Tuesday 31 October 2000

Norman Mailer: The Naked and the Dead (1948)

Edition: Flamingo, 1999
Review number: 667

Norman Mailer's debut novel is one of the most unheroic depictions of the Second World War in fiction. If tells the story of one platoon in the American campaign to take the fictional Pacific island of Anopopei from the Japanese; these are uneducated, not particularly bright young men, not fighting for any particular reason; they are like the soldiers in All Quiet on the Western Front (a clear influence). Mailer was himself involved in the war in the Pacific, and he writes partly from his own experience; it is tempting to see at least some elements of self-portrait in the literate Lieutenant Hearn.

In this edition, published to mark the novel's fiftieth anniversary, Mailer has contributed a new introduction. It must be a strange experience to comment on something produced by a younger self so many years ago. Mailer finds some shortcomings in the novel. He complains that it reads like the writing of an amateur. By this he means that most things are given stereotypical descriptions (he gives as an example that coffee is always scalding). This is perhaps not so evident as the novel is read, probably because so much literature is lazy in this way.

As you read the novel, what is apparent which is typical of debut novels is the influence of other writers. In this case, the main influence other than Remarque's novel which has already been mentioned is Hemingway. This is partly seen in the subject matter, partly in the prose style (though Mailer is more florid), but mainly comes through in the attitude of the author to the characters. The Naked and the Dead must be one of the most sympathetic if "arts and all" portrayals of the common soldier.

A less important influence is John dos Passos. There are elements taken from his USA trilogy in this novel, with sections in each chapter entitled "The Time Machine" which give a whistle stop tour through the pre-war life of one of the main characters. These are extremely well done, to give an idea of why the war has shaped the particular character in the way that it has. Mailer's use of the device is perhaps rather half-hearted, though; with a bit more experience, I suspect that he would have integrated these sections into the main narrative.

In the other direction, the obvious influence that The Naked and the Dead has had is on later literature about war, particularly Catch 22 and MASH. The war pervades The Naked and the Dead to such an extent that it would be difficult to see how it has affected authors who have not written about the same subject. One way it may have done so is to help shape a particular subgenre of thriller, those gritty novels also pervaded with a sense that everything is pointless, meaningless, by writers like John le Carré. Man in The Naked and the Dead are driven to extreme, heroic effort, but for no real reason and achieving nothing; even their motivation is vague and comes from who they are rather than from their circumstances (a determination not to be the first to break down, for example).

Charles Dickens: Nicholas Nickleby (1838)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 666

One of the most successful of all Dickens' early novels, Nicholas Nickleby will always be remembered for its portrayal of the wonderfully named brutal school, Dotheboys Hall. The plot of the novel is a variation of the young man coming to terms with the world theme. After his father's death, Nicholas Nickleby and his sister Kate need to earn their livings for the first time. They turn to their rich uncle Ralph for help, not realising that he is an evil man - avaricious miser and unscrupulous moneylender driven by hatred of their father. He arranges work for Nicholas as a teacher at Dotheboys Hall in Yorkshire and for Kate as a dressmaker. Naturally, these jobs do not turn out to be the wonderful opportunities expected by the two of them.

The main problems the novel has are certain of the characters. Ralph Nickleby is the most serious flaw; he is a melodramatic villain and no more, bu plays a big enough part in the plot that he should be made more realistic. The Cheerybyle brothers are blandly generous, and again, insufficiently individualised. A few of the minor characters are irritating, particularly the vain and stupid Mrs Nickleby, mother of Nicholas and Kate. There are excellent and interesting people in the novel, including Mr Squeers the vicious headmaster of Dotheboys Hall. In Dickens' introduction, written later, he explicitly denies that Squeers is based on any real person, to counter various schoolteachers being almost proud to point to themselves as the original; he is so unpleasant that it is bizarre that anyone would wish to do so.

The real strength of the novel is journalistic, the way in which various different worlds are sketched in - the London moneylender, the Yorkshire school (boarding schools in that county were notoriously bad), and the touring stage company which Nicholas joins after fleeing the school with the unfortunate Smike. This last is perhaps a little overly theatrical, but is interesting because of Dickens' own keen interest in the stage.

Nicholas Nickleby, like all of Dickens' novels, has obvious flaws, but it clearly deserves its place among the favourite classics in the English language.

Friday 27 October 2000

Rudyard Kipling: Life's Handicap (1891)

Edition: MacMillan, 1982
Review number: 665

Rudyard Kipling produced a large number of short stories, including some of his best known writing (The Jungle Book, for example, being a collection of connected tales). They are quite varied, even when dealing with a specific theme, as here: Life's Handicap contains twenty seven stories about the experience of the British in India. Some have dated more than others, but they all have the marvellous sense of atmosphere which is the hallmark of Kipling's writing.

It is often said against Kipling that he was an imperialist, and it is hardly possible to deny it - there are moments when his now uncomfortable assumptions about the superiority of the white man become apparent. Kipling fits into the time and place of his background as well as most people do, and it is rather unfair to expect him to have the attitudes of someone born a century later. The chosen theme of most of his writing makes these background ideas particularly obvious, so that he is something of a sitting target. He is a greater writer than the two others who have survived and who also can be accused of the same kind of unconscious racism (I'm thinking of Buchan and Haggard), and he is much less one sided. He writes about unpleasant Europeans, of British officers who fail, as well as of ones who are as infallible gods to their native servants. His characters, even in the short stories, are more than the stereotypes of cheap imperialist fiction.

In the case of Life's Handicap, I remain slightly uneasy despite the excellence of many of the stories. This is because of the title of the collection, for which the only interpretation I can think of is slightly racist (though possibly just reflective of the social situation in nineteenth century India): that some people have a superior position or an inferior one from the start of their lives, dependent on whether they are Indian or European. It may be a racist idea, but Kipling didn't originate the system, and it was certainly true.

Peter F. Hamilton: Mindstar Rising (1993)

Edition: Pan, 1993
Review number: 664

Peter Hamilton's first novel introduces his psychic detective Greg Mandel (named of course, though rather oddly, after the monk who founded the science of genetics). It has a rich background, even though it is set only fifty years or so in the future. Global warming has changed the climate, and destroyed low lying country as the polar ice caps have melted. At the same time, an inept Socialist dictatorship has destroyed the British economy before being swept away in a revolution. Mandel was part of an experimental army corps (known as Mindstar) with a special gland which enhances latent telepathy. When this expensive unit was disbanded, he became part of the revolution, helping organise guerillas in Peterborough housing estates swamped by refugees from the flooding of the fens.

Now, he has become a private investigator, and is hired by the big success story of the new Britain, the electronics company Event Horizon, to investigate sabotage in their orbiting microchip factory. This turns out to be quite complicated, and Hamilton creates a story influenced by cyberpunk including computers, drugs, telepathy and a fair amount of violence. He occasionally uses somewhat dubious shortcuts. Mandel's friends include an incredibly talented computer hacker and a fellow psychic who can see the future. The latter saves time by telling Mandel that if he did go ahead and interview two hundred workers who might be connected to the sabotage, then he would find out nothing; this is extremely convenient.

This is a relatively minor quibble with an interesting and enjoyable novel, much better than its sequel, A Quantum Murder.

Thursday 26 October 2000

Richard Rudgley: Lost civilisations of the Stone Age (1998)

Edition: Century, 1998
Review number: 663

The standard picture of prehistory is of a series of revolutionary developments, separated by great stretches of time, culminating in the "Neolothic Revolution" and the appearance of agriculture, towns, writing, and civilisation. The purpose of this book is to argue that the process of development was far more gradual and evolutionary, with each of the new developments (other examples being art and medicine) being foreshadowed, in many cases for a very long time.

Rudgley's argument seems to prove an obvious point, yet the idea that the human race moved towards civilisation in a series of leaps is not just the fundamental theory on which most popular books on prehistory are based, it remains the basis of much of the academic study of ancient peoples. It is an inherently unlikely theory, particularly the "Neolithic Revolution" when so many new inventions are supposed to appear simultaneously, and Rudgley points out that this is one of the reasons that people have come up with such pseudo-historical theories as the idea that civilised ideas came from aliens or from mythological advanced cultures which have left no trace, such as Atlantis or Lemuria.

Lost civilisations of the Stone Age contains a great deal of material gathered to counteract assertions which amount to "before such an such a date, humans did not have a certain ability", where the abilities range from writing to the ability to think symbolically. Much of this is fascinating, but it does not answer two questions which particularly interest me: how did the standard theory arise, and why do people still believe in it? The answers to theses questions lie both in the nature of prehistoric archaeology and in human nature.

In formulating the theory, which is mainly a product of the first half of the twentieth century, the main reasons it came about seem to be to do with the fragmentary nature of the evidence and the difficulties in dating it, which leads to assumptions that material containing art, say, must be later than the accepted first date for the production of art. There are also racists assumptions involved about the capabilities of those Stone Age cultures which have survived until modern times, which are projected back into the past. Archaeologists have also tended, particularly in the Middle East, to be more interested in the relatively simple later remains after the written record begins, such as pharaonic tombs and Sumerian towns, and to have been half-hearted about going farther back; I suspect that rivalry between the French and German excavators principally responsible for discoveries in Egypt and Iraq respectively to produce impressive finds also had something to do with this. The desire to put a definite date on events probably also played a part, by encouraging over-simplification.

The idea has obviously continued partly because of inertia, but there are other reasons. Prehistoric remains are difficult to interpret, and those who attacked the theory often made overblown and seemingly ridiculous claims, such as Marija Gimbutas' idea of the earth goddess. This obviously tended to make all of what they said vulnerable and easy to dismiss. Even in this book, which is relatively careful, there is some debatable evidence, particularly in the chapter on music making.

The good thing about the standard theory is that it makes life easy, as long as you don't express it too explicitly. Writers can talk about the Neolithic Revolution, and readers will not only understand what they mean, but they will latch onto something dramatic which has facile parallels with the relatively familiar industrial revolution. It can even be given a date. It is only when someone starts to wonder why all these changes happened at once that cracks begin to appear.

I suspect that few academics really believe the standard model, at least in the rather naive form in which it is portrayed here. It is far more prevalent in popular histories, particularly in the most wide ranging books where prehistory is just a prelude to the main material. Lost civilisations of the Stone Age is clearly intended to counter this attitude, and is definitely worth reading by anyone with an interest in the origins of civilisation.

Wednesday 25 October 2000

Michael Jecks: Squire Throwleigh's Heir (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 662

One of the poorest entries in Jecks' generally excellent series of medieval mysteries, Squire Throwleigh's Heir never really catches the attention. The problems start with the title, which while genuinely possible in the fourteenth century with the meaning it carries - landowner instead of apprentice knight - tends to suggest an eighteenth or nineteenth century setting (the usage, with the title followed by the surname, also suggests this). The introduction, the most interesting part of the novel, actually talks about this type of problem, as Jecks defends writing in modern English and points out that some of the words correspondents have objected to (such as "posse") are genuinely in period but have anachronistic connotations to the modern reader.

The murder in this novel is of a six year old boy, heir to the manor of Throwleigh, a few weeks after the death of his father. This event provokes an emotional reaction in both the sleuths of the series, as Simon Puttock lost his beloved son at about that age, and Baldwin Furnshill has just got married and is thinking of his own future family. However, the investigation comes over as rather mechanical, the emotional parts of the prose reading, unconvincingly, as though they have been tacked on later. (It is even sometimes difficult to work out which feelings are being attributed to which character.) Though the solution to the mystery makes sense, the way it is set up is very artificial, the number of people who have secret reasons for being near the scene of the crime assuming farcical proportions.

None of the non-series characters are particularly sympathetic, and the most interesting is so only because of his occupation. He is a man at arms, but an expert in all the different forms of medieval combat, a trainer who is rather like an Eastern martial arts teacher. Such men did exist and were much in demand as bodyguards, despite the modern picture of medieval fighting as a crude matter of strength alone. (The quarterstaff and longbow, both English specialities, were weapons demanding great skill.)

It seems strange that such an excellent series contains a novel as poor as this one, but that is partly because of raised expectations. By comparison to some of the other writers who have stepped into the historical crime novel market after the medieval mystery was popularised by Ellis Peters, Jecks is still one of the best, creating one of the strongest backgrounds of all of them.

Tuesday 24 October 2000

Tom Holt: Who's Afraid of Beowulf? (1988)

Edition: MacMillan, 1988
Review number: 661

The second of Tom Holt's comic fantasy novels, Who's Afraid of Beowulf? is rather a tentative affair by comparison with most of them. It gets its comedy from the same idea as Expecting Someone Taller (and many other humourous fantasy novels), as it concerns a group of characters from mythology bewildered by the modern world.

In this case, the bewildered mythological characters are heroes from the Norse sagas, sealed for hundreds of years in a ship burial in a remote part of Caithness (Scotland) until needed again. They encounter such things as buses, TV cameras, and policemen, interpreting mast technology as like the magic they had known in the past. Who's Afraid of Beowulf?, though often amusing, never becomes really funny. This is partly because of the hackneyed plot. The best bits are the games played by the two elemental spirits also imprisoned in the mound.

Beowulf does not feature in the novel (he is mentioned once, in passing), and the title is more the sort of joke made by an undergraduate English student faced with learning Anglo-Saxon than anything to do with the novel itself.

Monday 23 October 2000

W. Somerset Maugham: Of Human Bondage (1915)

Edition: Heinemann, 1937
Review number: 660

Maugham's autobiographical novel (at least, autobiographical to a greater extent than the rest of his fiction) was in his mind for a long time, a rejected version being one of the first things he wrote. It is long, detailed and realistic, and covers about thirty years of the life of Philip Carey, from the date when the death of his mother left him an orphan to a short while after his qualification as a doctor. The title is a reference to the crosses he has to bear in this time, principally a deformity (a clubfoot) of which he is extremely conscious, but also including being brought up by an unsympathetic uncle, an inability to choose a career, and a disastrous love affair.

Philip is a well written character, guaranteed to gain the sympathy of the reader. He is believable both as boy and as man. He follows on from the long line of nineteenth century novel heroes, but with two important differences. He is a much less bland character than most of them, and he is crippled physically. In English fiction, crippled characters are relatively rare, and crippled main characters are even more so. Tiny Tim, from Dickens' Christmas Carol, must be easily the best known, but he is more a device to extort pity from the reader than a character in real terms. Characters socially or psychologically crippled by their backgrounds are relatively commonplace - Bigger Thomas from Native Son an example of the first, and Alexander Portnoy from Portnoy's Complaint one of the second - but a physically deformed main character is extremely rare even in more recent literature.

Maugham handles this extremely well. We are only reminded of the clubfoot when Philip thinks of it - when the older boys at school make fun of him, for example - but it is clear that his deformity has had a major effect on his character. He is diffident, sensitive, and lonely; it is difficult for him to fit in with those around him. He looses his early strong Christian belief after being told that if he prays with faith God can do anything for him, and then spending a summer holiday praying for his foot to be healed before he returns to school, only for nothing to happen. This is a major formative event in his life, for it leads to his rebellion against the path his uncle and aunt have mapped out for him, sending him to a cathedral school from where he was expected to go to Oxford and eventually be ordained into the Church of England.

Of Human Bondage is not just about Philip's disability, however. It is about his hopes and aspirations. In many ways, these are vague and never become more definite, and are the impulses behind his restlessness as a young man rather than pushing him in a specific direction. What he wants is to escape the drabness and duty of his childhood, to do something different. This is why he leaves school early to spend a year in Germany, why he proves disastrous as a clerk at an accountants' office, where his uncle places him, why he goes to Paris to study art, and why, in the end, he studies medicine - it is not only the profession of his own father, but it is the only one which will accept him as a student several years older than is usual (what would today be called a mature student).

Of Human Bondage is a realistic novel, an excellent (and classic) account of a young man coming to terms with who he is and what he can and cannot do, in defiance of the world around him. Without knowing more about Maugham's life, I cannot tell how autobiographical it is, but it is written so that it rings true as a story.

Friday 20 October 2000

Mary Stewart: Airs Above the Ground (1965)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1972
Review number: 658

With My Brother Michael and the Merlin trilogy, Airs Above the Ground stands at the peak of Stewart's writing. It is particularly gentle as thrillers go, but has a charm based on the three main characters.

Vanessa March is bored, staying at home while her husband Lewis is on a business trip to Stockholm, until a friend says that she has seen Lewis in a newsreel about a fire in a circus in Austria. Vanessa goes to see the newsreel, expecting the man to just be someone who looks like her husband. However, she is rather shaken when she sees not only Lewis but that he has an obviously close relationship to a stunning blonde. Vanessa agrees to accompany her friend's son to Austria - which was the reason that the newsreel was mentioned in the first place. The teenager is a bit of fresh air in Stewart's writing, being rather different from her usual cast of characters. He is perhaps a bit too much from the clean cut, adventurous and (above all) decently English style of hero, like a more grown up member of the Famous Five, but he is reasonably charming.

The story revolves around the Lippizaner horses, and their exquisite dressage, an unusual background (for an adult novel, at least). It is certainly one of Stewart's most memorable, even with much less of a sense of place than her novels usually give. A charming romantic thriller.

John Masters: Trial at Monomoy (1964)

Edition: Odhams Books Ltd.
Review number: 659

This was an interesting novel to have read soon after Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged. Masters is attempting a similar purpose, on a smaller scale, and is much more successful and convincing.

The story is about a small town, Monomoy, in New England, during an extremely severe winter storm. Snow cuts it off completely, and it seems as though the whole town might be destroyed - it is below sea level, protected by natural sea defences which are in danger of being overwhelmed. The different reactions of the various people in the town, which cover the scale from calm competence to rampaging looting to hysteria, are the core of the novel, and this is where there is the similarity with Rand's writing. Both writers are interested in the differences between those who think ahead, prepare, use intelligence and are prepared to work, and those who cling to others, are parasitic, or blinded by irrelevancies. The reason why Masters succeeds here is because he is interested in people whereas Rand wants to make philosophical points. His characters are not just black or white, clones of one another; each is an individual and he manages to make a large number well rounded - something of great importance in a novel about a whole town. The crisis changes and develops the characters, as you would expect - though this is something that Rand signally fails to do.

An important part of the novel is the reference to Eugene O'Neill's The Iceman Cometh, a play which has a production organised in the town's hotel, where many of Monomoy's inhabitants are gathered and snowed in for several days with nothing to do. Some issues of relevance to the novel and the play are explicitly mentioned by some of the characters (particularly to do with how much we deserve what happens to us), but I am sure that there are more, hidden parallels. I have however never seen or read the play, so was unable to pick any of these up; I would advise a prospective reader of Trial at Monomoy to read The Iceman Cometh first.

Thursday 19 October 2000

Peter F. Hamilton: A Quantum Murder (1994)

Edition: Pan, 1996
Review number: 656

Though slow in getting started, Hamilton's second science fiction mystery featuring psychic detective Greg Mandel turns into an interesting piece of detection. Like the others, it is set in a post-global warming, post-socialist dictatorship Britain, much of the novel taking place in an area fairly familiar to me, around Oakham and Peterborough. Seeing the familiar transformed as Hamilton has done here is quite strange; the idea that parts of Belfast might be centres of paramilitary activity is reasonably easy to accept today, but not that the same might become true of Peterborough housing estates.

The murder to be investigated takes place at Launde Abbey, a stately home now used as a centre for research in theoretical physics loosely attached to Cambridge University. Six or seven young students are given the opportunity to work with famous cosmologist Dr Edward Kitchener, and it is he who is murdered, during a night when a storm cuts the house off from the outside world.

It proves a strange case, for though Kitchener's research might make him a target for assassination by a rival industrial concern, it is hard to see how an outsider could get into the house (the only road is flooded and the storm prevented aircraft from reaching it), and a professional would be unlikely to mutilate the body in the way that Kitchener's corpse has been. The mutilation matches the modus operandi of a convicted serial killer, but he was safely in a criminal asylum on the night of the murder. The mutilation also makes the students in the house unlikely suspects, even though Kitchener caused tension be seducing all the young women he worked with.

The puzzle is rather unfair, in a way that science fiction mysteries are often accused of being. The solution relies on not yet invented technology, so new that it is not even known to the sleuth (which makes things a little more equal). It is extremely unlikely that any reader will think of the solution in advance, and I am not at all sure that Hamilton actually pulls all the loose ends tight at the end.

All in all, A Quantum Murder is a bit of a disappointment, too slow in parts and unconvincing as a mystery.

Hammond Innes: Atlantic Fury (1962)

Edition: Collins, 1963
Review number: 657

Atlantic Fury reads as though it were the novelisation of a disaster movie. Laerh, a fictionalised remote Hebridean island, is used as an army base, until it becomes superfluous. Then a decision is suddenly made to evacuate the base, before winter storms cut it off, and the evacuation coincides with an extremely severe early storm, wrecking the transport boats and hampering rescue attempts.

This plot is combined with a man's search for his brother. Believed dead in the war, evidence has appeared which makes it look as though Iain Ross swapped identities with a really dead man after a shipwreck. Since the man he is now believed to be has been sent to Laerg - by an unlikely coincidence, the Ross family home before its inhabitants were moved when the base was established - to oversee the evacuation. The coincidences multiply; Laerg was also where he was washed ashore after the wreck.

The whole novel is far fetched, but there is no denying that it is an exciting thriller, particularly in the scenes at sea. The suspense doesn't hide the thin characters or the holes in the plot; it is not in the end one of Innes' best pieces of writing.

Friday 13 October 2000

Rudyard Kipling: The Light that Failed (1891)

Edition: MacMillan, 1982
Review number: 655

One of Kipling's most interesting novels, The Light that Failed hovers on the edge of sentimentality for most of its pages, never quite slipping. Dick Heldar is an artist, who becomes successful through drawings of a war in Sudan for one of the London newspapers - this being in the days before photographs filled the newspapers. Returning to London, he begins to work as a serious artist, and re-encounters his childhood playmate, Maisie, and falls in love with her. Just as he begins work on what is to be his masterpiece, he has to seek medical advice for a problem with his eyes and is told that he is going blind, incurably, as a result of the after affects of a head wound received in the Sudan.

In the original published version of the story, The Light that Failed ended here, with Maisie marrying Dick to look after him. Kipling later changed this, saying that he was restoring the story to what he had always wanted it to be, and wrote a much longer ending (about a third of the novel as it now stands) in which Maisie abandons Dick and leaves him to sink into squalor. The original ending is trite and sentimental, and the novel as it now stands has far greater power.

The Light that Failed works because of the way it is written, with the contrast between the high spirits of a group of bachelor friends in the first half, and the serious theme of the second. Both parts are extremely well written, the earlier part being like the more cheerful army stories or parts of the Jungle Book. It is carefree, and this makes Dick's physical disintegration in the second half more powerful.

The novel is not really a particularly deep one; its concern is more with Dick's physical dissolution than with an in depth analysis of his psychology and the effects of his blindness. By leaving this to the imagination of the reader, it is extraordinarily effective, while remaining easy to read.

Michael Pearce: The Mamur Zapt and the Donkey-Vous (1990)

Edition: Collins, 1990
Review number: 654

The third Mamur Zapt novel (I think) is very like the other one I have read (The Mamur Zapt and the Men Behind). The whole series is going to consist of gentle, amusing crime stories set in Cairo about a century ago. They're very enjoyable, so similarity won't stop me continuing to read them.

The plot of this novel is about an investigation into kidnappings of tourists from the terrace of Shepheards, the most exclusive hotel in Cairo. The major mystery is how presumably unwilling victims could disappear without anyone seeing it happen, in a place not only thronged by hotel guests but full of anxious vendors. The "donkey-vous" of the absurd title is like a taxi rank, with donkeys for hire, outside the hotel.

Entertaining, easy on the mind; an excellent book to relax with.

Ayn Rand: Atlas Shruged (1957)

Edition: Signet, 1982

Like much of the more literate end of the science fiction genre, Ayn Rand's novels were inspired by a social theme that she wanted to discuss, her philosophic viewpoint known as objectivism. It is completely inseparable from Atlas Shrugged, much more obviously than in the two greatest novels which do something similar, Brave New World and 1984.

Essentially a hymn to libertarian capitalism, Atlas Shrugged is the story of a competition between a group of people who really produce something and others who think that they are owed a living. The latter are turning the US into a planned economy, effectively ruining the country's industrialists one by one. Then the men who do the work - innovators, scientists, engineers - begin disappearing rather than see their efforts enriching others; it is as though Atlas, holding the world on his shoulders, shrugs. The heart of the book is the description of the chaos that takes hold as the industrial base of the nation crumbles, as those who do not feel that they can abandon the world struggle to keep things going.

As a portrayal of the future, it is not a particularly imaginative piece of science fiction, being basically a caricature of the effect socialist ideas would have overlaid on forties technology. It is rather strange to read a science fiction novel in which railways play such a huge part. This is one of the reasons why the novel is not a big classic of the genre, as it does not contain many ideas of interest to devotees.

The characterisation is quite well done for at least the central few characters on the side to which Rand is sympathetic; Dagny Taggart, Hank Rearden and Francisco d'Anconia are believable. Their enemies are generally one dimensional, with the occasional attempts to make them more real actually having the opposite effect; Dagny's brother Jim is one of the worst in this respect, because he is quite an important character.

I find several aspects of Rand's right wing philosophy distasteful, and her method of argument in this novel is one of them. She exaggerates and distorts the positions that she attacks, making them so ludicrous that her self-imposed task of demolishing them is easy. She polarises the possible economic views very strongly and puts all the decent characters on her side, and all the profiteers, scoundrels, weaklings and spongers on the other. If the argument were this easy, we'd all be libertarians. Naturally, in a novel as opposed to a philosophical treatise, the reader expects some simplification; but subtlety is also welcome. This is one reason why Gide and Sartre are far better novelists than Rand could aspire to be, and their novels make their philosophical points more strongly. The other thing that Rand does not do with her characters, which is almost effortless in Gide and done best by Sartre in his trilogy, it to develop the argument, to have the characters change over time as their understanding grows and circumstances move on. Rand's argument is merely repeated over and over, at what feels like louder and louder volume (as the situation deteriorates). Here, the choice of the science fiction genre is partly to blame, because by using the background to make her case for her, Rand makes it more difficult for herself to use character development to do so. The novel also includes about twenty pages of undiluted philosophical sermonising, in the form of a radio address; this is extremely dull and much better skipped.

It would be really easy to criticise Rand's philosophy as developed in Atlas Shrugged, but most arguments against it would really be a criticism of the novel. One which occurs to me however as a consequence of her oversimplified characters, which means that she equates capitalists with good men, socialists with bad. It is all too easy to see that good capitalists would help the world more than evil socialists, but it is hardly something with any relevance to the real world, where people are not so black and white. It should be remembered that unrestricted capitalism has fairly consistently led to exploitation of the work force, with slum accommodation and abuses like truck shops and child labour. (Even though these things have been eradicated from much of the West for most of the twentieth century, this has actually meant that manufacturing has largely moved elsewhere, in search of cheaper, exploitable labour.) Evil men are evil, whether capitalist or socialist, and the philosophy presented in Atlas Shrugged in no way takes account of this.

Criticisms like these do not prevent Atlas Shrugged from being a fascinating and thought provoking novel. The use of this edition to promote objectivism means that the novel over-sells itself; it is not as great a classic as the cover and introductory material make out. I don't really approve of the novel being so obviously used as a marketing device; it has forewords, afterwords, summaries of objectivism and even a response card. It does have a marvellous cover illustration, but I prefer literature to be literature and not a sales pitch.

Wednesday 11 October 2000

J.D. Robb: Naked in Death (1995)

Edition: New English Library, 1996
Review number: 652

The first of J.D. Robb's Eve Dallas novels is very similar to the other one I have read from this excellent series, Rapture in Death. Naturally, they share a background - which can be criticised - of twenty first century police work, and characters, and the crime being investigated is the main difference between them. Here, Dallas is searching for a serial killer of prostitutes. Two complications make the case much more difficult: the first victim turns out to be the granddaughter of a US senator seeking to introduce a bill banning prostitution; and Dallas falls for one of her suspects, the fascinating millionaire Roarke.

As a crime novel, it is better than Rapture in Death, though there are not enough suspects to make it difficult as a puzzle. (Of course, with investigations into serial killings, where there is often no personal connection between killer and victim, or motive based on a relationship between them, it is often difficult to make a list of nameable suspects.)

John Barnes: A Million Open Doors (1992)

Edition: Weidenfeld Military, 1993
Review number: 651

Each of John Barnes' novels to date has been different, each an excellent piece of science fiction. A Million Open Doors is based on a scenario similar to some of the ideas behind the Dorsai trilogy - the bringing together once more of the splintered subcultures into which the human race has developed after isolation on colony planets separated by interstellar space - while in tone it is reminiscent of the classic novels of Isaac Asimov (particularly Foundation) and Poul Anderson. It has rather more to say about culture shock than any of these novels, and contains interesting ideas I have never seen before, in over twenty years of avid science fiction reading.

As humankind has spread throughout the galaxy, the insularity of the various colonised planets has been increased by the use of invented cultures, exaggerations of Earthly ones. Now, however, the invention of an instant transportation method - which sets up the million open doors of the title - has ended their isolation. This is the background to the story of Giraut, an enthusiastic member of a culture based around the ideals of the medieval troubadours, a culture of art and literature, duelling and macho personal honour. The establishment of a gateway on the planet of Nou Occitan has led to the crumbling of this culture, as young people turn to the newly fashionable Interstellars who have abandoned Occitan ways for their idea of a pan-human lifestyle. (Occitan is another name for the Provencal language of the south of France in the middle ages.) When he discovers that his entendedora (a mixture between a teenage girlfriend and the object of a troubadour's affections) has been going to Interstellar sex clubs, he is in despair, and takes up an invitation to travel to Caledon as part of an ambassadorial team to help them deal with the imminent opening of a gateway on their planet.

Caledon is an almost complete contrast to Nou Occitan. It is a puritan culture on an Arctic world - one where terraforming was only partly carried out because suffering is good for the soul. The arts are dismissed as irrational, and the flamboyant Occitan culture is considered immoral. The clash between the two cultures is the central feature of the novel, with Giraut's development as a person connected to his realisation that the people of Caledon are human too, and that he can communicate with at least some of them.

A Million Open Doors is an excellent novel, based on interesting ideas drawn out with intelligence, with a believable background and convincing characters.

Tuesday 10 October 2000

Helen MacInnes: The Snare of the Hunter (1974)

Edition: William Collins, 1975
Review number: 650

The Snare of the Hunter is a competent Cold War thriller with minor literary aspirations (one of the characters, at the centre of the plot even if he never appears on stage, is an amalgamation of Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel). Successful American music critic David Mennery is on the point of packing to travel to the Salzburg festival when an acquaintance turns up whom he hasn't seen for a few years, with a strange request. As a student, David had travelled to Prage, where he had got to know Irina, daughter of dissident novelist Jaromir Kusak. In the intervening years, she has married a senior secret policeman, but now she has fled from Czechoslovakia, wanting to see her father again. (He is living in hiding somewhere in Western Europe.)

Because of her connection with the Czech secret police, she is considered too dangerous for any of the Western secret agencies to aid her, and so it has fallen to a group of amateurs to try to get her out of the flat in Vienna where she is hiding. This leads to a chase across Austria, Czech agents only just behind David and Irina, and it soon becomes clear that one of those supposedly trying to help her is in fact betraying their movements to her husband.

It's quite a complicated plot, but the main interest is the chase, and that is straightforward. More could have been made of character - resuming a relationship that had been abruptly terminated by the Russian invasion of 1968 could be far more interesting than it is here - but The Snare of the Hunter achieves suspense and excitement, precisely what a thriller is meant to do.

John Barrow: The Origin of the Universe (1994)

Edition: Phoenix, 1995
Review number: 649

Part of a series of explanations of important areas of current science by leading science writers, The Origin of the Universe would be an ideal place for to start for a reader with virtually no scientific background who wants to try to understand something of current thought on the subject. It is concise and simple, admirably written, and has the odd point of interest even to a voracious reader of popular science books. It reminded me of the science books of Isaac Asimov, and is a worthy successor to his books on cosmology, written skilfully in the same spirit yet up to date. I found Asimov's books fascinating when I was a teenager - they were all about the interesting science they didn't teach at school - and I think that The Origin of the Universe could have the same effect on an interested teenager today.

Monday 9 October 2000

Umberto Eco: Serendipities: Language and Lunacy (1998)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1999
Review number: 648

Some of Eco's essays in semiotics (those in Travels in Hyperreality, for example), are to me fairly impenetrable. The five in this collection are not like that. Concentrating on aspects of the history of linguistic thought, they show a wide ranging and brilliant mind, but are written in a lass academic style. (It was the vast array of references to writers that I had never read that was daunting.) They read more like they are notes related to one of Eco's novels, and are particularly close in style to the digressions in Foucault's Pendulum.

The reason for this is that all the essays except the first deal with a subject similar in many ways to the pursuit of the ultimate conspiracy which is the theme of that novel - the quest for the original language of mankind, or, more specifically, for that used by Adam to name the beasts of the earth in Genesis and that used by God to speak to him. This may seem to be an obscure subject, but it says something about the way that those who discussed it felt about the relationship between language and the physical world, and that is an issue of some importance in philosophy as well as being of interest in itself.

These essays are not particularly closely connected; each concentrates on a particular small part of the theme (Dante's views, for example, or the supposedly fundamental languages devised by eighteenth century philosophers) with little reference to the others. Each is interesting in itself, and a book which contained them all as chapters would probably be fascinating, though I found Serendipities rather on the bitty side.

The first essay, based on a lecture given to open the academic year at Bologna University, is rather different in nature. Entitled The Force of Falsity, its subject is influential lies of the past. Forgeries have had a surprisingly big effect on history, from the Donation of Constantine, used to bolster the claims of the Papacy to dominion over the secular rulers of medieval Europe, to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which inspired Hitler. Both these forgeries led to wars, but others had a positive effect; eastward and westward exploration by Europeans in the fifteenth century were inspired by erroneous beliefs - eastward by Prester John, westward by an incorrect estimate of the circumference of the globe. The latter, which was Columbus' inspiration, has itself been the victim of misrepresentation, as Eco points out - anti-clerical campaigners in the nineteenth century claimed that the reason Columbus travelled was to prove that the earth was round in defiance of established church doctrine; few educated people in 1492 would have believed in a flat earth.

None of the essays are about anything of earth shattering importance; all are interesting and determinedly erudite.

Friday 6 October 2000

Leslie Charteris: Follow the Saint (1939)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1952
Review number: 647

After the anti-Fascist outburst of Prelude for War, Leslie Charteris' next published Saint book is a collection of three stories (previously published in magazines) which are typical of an earlier period in the development of Simon Templar. Pretty average parts of the series they are too, being not particularly memorable but of a reasonable standard.

The first story, Miracle Tea, is the most interesting, and from the start revels in the cliches of the genre. ("This chronicle starts with four wild coincidences" is the first sentence.) A packet of a patent medicine accidentally falls into Simon Templar's hands, but proves to contain £1500. Naturally intrigued, he sets out to track down the source of the money.

The other two stories are a straightforward murder mystery and the hijacking of the proceeds of an armed robbery which has as its most interesting feature the Saint's attack on a self-proclaimed "guardian of society". This is one of the more amusing stories in the series, though none of the three rise above the average, as I have said.

Thursday 5 October 2000

Henry James: The Golden Bowl (1904)

Edition: Bodley Head
Review number: 646

Henry James' last novel was obviously fulfilling to write: he did not write another in the final twelve years of his life. In the context of his earlier novels it is possible to see why this is. The themes of his work (the relationship between American and Europe, the artificiality and deception of human relationships) are treated here in a more relaxed manner; the heated prose he wrote is considerably less tense. It is a novel which sums up and completes what he had to say, so that there was no need for him to write any more.

The Verwers, father and daughter, are Americans who have been settled in England for some time - much more integrated into European culture than their equivalents in earlier novels. Maggie married an Italian prince (named Amerigo, after the explorer whose name was also given to the continent of the Verwer's origin - a symbol of the closer relationship in this novel), and a couple of years later her father married a younger woman, Charlotte. After a while, Maggie discovers that Charlotte has been Amerigo's mistress, both before and after the marriages. Her behaviour from that point, about halfway through the novel, is driven by the desire to protect her father, to whom she is extremely close (and James even hints that they are perhaps too close, describing their relationship at one point as "like husband and wife").

The golden bowl of the novel's title is a symbol of the marriage between the Prince and Maggie. At one point, it is a possible wedding gift from Charlotte to them - to be paid for by Amerigo. It appears to be gold, but close examination reveals that it is in fact gilded glass crystal, which is moreover flawed. After she discovers her husband's infidelity, Maggie buys it as a sign of her knowledge, and then breaks it.

To the reader, The Golden Bowl is anything but fulfilling. Its style, principally conversational like James' other late novels, is convoluted and extremely unconvincing, and positively invites skimming. The characters are not particularly believable, and some of them are really annoying (family friend Fanny Assingham is the principal offender). It is a novel with an interesting idea, and that is perhaps the best to be said for it.

Wednesday 4 October 2000

Hammond Innes: The Wreck of the Mary Deare (1957)

Edition: Collins, 1957
Review number: 645

An early Hammond Innes - maybe even his first - thriller, The Wreck of the Mary Deare is evocative of the seafaring life which is central to so many of his novels. It begins in the small boat Sea Witch, crossing the Channel to be refitted as a salvage vessel. Suddenly, out of the dark, stormy sea, they are almost run down by a far larger, apparently abandoned, ship, the Mary Deare. Meeting up with it again later (surely an unlikely coincidence), the co-owner of the Sea Witch and narrator of the novel boards her, and finds only one man aboard, its captain, who insists that they run the ship aground on rocks to the south of the Channel Islands. The reason for this becomes clear in the second part of the novel, at an enquiry into the ship's fate in which it begins to look as though the Mary Deare was intended to sink supposedly carrying a valuable cargo that had been transferred elsewhere, for the purposes of a fraudulent insurance claim by the ship's owners.

This middle section is distinctly unconvincing, the court simply swallowing the flimsy statements of the shipping company's lawyers. The final section amounts to a race to return to the ship, to either reveal or destroy the evidence of the fraud, and this too is rather unlikely - would it really be permitted for the interested parties in the case to reboard the ship with no other witnesses?

Occasionally chillingly atmospheric - the Marie Celeste-like first appearance of the Mary Deare is the best scene in the novel by far - The Wreck of the Mary Deare is generally slackly put together. The plot is stretched to far to allow Innes to fit in more action scenes; these may be exciting, but are not good enough to excuse or hide the novel's problems.

Frank Stenton: Anglo-Saxon England (1943)

Edition: Oxford University Press, 1971
Review number: 644

For a long time now, the Oxford History of England has been the standard series of reference works on the subject. I suspect that time is running out for the volumes covering the earliest period, which rely so much on archaeology, and the one covering the twentieth century, which has been superseded by events. Even though, as its introduction states, there was felt to be little need to make changes for this edition (as subsequent discoveries had mainly confirmed Stenton's ideas), that itself was written almost thirty years ago.

Taking into account the limitations inherent in its age, Anglo-Saxon England is a truly classic history. It is intended for the interested general reader (its length would put off the casual browser), and is academic enough to be able to stand as a general reference work for a specialist. Eminently readable, learned and thorough, its main problem is a lack of source material, and that is hardly Stenton's fault. It also has a somewhat old-fashioned outlook, being mainly political and economic; if you want an account of the farming practices of the Anglo-Saxon peasant or of everyday life in a tenth century town you should look elsewhere.

Mary Stewart: The Ivy Tree (1961)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964
Review number: 643

The Ivy Tree is imaginatively centred around Josephine Tey's Brat Farrar, quite explicitly (the characters talk about using it as their textbook for what they are trying to do). Although both novels effectively give away the ending of the other - the earlier Brat Farrar more or less forcing Stewart to turn Tey's twist the other way, making it rather Hitchcockian - it probably makes most sense to read Tey's novel first. While not doing so will not make The Ivy Tree incomprehensible, it contains nuances which are unlikely to be noticed by someone not familiar with Brat Farrar.

Both novels are about impostors claiming to be lost heirs - unless they are about lost heirs pretending to be impostors for some reason. The Ivy Tree's Mary Grey is the image of Annabel Winslow, heir to the Northumberland farm of Whitescar, who ran away almost ten years ago. As a visitor to Hadrian's Wall, she meets Annabel's cousin, Con, who is acting as farm manager for her grandfather. Con and his sister believe that Annabel is dead, and that Con should inherit in return for the hard work he has put into the farm, but her grandfather refuses to believes this, and is understood to have left things in such a way that Con will be unable to use the money for investment in the farm. They come up with a scheme for Mary to pretend to be Annabel, then inherit whatever is left to her and turn it over to Con, keeping the money due Annabel from her mother's family, which will provide a reasonable amount to live on.

Compared to Brat Farrar, which maintains its suspense to the end and which is an acknowledged classic of the thriller genre, The Ivy Tree is poorly constructed. Stewart was attempting something a bit different from her usual novels - Mary Grey is no innocent caught up in something she doesn't understand - and The Ivy Tree is something of an interesting experiment that doesn't quite come off. The ending, an extended piece of action in a huge storm rather reminiscent of the weather scenes in Thomas Hardy, is implausible and slapdash.

The plot may be substandard, but the characters are among Mary Stewart's best, particularly the attractive but menacing Con, who could have escaped from a D.H. Lawrence novel. The idea behind the story also makes it one of Stewart's most interesting, though it is not one which invites re-reading like some of her others.

Tuesday 3 October 2000

Elizabeth Peters: The Camelot Caper (1969)

Edition: Severn House, 1996
Review number: 642

From the title, it would perhaps be reasonable to assume that this early Elizabeth Peters' novel is one of her silliest, but in fact it is a fairly straightfaced thriller. Jessica Tregarth has come to England on her grandfather's invitation, but is alarmed to find herself being followed around tourist spots like Salisbury Cathedral and having her luggage searched, to the point of hiding on a local bus (where the most amusing scene of the novel occurs, in whhich respectable villagers conceal her and lie inventively to the "gangsters" chasing her).

The plot is typical of the thrillers of the style perhaps best exemplified by Mary Stewart - though to a certain extent it is satirising poorer examples of this subgenre. The Camelot Caper has signs of parody - the way that successive scenes work their way through most of the best known tourist sites in South West England, for example, but it is really more lighthearted than uproarious. An enjoyable feature of the novel is the vacillation of the heroine between terror and the feeling that she is making something out of nothing, like in Northanger Abbey (a parallel she quotes).

Rudyard Kipling: Puck of Pook's Hill (1906)

Edition: Piccolo, 1975
Review number: 641

Of the classic children's books written by Rudyard Kipling, Puck of Pook's Hill has perhaps dated the most obviously. It remains a charming idea, much copied, but so much about it is a celebration of Victorian country life that in many ways it is not very relevant to the children of today. The idyllic upper class childhood of Dan and Una, full of enchanting places to play, has probably never existed outside fiction, and to be a child in the country today is little like this. (The South Downs are probably a more fun place to be a child than the Lincolnshire Fens, where I grew up, which are more like living in the middle of a gigantic factory.)

By reciting parts of a cut down version of A Midsummer Night's Dream at the appropriate time near an ancient shrine dedicated to Puck, Dan and Una unexpectedly summon up the sprite, who treats the children to a tour of the history of East Sussex (where Kipling himself lived) in which they meet a Norman knight, a Roman legionary and a medieval Jewish moneylender, who each tell the children stories of the past. (The area around Hastings and Pevensey is particularly rich in historical associations.)

The history is old fashioned and contains what are now known to be inaccuracies, but the way in which Kipling makes it exciting and alive is one of the strengths of the book. The other, which is connected, is the ability which is shared by much of his writing to create an alien world and draw the reader in, whatever their age. Faded by comparison, Puck of Pook's Hill is still a worthwhile book to introduce to a child if they have been enchanted by The Jungle Book.

Michael Pearce: The Mamur Zapt and Men Behind (1991)

Edition: William Collins, 1991
Review number: 640

Having given up waiting for the first of the Mamur Zapt novels to become available from my local library, I borrowed the third (though it's hard to tell from the unhelpful way Collins have chosen to list them at the front of the novels). I had some idea what to expect, and I was not disappointed. Perhaps a trifle less outrageous than the Dimitri novels I had previously read, The Mamur Zapt and Men Behind is still enjoyable and funny.

Set in Egypt in the early years of this century, the novels capitalise on the tension between the stabilising power of the British who ruled in all but name and the desire of the nationalists to free the country from foreign influence. The Mamur Zapt was the title of the official who ran the secret police in Cairo, and at this time was British though employed by the Egyptian government. In this particular novel, the tension is heightened during a period when the Khedive (ruler of Egypt) refuses to name a new first minister, paralysing the government. Both British and Egyptian officials are being followed and attacked as the crisis continues, and a grave situation becomes very serious when a bomb wrecks a cafe which is a haunt of student political societies.

As a detective puzzle, The Men Behind is easy to solve; Pearce is more interested in being entertaining and amusing than in providing serious intellectual relaxation.

Anne McCaffrey: Pegasus in Space (2000)

Edition: Bantam, 2000
Review number: 639

The third and last of the Pegasus series, linked very decidedly to the Tower series which follows but which were written first, Pegasus in Space remains a reasonably self-contained novel. It is about the adolescence of Peter Reidinger, an important if slightly peripheral character in the later novels.

The book is dedicated to Christopher Reeves, the Superman actor who was disabled in an accident, and is the story of how Reidinger regains his own mobility, at least in part, recovering from injuries caused when a wall collapsed on him in childhood. Its portrayal of disability is the issue at the core of the novel, and though rather trite it is a massive improvement on the picture of homosexuality given in the next most recent McCaffrey novel I have read, The Tower and the Hive. The implication that happiness comes with recovery from disability is part of Pegasus in Space; though I am sure that the vast majority of disabled people would like to become fully mobile, I am also sure that many of them experience at least a degree of happiness as they are. Pegasus in Space is clearly meant to be a "feel-good" novel, but it left me feeling rather uncomfortable.

Sunday 1 October 2000

Isaac Asimov: Pebble in the Sky (1950)

Edition: Grafton, 1986
Review number: 638

In 1949 when he was writing his first novel, Isaac Asimov had already had some success with published short stories. Pebble in the Sky shows both experience as a writer and inexperience in the longer form, as it tends to jump around rather too much for a continuous narrative to emerge. The style is basically fully developed, and (in his fictional writing) did not change a great deal over the next forty years.

In terms of the rest of Asimov's fiction, Pebble in the Sky is set in the galaxy ruled by the Galactic Empire based on Trantor whose downfall is the starting point of the Foundation trilogy. Its central character is an archaeologist, who sets out to prove the crackpot theory that Earth is the original home of mankind (the orthodox position is a form of convergent evolution). Earth is a galactic backwater, largely radioactive, ruled by a religious cult in uneasy co-existence with the Galactic authorities, a portrayal clearly based on the position of Judea in the first century Roman Empire. Any question of human origins and the source of the radioactivity is going to conflict with this cult, causing the trip to have major political repercussions.

This in itself would make an interesting story, but Asimov weakens it with his second major element. On twentieth century Earth a physics experiment goes wrong spectacularly, catapulting an unsuspecting passerby into the future. No explanation is given for what happens (which is unlike Asimov), and the presence of the time traveller is in the end used rather ineptly, as a treatment given to him to increase the learning capacity of his mind so that he can pick up the language turns him into a kind of superman. The whole of this strand of the plot is rather like a stereotype of a Marvel comic, and the original physics experiment is strikingly similar to that which kicks off E.E. "Doc" Smith's Skylark.

It is interesting that his big success of the next few years, the Foundation trilogy, is made up of shorter, pre-published elements. If I remember the chronology of Asimov's novels correctly, it was some years before Asimov wrote another novel conceived as a whole, the SF whodunit Caves of Steel.

Michael Jecks: Belladonna at Belstone (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 637

In this series, Michael Jecks has certainly been keen to show readers some of the negative aspects of medieval institutions; we've had a leper hospital, now it's a convent where lax morality is accompanied by poverty. Not all monastic establishments were hugely rich, though that is the obvious impression to be gained from what has survived - the huge scale of ruins like St Augustine's Priory, Canterbury, Thetford Priory, Fountains and Rievaulx Abbeys make it obvious what the financial reasons were which prompted the Dissolution. The establishments which have left no trace were generally far more modest, particularly convents of nuns. (Rich benefactors tended to endow establishments of men, for women would be unable to perform masses for their souls.) Belstone, a fictional abbey in a real Devonshire setting, is a place like this, a collection of dilapidated buildings upon bleak moorland.

Belstone in fact has more immediately serious problems than its poverty. The prioress, noblewoman Lady Elizabeth, and treasurer Margherita are at loggerheads and Margherita is embezzling from the priory. There are rumours of lax moral behaviour - nuns wantonly sleeping with the men who work the priory's lands and even the priest who conducts their services - which have some basis in fact. (This kind of gossip often surrounded communities of nuns, as is clear from the stories in Boccaccio's Decameron.) Then one of the novices is killed, and Margherita writes a letter to the Bishop of Exeter accusing Lady Elizabeth of murder. This prompts an investigation involving the detective partners who are the central characters of Jecks' series, Baldwin Furnshill and Simon Puttock.

The combination of the various abuses going on in Belstone priory is perhaps a little unlikely, and Jecks is a good enough writer to add some background to motivate it. In fact, Belladonna at Belstone is a very competently constructed novel. With as truly a medieval background as the rest of the series, it keeps up the high standard.