans; and Holbein's painting The Ambassadors, discussed at some length in the epilogue and clearly bringing together many threads from a wide ranging history.

There is an immense amount of ground to be covered, as Jardine looks at goods not just as works of art but trade items (so that topics such as exploration become relevant), intangibles such as learning, and books as goods (a major theme with the immense opening up of new avenues for the distribution of information which followed the introduction of printing). Most histories of the Renaissance don't connect the art with the idea of commodities, because it has become considered vulgar to think of art except for its own sake; the Renaissance happened before this shift in perception, and so these histories are not really giving a complete picture. One area which is missing from Worldly Goods is any interest in the less well off, though that is partly because the Renaissance was a phenomenon affecting the upper and middle classes, which made hardly any difference to the lives of the peasants in the fields and the urban poor.

The influence of the author's father is clear, both on the subject matter and the style, but Lisa Jardine is not as brilliant an integrator as Jacob Bronowski; sometimes her writing seems a little bitty and repetitive. Nevertheless, Worldly Goods is very interesting to read, and made me feel that I understood this brilliant period in history a little better than I had done beforehand.

Friday 15 September 2000

John Sutherland: Where Was Rebecca Shot? (1998)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1998
Review number: 624

The third of John Sutherland's collections of short essays on literary puzzles looks at modern (twentieth century) literature, from Henry James' Wings of the Dove to Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit. Each essay, taken by itself, is thought provoking and interesting, even if you have not read the novel under discussion (though they are probably a bit too revealing to read if you don't want to know what happens before reading).

To read them through in one go, as I have done, reveals a certain repetitiveness. A large number of the essays are concerned with discrepancies in the treatment of time, such as the non-mention of the Suez crisis in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, and possible resolutions of these difficulties. (In this case, Sutherland suggests it is deliberate and ironic on the part of the novelist, emphasising his central character's ignorance of the fact that his cherished patriarchal world is about to be finally destroyed as the incompetence of establishment figures as Eden is demonstrated incontrovertibly.) The repetition does serve to show just how much readers are willing to accept from a novelist in terms of manipulation of time without even noticing it.

Since many of the novels discussed are relatively recent, Sutherland has been able to approach some of the authors for responses to his essays. In fact, most seem to have chosen not to comment, which is understandable. (I suspect that many authors get tired of others reading things into their work which were not deliberately placed there, and would want to echo Samuel Beckett's "No symbols where none intended".) Most of the response section, in fact, consists of the view of those who worked on screenplays of the novels; this is a good idea, since the literal detail of film means that problems not immediately apparent to a reader have to be urgently solved.

The most interesting essays are those which are not purely literary, such as the discussion of Rambo knives and the different reactions to them by British and American audiences of the film of First Blood, or the literary origins of erotic auto-asphyxiation. The most enjoyable is an entertaining roundup of the Hitchcock style cameo appearances made by Malcolm Bradbury, David Lodge and Martin Amis in their own novels.

Michael Pearce: Dmitri and the One-Legged Lady (1999)

Edition: Collins, 1999
Review number: 623

The second Dmitri Kameron novel is an investigation into the theft of an icon, depicting the one-legged lady, who dedicated her life to charity after the accident which removed her limb. Like the crime in Dmitri and the Milk Drinkers, there are political overtones to the theft - the one-legged lady is particularly associated with relief from famine, and a harvest failure in the region that she originally came from has led to food riots which have attracted the attention of higher authority. Before she had been removed to a monastery near the town where Kameron practices as a lawyer, the response to the famine would have been to carry her in a procession, but this is not possible since she has been moved; ill feeling about this contributes to the general unrest.

Continuing the direction set in the first novel, Dmitri and the One-Legged Lady is enjoyable and funny, with many quick jokes reminiscent of Caryl Brahms and S.J. Simon.

Diana Wynne Jones: A Sudden Wild Magic (1992)

Edition: Gollancz, 1997
Review number: 622

A Sudden Wild Magic hovers uneasily between the child and adult book markets; it is basically a child oriented plot to which sex scenes have been added.

The fundamental idea is that it is a magical cabal who have protected Great Britain throughout history - a convenient hurricane destroying the Armada here, Hitler deciding to invade Russia rather than Kent there - but with a twist: most of the world's crises have been magical in origin, set in motion by beings from another universe in order to make use of the technology and magical lore developed to counter them. In some ways, this idea has interest, but it is based on a distinctly simplistic view of how something as complex as world history works.

The novel begins with the discovery by the cabal that the alien race is tampering with history. They send a group off to destroy the space-station-like structure from which the crises have been launched and from where the efforts made in counteraction observed. The plot is completed with a glib, throwaway ending (which manages to use two deus ex machina characters).

More criticisms can be made, including incongruities such as the fact that despite watching Earth for hundreds of years, the observers had never worked out that both they and those they watched were human. The fact that this is made the reason for immediately ending the exploitation is strange; human beings have never had any particular compunction about exploiting each other, and surely intelligence is as good a ground to stop for a civilised race - and that those observed were intelligent must have been obvious.

A Sudden Wild Magic may be an exceptionally lazy novel, but it has one big merit. It is well enough written to encourage the reader, once started, to get through to the end (disappointing though that may prove to be).

Raymond Hill: The Spy's Wife (1980)

Edition: Collins, 1980
Review number: 621

What would you do if your partner suddenly turned out to be a spy, and you only discovered this when the security services came knocking on your day on the day that they defected? That is the basic idea which inspires this spy thriller, and makes it unusual - most thrillers concentrate on the defector, or the investigators; there can be few where the innocent take centre stage.

The idea is interesting in itself, and that and the competent writing carry the reader through to the end of the novel. It has disadvantages, principally the plotting problems caused by the presence of a massive unmotivated coincidence: at almost the same time that her husband Sam vanishes, Molly discovers that her mother is seriously ill. The novel has reasonably believable characters, with the exception of a neurotic former girlfriend of Sam's.

Leslie Charteris: Thieves' Picnic (1937)

Alternative Title: The Saint Bids Diamonds
Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1951
Review number: 620

One of the least satisfying of the full length Saint novels (at least from this period), Thieves' Picnic is set in the exotic (in the pre-package thirties) Canary Islands. Simon Templar is there to investigate a gang which specialises in jewel thefts, who need to find a replacement for the man who recuts diamonds for them so that they can be resold. One of the first things that Simon does when he arrives is to break up a fight, intervening on the side of this man (a coincidence which is rather more sloppily plotted than is usual for Charteris).

Most of the novel is spent with Simon Templar, Hoppy Uniatz, the diamond cutter, his beautiful daughter (of course he has a beautiful daughter), and the various mutually double crossing members of the diamond smuggling gang chasing each other round and round Gran Canaria. This is only saved from being tedious padding - fatal in a thriller - by the ingenious ways that Simon Templar comes up with to explain his actions to make himself seem to be on all sides at once. These explanations are by far the best feature of the novel.

Thursday 14 September 2000

D.M. Greenwood: Heavenly Vices (1997)

Edition: Headline, 1997
Review number: 618

Claremont is one of the colleges which prepare students for ordination into the Anglican church, and it is suffering a crisis like that faced by that church in the UK. It is staffed by a group of stereotypes, mainly there for secular purposes rather than as a result of religious conviction; this is in contrast to the equally stereotyped group of students, whose shared characteristic could be described as simple faith. (They include a patronising portrait of an African cleric overwhelmed by the cultural differences between his homeland and a college in the Chilterns.)

This rather lazy background is the setting for a tepid murder mystery, for Claremont is currently suffering from a particular as well as a general crisis. Its head, political schemer Conrad Duff, has died, Although the doctor has certified that the cause was a heart attack, his unpleasant wife Richeldis (whose dislike of her husband is just about the only facet of her character Greenwood allows to exist) is convinced that it was murder. She (bizarrely) chooses outsider Theodora Braithwaite, who has just arrived at the college to work on the private papers of its founder for a biography, to investigate. She forces her to do this by refusing to allow her access to Henry Newcome's diaries for the crucial years in the 1870s when he was working on one of the most important books of nineteenth century Anglican theology unless she unmasks the murderer. Even more bizarrely, Theodora does so, rather than getting someone with authority to force Richeldis to turn the papers (which belong to the college) over to her.

Overall, Heavenly Vices is a lazy and poorly written detective novel, which seems to serve no other purpose than to perpetuate the stereotypical view that the Church of England is run by political schemers bent on confusing those with a naive and simple faith who form their congregations. Greenwood's lack of real interest in what she is writing is exemplified by shoddy detail such has misdating the premiere of Weber's opera Der Freischutz.

Brian Stableford: Inherit the Earth (1998)

Edition: Tor, 1998
Review number: 617

Inherit the Earth is heavily influenced by the cyberpunk subgenre exemplified by the novels of William Gibson: there is the same high tech, decayed urban background; the same cynical view of the world. Stableford's novel (first in a trilogy) is set much further into the future than most cyberpunk has been, after the world has begun to recover following decimation of human and animal populations by genetically engineered diseases in what are known as the Plague Wars. Now the rich (and even, to a large extent) the moderately well off) are protected by biological and microscopic computer hardware augmentations to their natural immune system, and the major concern of the large firms which effectively rule the world is the development of what is known as "emortality", where these enhancements make death only a remote possibility.

Damon Hart is the son of Conrad Helier, whose invention of the artificial womb had made possible the survival of the human race at the end of the Plague Wars. He has rejected his inheritance (both material and intellectual, walking out on the members of Helier's research team who acted as foster parents) to become a knife fighter in underground virtual entertainments (where experiencing the pain of a wound is one of the main pleasures) and then a programmer of virtual environments. He is drawn back into the world of his original background when police come to question him after one of his foster parents has been abducted.

An exciting story with a meticulously constructed background, Inherit the Earth is one of the best science fiction novels I have read in the last few years. It has a broader scope than most cyberpunk novels had, and is rendered more believable for reading now because it extrapolates from current trends in computing rather than those of fifteen or twenty years ago. (Computers and particularly interfaces have developed so fast that they have left science fiction behind - the most dated looking scenes in Star Wars, for example, are those involving computer displays.)

Ford Madox Ford: A Man Could Stand Up (1926)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 615

The third of Ford's Parade's End series also has a title which looks to the end of the First World War; it is a remark made by one of the men in the trenches that peace will make it possible for a man to stand up without risking being killed. However, when the end of the war comes, Christopher Tietjens is not in a position to stand up; he is suffering from shellshock exacerbated by the treatment he receives from his dreadful wife Sylvia. The outer two thirds of the novel are about this period in his life, the central part being a flashback to the last few months of the war when he was on the front line.

A Man Could Stand Up is the weakest of the four novels in Parade's End, not really advancing the plot nor giving any new insight into the characters. What it does is perform the task of informing the reader that Christopher (and, of course, the English gentleman he symbolises) was transformed to the point of destruction by the war. He wasn't completely destroyed, but he would never be the same, a shadow, almost a mockery of his former self.

Ford Madox Ford: The Last Post (1928)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 619

Dorothy Parker thought that Ford should not have written this novel, which concludes his Parade's End sequence, and that he should have just left Christopher Tietjens destroyed, shellshocked at the end of the First World War, as described in A Man Could Stand Up. This book does make a strange ending, notable for the way in which it almost completely ignores the central character of the three earlier novels. Instead, his elder brother Mark, now a tubercular invalid, is most important; much of the novel consists of the interior thoughts of a man who though aware of the outside world and possessing his full intelligence, is virtually unable to move or even communicate. In keeping with this, The Last Post is virtually plotless, the only event it contains being a visit made to mark by Christopher's unpleasant wife Sylvia and the American woman to whom she has let the ancestral Tietjens house of Groby and whom she has encouraged to cut down the (symbolic) ancient oak at the centre of the estate.

Despite this strangeness, it is easy to see why Ford continued his story - it is mainly to do with the symbolic nature of the Tietjens family. Christopher Tietjens is intended to stand for the idea of the English gentleman, and I think Sylvia is meant to be a depiction of the way in which the British government treated these people. (This is clearest in the second novel, No More Parades.) Having destroyed Christopher and vandalised the heritage which formed him, Sylvia must be made to realise something of the enormity of what she has done. Then she will match the way that many in England since 1918 have mourned the destruction of the certainties that were at the basis of Victorian society. The presence of the American and her destruction of the tree also point to post war changes on the old estates, taken over by newcomers who did not understand or value them. Ford, having written about the effect of the war itself, now wants to say something about the effects of peace.

The writing of The Last Post, especially in the sections told form the point of view of the invalid Paul, is masterful. Even the minor characters are all different, each having their own voice - many novelists find it difficult to write even two people with noticeably different voice and thought patterns. Compared to Henry James, a novelist of greater reputation but who bears many similarities to Ford, Parade's End is consistently cooler and more believable; the neurotic side of James is completely absent even from characters like Sylvia.

Wednesday 13 September 2000

Hammond Innes: Levkas Man (1971)

Edition: William Collins, 1972
Review number: 615

An unusual thriller which manages to combine palaeontology with international politics, Levkas Man is one of the best novels Innes wrote, probably because it arose from an obsessive interest in the origins of the human race.

Paul Van der Voort returns to his adoptive father's house in Amsterdam to find it unexpectedly empty. He has always been a disappointment to Pieter Van der Voort, a distinguished investigator of human origins, and has ended up a merchant seaman. Just now, he has accidentally killed a man, and following his father to Greece seems to be a good idea.

Pieter is looking at caves on the island of Levkas to try to find evidence of early man, to support his theory that Greece was the way used into Europe by the continent's earliest human settlers. The problems he has stem from three sources: his own unhealthy obsession with his theory; rival academics seeking to take credit for his discoveries; and the Greek authorities, convinced by international tension related to Arab-Israeli conflict, their own inability to understand how anyone could be interested in prehistoric rather than classical archaeology, and Van der Voort's earlier work in Russia that he must be a Soviet spy.

This kind of paranoia may seem fairly ludicrous, but then this was right in the middle of the Cold War, in which Greece played an uneasy part. Another aspect of the book may seem equally ludicrous, but are absolutely true to life - the discussions of the propaganda value of discoveries of human origins. Archaeology has been used to bolster nationalistic ideas even before the Nazis, but what does it matter politically whether the earliest Europeans lived in Greece, Italy, or southwestern Russia?

Paul is drawn into the whole thing because everyone assume that he must have a closer relationship to his father than is actually the case. One of the main centres of interest in the novel is his character's development, as he learns more about both himself and Pieter.

Virginia Woolf: A Room of One's Own (1929)

Edition: Granada, 1977
Review number: 614

Woolf's extended essay on women and literature (based on talks given at Cambridge University women's colleges) is one of her best pieces of writing. Her basic argument is simple. The reason that there were so few top rank female authors before the twentieth century is because women have in general had hard lives. They have mostly been the ones principally responsible for bringing up children (not to mention bearing them in the first place), and they have been subject to male domination which has denied them such useful attributes for a writer as education, knowledge of the world and access to publication. (This is the point of the title, as Woolf expresses her thesis succinctly by saying that what a woman needs to write is a room of her own and a guaranteed private income.)

The argument could be applied equally well in just about every field of human culture: philosophy, science, fine art, music are obvious examples. In most of these areas, the pattern is similar, with a massive improvement in the representation of women at the highest level as the twentieth century has progressed. In fact, I think that in English literature, the most prolific and most reprinted authors are both women, though I would not give either many points for quality (I'm talking about Barbara Cartland and Enid Blyton).

The thesis doesn't necessarily hold literally in individual cases. One of the most successful authors currently writing is Joanna Rowling, and she wrote a large part of her first novel in cafes in Edinburgh because it was cheaper than heating her home - neither a room of her own nor a guaranteed income.

While there are certainly more top quality women writers today, the position they hold is still not as secure as that of male authors - one of the most prestigious league tables of twentieth century literature produced to mark the year 2000 was strongly criticised because it contained so few women (of 100 novels listed, there were only eight by female authors). This has led some feminists to try to exaggerate the importance and ability of writers simply because they were women (and similar moves have been made to champion the achievements of other groups which have not made a huge impact for the same reasons, such as writers from developing countries). Unfortunately, this does not have the desired effect and tends to bring ridicule to those involved. It is not a trap into which Woolf falls; she dismisses some of the earliest female poets who were basically gifted by amateur and untutored noblewomen with plenty of leisure. (A poor education is a serious handicap for a writer.)

Once women began to write (Woolf citing Aphra Behn as the first true female author in English), they changed literature. Men, Woolf says, had tended to write about women as sexual and romantic objects; even Shakespeare heroines are generally important as characters through relationships with men. Woolf suggests that women characters with interests other than marriage and family are a late nineteenth century phenomenon, but that is partly because she dismisses George Eliot for a different reason (effectively, because she stooped to using a man's name for the purposes of publication), and it seems to me that Dorothea Casaubon in Middlemarch is an obvious earlier example.

While not always persuading me to accept the details of it, Woolf presents her general argument very well. It is perhaps most strikingly expressed in the famous example she gives of a fictitious equally gifted sister of Shakespeare who remains uneducated, runs away from home to escape a distasteful marriage, is laughed at when she tries to get work as an actor, and ends up killing herself after being seduced by actor-manager Ned Greene.

Tuesday 12 September 2000

Dashiell Hammett: The Thin Man (1935)

Edition: Avenel Books, 1980
Review number: 613

The last of Dashiell Hammett's five novels, The Thin Man is rather different from the others. Its hero is a slightly older, married version of Sam Spade or Ned Beaumont; Nick Charles has had some of his faith in humanity restored by his wife, Nora. He has even given up being a private detective, as Hammett was about to give up novel writing - and the novel is dedicated to the woman he himself married, Lilian Hellman.

One of Charles' past jobs was for an eccentric inventor, investigating threats from another man who thought that his ideas had been stolen. When the inventor's secretary is murdered, everyone assumes that Charles will investigate, including the police. Nora encourages him to do so, because she wants to see what he's like as a private eye.

Having an unwilling sleuth is an unusual twist, and the resulting novel is Hammett's most subtle. Charles goes beyond the tough guy poses of the earlier Hammett detectives: he has grown up.

Ford Madox Ford: No More Parades (1925)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 612

It is clear that the second part of Ford's four novel sequence Parade's End is of pivotal important to the quartet even before starting to read it, because it provides the title for the series as a whole. It covers only a short period, a few days in the middle of the First World War; their importance is that they are a high water mark in Sylvia Tietjens' bad treatment of her husband.

The events of the novel illuminate Sylvia's character more than Christopher's, and show the reader the reasons behind her actions much more sympathetically and fully than in Some Do Not.... What she actually does her it to travel to the war zone in France without papers and attempt to cause a fight between Christopher and one of her ex-lovers, while continuing to spread the baseless rumour that Christopher has a hidden child by another woman. This all takes place at Christopher's unit, behind the Western Front.

The basic motivation behind her actions is to force a reaction from her husband, whose determination to maintain "normal" relations with Sylvia will not even permit him to have a row with her. She obviously causes him a great deal of difficulty and distress, but never has the satisfaction of causing him to break down in public.

If Christopher Tietjens is meant to represent the idea of the English gentleman, an obvious question to raise is what does Sylvia symbolise? It seems to be something like Britain itself, a country which exploited the best of its upper class with the First World War being the final betrayal of any true decency that still existed. (And, despite all the hypocrisy of the Victorian age, there was much to admire.) The title itself could be seen as a reference to this idea. The only way in which the government were prepared for the war, so far as Tietjens knew, was to come up with a ritual to use in demobilisation: after a band played, an adjutant would say, "There will be no more parades". This utterly fatuous way to plan for four years of grisly death, the decimation of the male youth and the overturning of the foundations of society has a deeper meaning that Ford skilfully brings out: things will be changed by the war; pomp and circumstance (the music the band plays is Land of Hope and Glory) will no longer be important as the old order is overthrown. This is a double sided coin, of course, for it does not just mean the destruction of the cruelty and fickleness of Sylvia but also of the virtue and decency of Christopher.

Monday 11 September 2000

Mary Stewart: Rose Cottage (1997)

Edition: Coronet, 1998
Review number: 611

In recent years, more or less since she wrote the Merlin trilogy, Mary Stewart's novels have become more romances and less thrillers. Rose Cottage is the most recent, and bears a distinct resemblance to Thornyhold, from just a few years earlier. Both are about returns to childhood homes, and both are about the protagonist discovering her true self, coming to new understanding about her family, both have an old fashioned atmosphere, and both are set in small English villages.

Rose Cottage is set in the late forties, and is the story of Kate Herrick's return to the small house where she grew up, to sort out some items belonging to her grandmother, now living in Scotland, before the cottage is sold. When she arrives, she discovers that some things have gone, that someone has been digging in the garden, and that an elderly neighbour believes she has seen Kate's dead mother.

Kate's mother is the important person in the story, for the major part of what Kate does is to find out more about her; after having her daughter by an unknown father, she left the house at the insistence of an unforgiving religious aunt, before being killed in a road accident. That is all Kate really knows about her, and she is driven by a desire to understand her mother and find out the identity of her father.

Rose Cottage is a gentle, warm hearted novel; hardly challenging, but just the sort of thing to read when ill.

Jon Cleary: Helga's Web (1970)

Edition: William Collins, 1971
Review number: 610

Helga's Web is really a police procedural crime novel with a slightly unusual setting (at least so far as novels seen in the UK are concerned) - the body is found in the basement of Sydney Opera House. She turns out to have been a high class call girl with a sideline in blackmail, and so her clients, including a Cabinet minster and the film producer brother of one of the richest men in Sydney, are obvious suspects. However, their position means that they need to be handled with care, and this makes the job of the police much more difficult.

The main character, Sergeant Scobie Malone, is (I think) a series character, other cases being mentioned which fit in with titles of other Cleary novels. Whether or not this is the case, he is believable. So too, on a lesser scale, are the two main blackmail victims on whom his investigation concentrates.

The impression left behind by the novel is that Cleary doesn't like Australians very much. A lot is made of their chauvinistic xenophobia - it is a charge made against several characters, including Malone's parents. The length of time it took to complete the Opera House, and the numerous changes made to its plans, are also ridiculed, and even made an integral part of the story, as it is an alteration which leads to the discovery of the body itself.

Rebecca Jenkins: The Duke's Agent (1997)

Edition: Richard Cohen Books, 1997
Review number: 609

Like Anne Perry's Victorian novels, but not to the same exaggerated extent, The Duke's Agent presents something of the disreputable side of a historical period, in this case Georgian England. Here we have absentee landlords, dishonest magistrates, and the unpleasant tallyman, who was basically an unscrupulous debt collector who preyed on the poor.

When his steward there dies, the Duke of Penrith orders an audit into the estates he owns in the North East of England. He sends his remote kinsman Raif Jarrett, who soon discovers that something dishonest has been going on, though he cannot work out what as the account books have been stolen. A young woman is killed, and a fairly clumsy attempt is made to frame him for murder (though it is nearly good enough to make Jarrett the victim of a lynch mob). Thus he ends up trying to discover what happened to Sal Grundy as well as sorting out the Duke's affairs.

Basically a competent if not particularly complex detective story, The Duke's Agent has interesting characters and a well realised background. It is a pity that the publisher seems to feel that Rebecca Jenkins needs to be sold by mentioning her famous relatives - she is the daughter of that Bishop of Durham who notoriously denied the virgin birth of Christ - as The Duke's Agent is a strong enough novel to be allowed to stand on its own merits.

Friday 8 September 2000

Juliet E. McKenna: The Thief's Gamble (1999)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 608

The world of McKenna's fantasy debut is beginning to recover from the Dark Age caused by the fall of the Empire of Tormalin. In an attempt to rediscover lost secrets of ancient magic, Archmage Planin has sent out agents to buy up late empire documents and artefacts, some of which are still imbued with mysterious powers.

When expert housebreaker Livak overhears some talk of this, she steals an item from a local landowner, only to have the Archmage's agents recognise it and blackmail them into accompanying them to detach items they require from owners who refuse to part with them. (This is the gamble of the title, though she has very little choice.)

Events start to move swiftly when they discover that there is a group of mysterious strangers after the same objects - and that wholesale slaughter is just a means to an end for them.

The Thief's Gamble is an enjoyable fantasy thriller, with good characters, particularly the central Livak. Nothing in it is really original, but it is still a worthwhile read.

Hammond Innes: Sea and Islands (1967)

Edition: William Collins, 1967
Review number: 607

Thriller writer Hammond Innes was also a sailor and traveller; Sea and Islands is a collection of travelogues recording voyages in his yacht Mary Deare (named after the boat wrecked in one of his best known novels) and several other journeys.

The voyages, forming the first part of the book, are around the North Sea and Mediterranean; the journeys in the second part venture further afield. The trips themselves are not terribly interesting, ranking as standard pieces of journalism that most professional writers could probably put together fairly quickly. Probably at the time the whole book could be dismissed in that way, though today there is some value in the depictions of a Mediterranean that has largely vanished under the onslaught of package tourism. The trip to Tito's Yugoslavia is particularly fascinating, as that was a society that now feels even more remote.

However, there are more evocative books dealing with this part of Innes' subject, notably those by Gerald Durrell about pre-war Corfu and his brother Lawrence's about Cyprus in the days leading up to the island's independence. These books are about a time a little earlier than the mid-sixties coverages of Sea and Islands, but both writers were more closely involved with what they were writing about and both were better writers (and, moreover, wrote amusingly).

To any student of Innes' writing, if there are such, Sea and Islands would be vitally important: many of the settings for his novels are based on what he saw on journeys included in this book. But for others, the time has passed when they will be of any great interest.

Thursday 7 September 2000

Ford Madox Ford: Some Do Not... (1924)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 606

The character of Christopher Tietjens dominates the first novel of Ford's Parade's End sequence about the effects of the First World War as he does all four. His central place is because he represents much of the decent side of the old gentlemanly world destroyed in that conflict.

Strangely enough, in Some Do Not..., no part of the war is portrayed; it is mainly about the relationship between Tietjens and his wife Sylvia. This is what starts to unravel the genteel world in which the novel is set. At the beginning of the novel, Tietjens is travelling to Rye to cross to the continent to bring Sylvia back to him. She has run off with another man, and we soon discover that the paternity of their son (of whom Christopher is extremely fond) is doubtful. Sylvia is distinctly nasty to her decent, forgiving husband (probably because he is like this), and goes to the lengths of spreading rumours that he is secretly supporting a child by a mistress.

The relationship between Christopher and Sylvia Tietjens, and their relationships with those around them are the main themes of Some Do Not.... Since Tietjens has symbolic importance, these relationships are used to show that the seeds of the downfall of Victorian society lay within itself; the destructive war was the immediate but not the fundamental cause.

Despite the importance of the symbolic side of Christopher Tietjens, Ford has made him as real as possible. This is perhaps best seen in the transition between the first and second parts of the novel. This is an offstage period of active service, and the changes this has made to his character are cleverly portrayed.

Depite admiration for Ford's cleverness, it is impossible to read the novel without occasionally feeling it was rather slow; there are some dull patches.

Aldous Huxley: The Island (1962)

Edition: Longman, 1980
Review number: 605

Huxley's last novel is one of his most flawed. It is his Utopia, contrasting with his masterpiece, Brave New World. Basically, the island of Pala is a hippie paradise; a Buddhist state in the Indian Ocean, with a drug to bring higher consciousness (like LSD, in which Huxley was interested, was supposed to). Western journalist Will Farnaby is washed ashore on Pala, and falls for the charm of its inhabitants.

The novel basically consists of a guided tour of Pala, rather like that given to the Savage of London in Brave New World. The island is under threat from oil companies wanting to exploit its resources, and from its militaristic mainland neighbour, Rendang. While the titular ruler of the island, who was educated in the West and who has fallen for the dictator of Rendang, remains under age, things are likely to remain relatively stable, but there is little that the pacifist Palanese are willing or able to do to maintain their paradise any longer.

Apart from being a weaker rehash of Brave New World, The Island contains too much philosophy and too little plot and characterisation. It is a dull academic exercise, and its drug friendliness has rather gone out of fashion since the end of the sixties.

Hillary Waugh: Last Seen Wearing (1952)

Edition: Pan, 1999
Review number: 604

This is the novel which invented the "police procedural" subgenre of crime story. Today, Ed McBain is probably its best known exponent, though it seems particularly well suited to television, with Hill Street Blues and The Bill being successful examples. The idea, of course, is to portray a murder investigation as the police would carry it our rather than using Golden Age devices such as impossibly gifted detectives.

In this case, the investigation is into the disappearance of first year student Lowell Mitchell from Parker College in Massachusetts. The local police chief, Frank Ford, follows the usual course of alerting the press, searching the grounds of the college, dragging its lake, looking into travellers, watching doctors thought to perform illegal abortions (in case she went to one and the operation went wrong). Ford is not particularly imaginative (though more so than most of those around him), and a lack of leads leaves him baffled once the obvious has been tried and failed.

The weakness of the novel is in its plotting. It is very easy to be ahead of the police; they overlook some very prominent clues. This is not in itself a problem, as it is clearly intended as a device to make the reader feel superior. It is the overly transparent way in which it is done that is poor; every time someone says that something is a lead which must be followed up and it isn't, it turns out to be crucial to the investigation.

The major strength of the novel is the characterisation of Ford and his friend and subordinate Burton Cameron. Waugh has written a very good portrayal of a relationship between colleagues who know each other well, bickering as they work together.

Wednesday 6 September 2000

Mary Gentle: Rats and Gargoyles (1990)

Edition: Transworld, 1990
Review number: 603

Hermetic philosophy - that is, strictly speaking, following the ideas in the occult writings attributed to Hermes Trismegistus - has played a role in some for the best novels of the second half of the twentieth century, including Lawrence Durrell's Avignon quintet and John Fowles' The Magus. This resurgence of interest is related to an increased, open, interest in the occult, exploited by figures such as Alastair Crowley. These things were generally kept hidden, and would not be considered appropriate subjects to write about - the major survival from the Renaissance interest in this kind of idea have been Masonic lodges. Fantasy and science fiction authors have also been fascinated, including Piers Anthony (the Tarot is a recurring theme in many of his better novels) and Robert Anton Wilson (whose Illuminatus trilogy must rank as one of the most paranoid collections of novels ever written).

All of the books that I have mentioned are set more or less in the real world. Mary Gentle is, I think, unique in creating a fantasy universe almost completely based on occult writing. The world on which the novel is set has humans and several alien races living on it, including the aristocratic Rats, though everything is subordinate to the thirty six Decans, incarnations of the controlling principles of the universe. The plot of the novel concerns complicated schemes among the Rats to persuade the Decans to give up their incarnation; being omniscient, the Decans know what is going on, but are manipulating events for their own amusement.

Most of the action in the book is magical rather than physical; it starts, for example, with seer The White Crow using her blood to write messages for adepts to read on the face of the full moon. Masonic ideas about proportion in architecture are extremely important. Much of the background is interesting, but as a novel Rats and Gargoyles has several major problems.

The most obvious of these is a consequence of the subject matter. Hermetic writings are by nature obscure, complex, and often incomprehensible. This makes a novel based entirely on them, particularly one where the reader is thrown in at the deep end as here, heavy and difficult to read. Too much space is given to baroque description, and the plot is not dramatic enough to grab the attention. The novels mentioned earlier handle this better because they are set in a more familiar background. By being an introduction to the unknown from the known, there is far less to take in all at once.

In addition, there are too many major characters in the novel for Gentle to make them individual; Rats and Gargoyles is an attempt at something rather more ambitious than she can pull off. My final verdict: intereesting, but decidedly flawed.

Charles Dickens: Martin Chuzzlewit (1844)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 602

There can be few fans who would consider Martin Chuzzlewit to be one of the best of Dickens' novels. It created a considerable drop in the sales of the periodical in which it originally appeared, despite getting good reviews, and shows evidence of some desperation to reverse this trend. (The hastily thrown in and later regretted American episodes which are among the novel's best known parts form an example of this.)

That is not to say that there is not some excellent writing in Martin Chuzzlewit. There is a remarkable section about two thirds of the way through, starting with the journey made by Jonas Chuzzlewit and Tigg Montague to Salisbury, which is extremely vivid. It has one or two characters up to the usual standard, of whom the most famous is Mrs Gamp. In the main, though, it remains a dull, straightforward and regrettably sentimental story of the downfall of hypocrisy (personified by Mr Pecksniff) and the triumph of virtue (personified by Martin Chuzzlewit).

Tuesday 5 September 2000

A.L. Kennedy: Everything You Need (1999)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1999
Review number: 600

Everything in this long, complicated novel really boils down to two themes: the relationship between parent and child, and what it is like to be a writer. It is mostly set on a remote island off the coast of Wales which is home to a community of writers. One of them, horror novelist Nathan Staples, has not seen his daughter Mary for about twenty years, since his wife Maura walked out taking the child with her. He has now tracked Mary down and discovered that she too has ambitions to write (no indication is given as to how he has managed to do this). Maura had not wanted to raise Mary herself, and so she has been brought up by her "uncles", a gay couple one of whom is related to Maura. Nathan arranges for Mary to be offered a scholarship, a change to live on the island for a year and learn from the experienced writers in the community.

Mary doesn't know who her father is - and Maura has in fact told her that he is dead - so that she doesn't connect Nathan with herself at all, accepting the scholarship at its face value. (Presumably their surnames are different, though Kennedy doesn't say so.) Nathan intends to tell her, but naturally finds it difficult to do so, particularly as he finds her sexually attractive (mainly because of her resemblance to her mother). His agonising is the main way in which Kennedy explores her themes.

Everything You Need is well written, though distinctly repulsive in places. (The very first page is an example of this.) It is a bit on the slow side, and much of what Kennedy has to say (both about relationships and about writing) is rather obvious. The characters are interesting, though as they are mainly viewed through Nathan's self obsession they are not profoundly three dimensional. A good novel, not a great one.

Nicholas Blake: The Beast Must Die (1938)

Edition: Pan, 1999
Review number: 599

A clever crime novel for its time by Poet Laureate, C. Day Lewis, The Beast Must Die is now a little obvious. This is partly because it anticipates some of the ways in which detective fiction has gone on to develop. It has one central character, Frank Cairns, and is a psychological study of a murder, like Malice Aforethought, though it seems to me that it succeeds as an analysis of the reasons for murder where that novel fails.

The novel is divided into four parts, the first and longest of which is a diary kept by Cairns from the day that he decides to kill. This decision is taken as he is mourning the death of his young son, killed by a hit and run driver; this man, who has destroyed Cairns' life, is to be the victim. First Cairns has to succeed in a task which has baffled the police, and discover the identity of the driver; then he has to get to know him so that he can get close enough to kill him. All this is recorded in the diary, and then, just as the murder is to take place, the victim (thoroughly unpleasant bully George Rattery) reveals that he has found the hidden diary and sent it to his solicitors. When Rattery is poisoned the same day, Cairns is of course suspected, and calls in the amateur detective Nigel Strangeways (who appears in several Nicholas Blake novels) to help him clear his name.

As well as the psychological portrait of Cairns, the novel also strays into unusual territory for a crime novel, as it examines the possible ethical justifications for murder. The reader's sympathy is with Cairns all the way through, particularly after the killer of his son is revealed to be such an unpleasant person, tyrannising his cowed wife and sensitive son. (The scales are thus loaded in favour of the murderer in a not too subtle way, but that doesn't really matter.) Blake seriously manages to get the reader wondering whether 'the beast must die' rather than to be allowed to make the lives of those around him totally miserable.

The Beast Must Die is perhaps slightly overpowered as a crime novel by the weight of its more literary themes. It could perhaps do with being a bit longer - and there are not many novels of which that could be said.

Dashiell Hammett: The Glass Key (1934)

Edition: Avenel Books, 1980
Review number: 601

The Glass Key is my least favourite of Hammett's five novels. Its central character, Ned Beaumont, is a political manager, not so much a manipulator of the mass media like a modern spin doctor but a chief advisor maintaining the web of corruption and extortion that characterised much American local politics in the thirties. Clearly considerably brighter than those around him, he remains an unlikable tough guy.

The way that the murder mystery works in this novel remains rather unusual, and that is its most admirable feature. Rather than investigating to find the truth, Beaumont seeks to impose his own preconceptions on the investigation. This is of course more like the way that an average person would start to solve a mystery, but it is certainly atypical behaviour for the central character in a crime novel.

Beaumont is looking to protect the standing of his friend, Paul Madvig, the city boss. The murder victim was the brother of the woman Madvig wants to marry, from an aristocratic family which looks down on his humble origins.

Hammett did the tough, unpleasant, corrupt real world as nastily as any writer since; but in this novel none of the characters are likeable enough to have drawn me in. That is, of course, part of the realism; none of the local politicians of the type portrayed in The Glass Key would have been likely to be pleasant to know.

Monday 4 September 2000

Alec Guinness: Blessings in Disguise (1985)

Edition: Fontana, 1986
Review number: 598

All too often actors' anecdotes amount to "You should have seen me in (whatever). I was wonderful." Alec Guinness, however, carries the opposite approach to such an extreme in his memoirs that you wonder how he ever became a success. His humility sometimes comes over as a little affected, but does at least leave room for him to write positively about many of his colleagues, legends of the twentieth century theatre and film.

Rather than opting for a straightforwardly chronological approach, Blessings in Disguise is organised in a thematic manner. Most of the "themes" are accounts of his relationships with particular people, such as Ralph Richardson, though one of the longest sections is about the way in which his religious convictions evolved until he was received into the Catholic church.

My major criticism of Blessings in Disguise as a memoir of Alec Guinness is that it concentrates on his stage acting to the almost total exclusion of his film roles. Given that vastly more people have seen just one of the films in which he appeared (Star Wars) than will ever have seen him on stage, and given the esteem in which his film acting is held, this is to be regretted. To take the example just cited, Star Wars is mentioned only once in the book, in the context of an imaginary interview in which Alec Guinness says that it effectively means he could be reasonably comfortable for the rest of his life. Interesting issues such as what he thought of George Lucas - and even more with reference to other films, what he thought of David Lean, with whom he famously fell out - are ignored.

On the whole, I enjoyed the anecdotes (though the early sections are a bit difficult to get through), but would have preferred a more balanced account of the life and personality of one of the twentieth century's greatest actors.

Anne McCaffrey: Dragonsinger: Harper of Pern (1977)

Edition: Corgi, 1978
Review number: 597

Although, one of the lightest novels in the Pern series, Dragonsinger is one of my favourites. I find it very evocative of what it feels like to take pleasure in making music. McCaffery is of course musical (she was an opera producer before taking up writing), and music plays an important part in a fair number of her novels (the Crystal Singer series and The Ship Who Sang as well as several of the Pern series).

Dragonsinger follows on immediately from Dragonsong, which tells of the early history of Menolly, whose musical nature is despised as impractical by her family. She finally arrives at Harper Craft Hall at the start of this novel, and the story is about how she finds her feet in her new environment, amazed to be somewhere where her gift is not just accepted but encouraged. She is talented even by the standards of the craft, as many people who have had to overcome grave disadvantages in their backgrounds to do what they really want to tend to be. This helps her form relationships with some people, but brings jealous resentment from others.

The secret of the way in which Anne McCaffrey writes about music is that she doesn't try too hard. Music is extremely difficult to describe in words, and the experience of music making even more so. Rather than resorting to metaphor or relying on musical knowledge in the reader, McCaffrey concentrates on the emotional content of the music. This is most easily seen in the scene in which Menolly plays in a chamber group for the first time. The impression given to the reader is the based on how Menolly gets caught up in the music, exhilarated by the experience, in the way in which the various parts fit together intricately, and how time means nothing - a lengthy rehearsal seems really brief.

The character of Menolly is not without literary faults. She is superhumanly gifted - as a composer of songs (both words and music), as a performer on many instruments that she never seems to practise of have had the opportunity to learn, as an instrument maker. She is too good to be possible. Dragonsinger is not, of course, intended to be a major work of literature, and it succeeds admirably on its own level.

Friday 1 September 2000

V.S. Naipaul: A House for Mr Biswas (1961)

Edition: Andre Deutsch, 1961
Review number: 593

Like A Bend in the River, a large part of A House for Mr Biswas is about the search for roots in the post-colonial world. Mohun Biswas spends his entire life looking for a place to live which feels like his own, something which is already complicated by his place in the large Indian community in Trinidad. He is poor but of high caste, and this gives him strange relationships with the people around him, especially when he marries into the Tulsi family, rich but of low caste and trying not to become impoverished by the provision of dowries for fourteen daughters.

Mohun Biswas is a misfit by personality, uncomfortable in the presence of others, either desperate to impress or deliberately unpleasant as prompted by his own insecurities. His social interactions are frequently acutely embarrassing, to the reader as well as to those he meets and himself. He has to deal with the guilt of having caused the death of his father (who drowned trying to save him from trouble in a river when he had just wandered away), but this guilt is never explicitly mentioned. This is a clever touch by Naipaul; the drowning is one of the most dramatic episodes in the novel, and remains in the reader's mind; but not mentioning it ensures that it stays in the background, and almost unconsciously helps us to understand Mr Biswas.

Mohun Biswas must be one of the most rounded characters in all of modern fiction. He may be infuriating at times (though the Tulsi family give him a lot to put up with); he may consistently fail to realise his dreams (even the house he buys, in the end, turns out to be something of a confidence trick); but at the end of the novel, the reader feels that s/he knows and understands him.

Michael Moorcock: An Alien Heat (1972)

Edition: Granada, 1981
Review number: 596

The first Michael Moorcock novel I ever read, An Alien Heat remains one of my favourites. On the surface, it is about the very far future, from the very last days of the universe (which is why it begins a trilogy called The Dancers at the End of Time). The people who live at the end of time are extremely powerful, controlling vast amounts of energy to make and remake matter at will. They spend their time in an endless round of sophisticated parties - so much so that sometimes parties are set up to fail deliberately, for the sake of variation - and pointless hobbies, such as creating hordes of living miniature soldiers to re-fight all the wars of history.

As a diversion, then, Jherek Carnelian (whose name is significantly a variant of Jerry Cornelius) decides to fall desperately in love. The chosen object of his affections is a time traveller, a young married woman mysteriously abducted from her house in Victorian Bromley. Having started this as a joke, Jherek finds himself falling in love in earnest, just when Amelia Underwood disappears, returned to her home by one of his friends as a prank. Playing the part of a distraught lover to perfection, he sets out to follow her.

The baroque world if the end of time is very vividly portrayed; by contrast, the nineteenth century seems rather less real. This is deliberate, because it is seen through Jherek's eyes, and he has very little understanding of what is going on around him. He has never come across money before, for example, and morality is to him just a game - in what is perhaps a slightly obvious attempt to shock, the novel opens with an incestuous sex scene with his mother.

The name of the central character of The Dancers at the End of Time trilogy makes it clear that there is a connection with the Jerry Cornelius chronicles. Characters with variants on this name crop up fairly frequently in Moorcock's work, and they are usually figures rather like a medieval jester. Their function is to comment on a world that they are separate from, to point out the absurdity of their surroundings.

The purpose of Jherek Carnelian is slightly more direct: it is to point out the absurdity of modern Western culture. There are many parallels between the end of time and consumer led capitalist society (and, in the sixties and seventies, many people feared the imminent end of the world in nuclear war). Moorcock clearly wants to mock our meaningless, pleasure obsessed lives, and does so reasonably subtly.

It is chiefly on its surface level as a brilliantly imagined tale of a decadent far future that An Alien Heat succeeds; the targets it aims at are rather too diffuse for it to be entirely convincing as a satire. It is as a writer of fantasy background that Moorcock is a master, and this novel shows off this talent at its peak form.

Julian May: Orion Arm (1999)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1999
Review number: 595

At its beginning, Orion Arm reads as though it will just be a repeat of the first of the Rampart Worlds series, Perseus Spur. Having resigned once again from the family corporation after a row with his father and sister, Asahel Frost returns to the Caribbean-style world of Kile-Lockaby, back to his small business as a diving safari guide. There, once again, he just manages to escape a murder attempt prompted by the firm of Galapharm which is out to take over Rampart Starcorp. To this point, the plot is almost identical to that of the first half of Perseus Spur, and there continue to be similarities until near the end.

That the two novels share a lot of their plots is not really a critical problem; I think Orion Arm is intended to be a repetition of Perseus Spur at a heightened level of intensity. Like the earlier novel, it is a classy thriller with a science fiction background. It is much longer, and yet the excitement doesn't flag - a sign of a well written thriller. The way things are left, there should be at least one more Rampart Worlds novel, and I will expect another enjoyable read even if not innovative science fiction.

Steven Saylor: Arms of Nemesis (1992)

Edition: Robinson, 1997
Review number: 594

The second novel to feature Gordianus the Finder takes place during the slave revolt led by Spartacus. The man with a reputation for being the richest in the world, Marcus Crassus, hires Gordianus to find the murderer of his cousin. This appears to be easy, since the body was found with the word "Sparta" scrawled on the floor next to it, as though the murderer had been disturbed while writing the name of Spartacus, and two slaves have gone missing. Pre-supposing their guilt, Crassus has ordered that all the household slaves are to be executed at the end of the funeral, the old fashioned punishment decreed when a slave kills his master. (By appearing to be a stern supporter of the old ways, Crassus hopes that the Senate will grant him a commission to lead an army to destroy Spartacus, thus making his name as a great general.)

The puzzle is difficult, the background impeccable, the characters three-dimensional; Arms of Nemesis is an excellent historical detective story.