Friday 21 December 2001

T.S. Eliot: The Sacred Wood (1920)

Edition: University Paperbacks, 1960 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1022

The poetry of the past was extremely important to T.S. Eliot, and he wrote a fair amount of criticism. This is quite an early collection of essays, mainly about Elizabethan and Jacobean poetic drama. In most of them, the emphasis is on where earlier critics had gone wrong in their assessments of the significance and stature of the poets. While Eliot's writing is (unsurprisingly) insightful, this theme of re-examination and the tone in which it is carried out does make him seem very arrogant. (In the introduction to the second edition, he did say that some of his opinions had changed, without going into details about which, precisely.)

Generally, what Eliot has to say is interesting if rather academic. (Apart from anything else, there are untranslated quotations in at least three different languages.) He is particularly scathing about Gilbert Murray as a populariser of ancient literature - comparing a Greek actor speaking Euripides to an English one in his translation of Medea, he says that at least the original performer had the advantage of lines in his own language. With the concentration of the essays in general on the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, though, it is the essays on Marlowe and Jonson which are the most illuminating.

Michael Moorcock: The Black Corridor (1969)

Edition: Orion, 1996
Review number: 1021

The wonderfully atmospheric first few paragraphs of The Black Corridor immediately make it clear what the purpose of the novel is to be. Science fiction of the fifties and sixties in particular treat space travel as a glorious adventure, mankind (almost always male) against the stars. Here, though, the pioneer is a selfish, paranoid man who wants to save himself from the worldwide descent into 1984-style dystopian states.

Ryan is the only member of his family not in hibernation as the ship travels to Earth-like planets around Barnard's Star; he carries out the checks needed by the ship's systems during travel. In the meantime, he experiences nightmares about the past, to the extent that the reader begins to doubt whether the spaceship is real or the hallucination of a lunatic in an asylum.

The Black Corridor is a clever psychological study, told in the form of a classic science fiction story like those which Robert Heinlein specialised in at the time. By the way it is written, it exposes the limited assumptions about people that such stories made (though that was not their purpose - their authors sought to share their enthusiasm about space travel).

Thursday 20 December 2001

Anne McCaffrey: The Skies of Pern (2001)

Edition: Bantam, 2001
Review number: 1020

This latest Pern novel reads as though it is meant to round off the series. It is one of the most successful series of novels in science fiction, both long running and consistently high selling. The general trend has been for the novels to become more like soap opera episodes as time passes - a trend matched by the way that all of McCaffrey's output has become more homogeneous and unchallengingly predictable.

There are two main aspects to the story. The major dramatic event is a comet impact in Pern's oceans, a massive disaster. This is of course something inspired by the Schumacher-Levy impact on Jupiter, and is a dramatic yet extremely unlikely event. McCaffrey cites impressive technical assistance with the impact description, including oceanographic analysis of tsunami patterns based on the geography of Pern. The sort of panic this event can generate is shown by the way that governments have financed research to try to prevent it happening on Earth, while less dramatic but far more likely scenarios are much less sexy ways to spend money. (To be fair, it is relatively easy to see how to attack the problem of astronomical impacts, compared to, say, making the world's roads safe, or persuading Americans that spending a few minutes going through airport security is a worthwhile precaution.)

The other theme, continued from Masterharper of Pern, is the attacks of the Abominators, violent opponents of the changes brought by the information stored in Aivas, the computer which had survived from the original colonisation of Pern. People oppose technological advances for all kinds of reasons, but in her simplistic depiction of these Luddites as not too bright traditionalists, McCaffrey is going against the trends of the modern world. Rather than feeling that all advances are, by definition, evil, current unease about technology is partly due to the perception of past failures to correctly forecast and allow for the results of new applications of science (such as the link between increased burning of fossil fuels and global warning), and also apprehension at the dangers inherent in what we can do now or will soon be able to do, given the human race's past lack of restraint - I'm thinking of nuclear weapons and developments in genetics and biotechnology. It seems to me that fear for the future is a perfectly reasonable - and, indeed, intelligent - emotion to feel, especially as the sort of leaders the world has are not really such as to inspire much confidence.

This is, of course unlike the situation on Pern. There, rather unrealistically, de facto world rulers F'lar and Lessa have managed to be right in every crisis through the entire series of novels; their opponents have always turned out to be too wedded to tradition or to have their own agendas which are usually about personal power rather than the good of people generally, the motive of the two dragonriders. This is the sort of thing which makes this series less significant than it might be; easy to read, but not very deep.

Josephine Tey: To Love and Be Wise (1950)

Edition: Pan, 1959 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1019

I would defy anyone to work out the solution to the mystery in this novel, unless they have this particular Pan edition - it has an extremely poorly thought out cover picture which gives the whole thing away. (Therefore, no cover picture.)

American photographer Leslie Searle turns up at a London literary party, seeking out popular broadcaster Walter Whitmore, with whom he claims mutual acquaintances. Staying with him in the country, Searle makes quite an impression on the local community, especially on Whitmore's fiancée. Despite the jealousy this causes, the two men decide to collaborate on a book about the local river, travelling from its source to the sea by canoe. When Searle disappears, he is thought to have drowned in the river, his body lost; it looks like murder with no shortage of suspects, even if Whitmore is the main contender.

Tey's detective, Alan Grant, is shared between five of her eight crime novels, and is a neglected great of the genre. In this novel, his usual character seems to have been overcome with something of Campion, though this is partly because the setting is very reminiscent of Allingham - an artists' retreat in Suffolk (Orfordshire, as it is called here).

Wednesday 19 December 2001

C.S. Lewis: The Great Divorce (1945)

Edition: Fontana, 1977
Review number: 1017

One of the fruits of Blake's unorthodox theology was the series of engravings entitled The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, which (according to the arguments accompanying the plates) depict Swedenborgian universalist ideas - the salvation of every human being. Lewis, on the other hand, wrote The Great Divorce to illustrate how different heaven and hell are in his more orthodox Protestant theology, and to say something about the ways in which he believed a soul would end up in one or the other.

Although The Great Divorce is not a pure allegory (as is the much less successful The Pilgrim's Regress), it contains allegorical elements. The basic idea is that the inhabitants of hell - depicted as an endless, dreary town - are able to make a day trip to heaven. There, they seem so insubstantial that to walk on the solid grass is extremely painful; and there, those they knew when alive try to persuade them to remain, which they can do if they turn to God rather than concentrating on themselves.

Self-centredness is viewed here as the common factor in turning away from God, and the encounters in The Great Divorce are basically a series of elaborations of the forms that this vice could take. Lewis doesn't take the space to be particularly subtle or to do more than sketch in situation and personality in each case, but many of the discussions are quite memorable. Less interesting is the explanation of what is happening by the soul of George MacDonald, chosen by Lewis to be his guide to the spiritual realm as Dante did Virgil.

Though the ideas here are good, the limited range of examples chosen by Lewis - mainly to point readers away from the common idea that the worst crimes are the public ones like murder - means that The Great Divorce cannot be the best of Lewis' fiction.

Nikolai Tolstoy: The Coming of the King (1988)

Edition: Corgi, 1989
Review number: 1018

This novel, the first of a projected trilogy which hasn't yet appeared (and probably never will), made quite a stir among my more literary friends when I was a student. As Arthurian fantasy goes, it is unique in several ways, and, while tedious in places, it is generally engrossing.

The title leads the reader to expect a Sword in the Stone scenario, with Merlin tutoring the boy Arthur, but in fact Tolstoy has completely separated the two characters, making the king precede the wizard by about fifty years. The king of the title is not Arthur, but an even later ruler who, at the beginning of the novel, goes to Merlin's grave to consult with the ghost of the enchanter.

The Coming of the King is one of the most difficult novels about the Celtic Dark Ages to read, making almost no concession to the modern reader. Names and, frequently, concepts such as fate are given only in Celtic forms, and then not even in the ones most likely to be familiar to readers. There is a pronunciation guide, but no glossary. Forms of Celtic literature are imitated in ways which are sometimes disconcerting or off-putting (it certainly helps if you have read, say, the Mabinogion). In one way, this is a virtue: it makes the novel atmospherically Celtic; but The Coming of the King is not an easy read. (Traditional tales from other cultures are also worked in, including Beowulf and a touch of the Kalevala; these borrowings are more interesting to catalogue than to read.)

The best sections of this novel are the least portentous: the amusing story of Merlin as a precocious baby and the exciting siege of Deinerth. This is where Tolstoy forgets that he is writing mythology and gets carried along by his own story. (To try too hard to produce mythology is a common fault in modern fantasy authors, one which is an annoying legacy of Tolkien's influence. Even if there is something in the reader which is stirred by the epic ideas, this is stifled when these are expressed in turgid prose.)

Tolstoy went on to become involved in one of the bigger libel cases of the 1990s, when he was sued after suggesting that British officers handed over Yugoslav resistance fighters to Tito after the end of the war knowing that they would be massacred. The second and third books of this trilogy seem to have been forgotten in the stress of the massive damages awarded against Tolstoy; a pity. The Coming of the King, as a result, stands as a unique and different Arthurian fantasy, and this alone is a considerable achievement.

Tuesday 18 December 2001

Marion Zimmer Bradley & Holly Lisle: Glenraven (1996)

Edition: Baen Books, 1997
Review number: 1016

One of the perennial difficulties for the fantasy novelist who wants to involve earthly characters is how to take them to the scene of the action. (Once there, they pay the author back by requiring explanations of what is around them, making exposition easier and seemingly more natural.) I don't recall the precise device used in Glenraven occurring anywhere else, however, and it is always nice to see something new.

When Jayjay's marriage breaks up, she finds a travel guide to the tiny European country of Glenraven in a bookstore. She has never heard of it, but it sounds enchanting; she and a friend go there together. In fact, Glenraven is a magical kingdom, and Jayjay and Sophie have been summoned as the heroes to save it from an evil ruler who is destroying it. That means that the two of them are not going to have quite the holiday they expected...

In recent fantasy, the most similar scenario to that of Glenraven is that of Terry Brooks' Magic Kingdom For Sale - Sold. Glenraven is not as lightweight as that novel, and doesn't exploit its subject for humorous purposes. (It does make a dig at much of the fantasy genre for minimising the squalor and misery inherent in the medieval setting.) The novels draws on the strengths of both writers, as a collaboration should, Bradley softening the brutality sometimes present in Lisle's work while gaining more of an edge. Glenraven also has a feminist agenda; it is in the still unusual position of having female heroes (and the cover picture interestingly suggests that this is not the case). This is an enjoyable novel which deserves to be better known.

Mary Stewart: The Wicked Day (1983)

Edition: Fawcett Crest, 1984 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1015

"The wicked day of destiny" is how Malory described the battle of Camlann, at which Arthur was victorious but was mortally wounded by his traitorous son Mordred. The tragic ending of the story interested the medieval mind more than it does our own, with our cultural yearning for the cosy, happy ending; and this is why today's retellings tend not to concentrate on the event which gave Malory the title for his whole poem, the Morte d'Arthur.

There are certain inconsistencies in the traditional portrayal of an evil Mordred, and Stewart in this novel has attempted to smooth some of them out, at the same time softening the ending. As a central character, he brings more life to The Wicked Day than there is in any of Stewart's Arthurian novels since The Crystal Cave. He is made an ambitious but not wicked young man, misled by false reports of Arthur's death to take the crown rather than taking advantage of the king's absence to rebel. My feeling is that this should make the ending more tragic, but in fact it isn't; this is mainly because it is not sufficiently real to be affecting.

The let down of the ending is one of the problems of The Wicked Day; it also suffers from repeating too much of earlier writers. While it would be virtually impossible to write an Arthurian fantasy that wasn't derivative in some way, much of the characterisation of the children of Morgause (Mordred along with Lot's four sons) is taken pretty much directly from T.H. White. Stewart is a bit more explicit about incestuous desire than White could be, but the psychology (particularly of the twins Agravaine and Gaheris) is identical. This is important, because the five of them are the most important characters in the novel, not excluding Arthur himself.

Thursday 13 December 2001

William Boyd: Armadillo (2000)

Edition: Penguin, 1999
Review number: 1014

The world of insurance is not really a very exciting one, but Boyd has managed to make it so in his novel about fraud and pretence. It concentrates on the profession which clearly has the greatest propensity for drama within the field, the insurance adjuster (who checks whether big claims that worry insurance companies are valid - leading here to suicides, death threats and assaults).

The central character is Lorimer Black, who starts the novel by discovering the body of a hanged man, driven to suicide by an insurance company's unwillingness to pay, is perhaps the most honest character in the novel, and he has created an entire new background for himself, disassociating himself from his Romanian origins. The plot is very complicated, but not too much so for enjoyment - the novel has made it to TV in a virtually unsimplified form without being impossible to follow.

Armadillo is a very well written, darkly funny novel, hopefully typical of Boyd, who is now going on my list of authors to read more from.

E.L. Doctorow: Loon Lake (1980)

Edition: Random House, 1980 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1013

One of Doctorow's more experimental novels, Loon Lake presents a bewildering collection of different techniques: traditional narratives, stream of consciousness, poetry. It is also a novel which continually reminds the reader of others, possibly an easy way for an author to put himself in the tradition of the great American novel; among those which are brought to mind are The Grapes of Wrath and the USA trilogy.

Loon Lake, a retreat for millionaire industrialist F.W. Bennett in the 1920s, is the central setting of the novel. Young hobo Joe turns up there, entranced by a woman seen through the windows of a private railway carriage. There too is poet Warren Penfield, Bennett's pensioner; as the novel follows Joe's path after he meets Bennett and leaves Loon Lake, so too in parallel it describes Penfield's journey there. (The mixed up chronology contributes to the experimental feeling of the novel.)

A difficult read, with even the most traditional parts of the narrative flipping between first and third person, Loon Lake is also atmospheric and interesting for a reader prepared to make the effort.

Wednesday 12 December 2001

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Returns (1969)

Edition: Hodder Paperbacks, 1970
Review number: 1012

The set up for this book is identical to that of its predecessor, The Saint on TV; so much so, in fact, that the foreword explaining that it contains scenarios reworked from the TV series is repeated verbatim. This has its ludicrous side, as it attributes the story ideas to John Kruse whereas the first is actually by D.R. Motton.

This particular story seems far-fetched even for the Saint. Simon Templar rescues a beautiful girl from two heavies, and she tells him that she is Mildred Hitler, daughter of Adolf, brought up in an Irish convent where the Mother Superior was the sister of a high ranking Nazi official, currently escaping neo-Nazis who kidnapped her to make her the figurehead for their movement. The point of the story is to work out what is really going on before the writer (Fleming Lee) explains; this isn't too difficult, and The Dizzy Daughter is not one of the better TV adaptations.

The Gadget Lover is no more convincing, but much more enjoyable. Someone has been hijacking Russian secret service equipment, so that (for example) hidden cameras explode when the last exposure is taken, killing the user. Simon becomes involved in their investigation, naturally entangling himself with a beautiful KGB officer. Taken from one of the fastest moving TV episodes, it becomes one of the best adaptations.

Theodore Dreiser: Sister Carrie (1900)

Edition: 4literature -
Review number: 1011

At first, Sister Carrie seems to be a conventional novel in a nineteenth century mould, the story of a young woman who comes to the big city of Chicago to seek a life which is better than that of her upbringing. She stays with her sister while looking for work, at first in department stores but then in dressmakers after her lack of experience tells against her.

Things become decidedly more modern when Carrie is taken up by a fairly wealthy man, and goes to live with him as though they were married. She does this basically because her work is unfulfilling and her sister and brother in law dull to live with; Drouet offers her a greater freedom. In fact, Carrie spends the whole novel trying to find happiness by casting off the conventions of late nineteenth century American life.

Carrie's family are not very important in the novel; the title doesn't really refer to her relationship with her sister, who is hardly mentioned once she moves in with Drouet. Instead, I think it is inteded to say to the reader, "This could be your sister!" Carrie yearns to be free and to be happy, but she is forced into dull domesticity or boring uncongenial work if she remains within the conventional limits of respectable society. I don't know if this was Dreiser's intention, but to today's reader, Sister Carrie seems to be an early feminist novel.

Holly Lisle: The Courage of Falcons (2000)

Edition: Gollancz, 2001
Review number: 1010

The culmination of Lisle's Secret Texts fantasy trilogy is really rather predictable. The major events of the novel have been extensively prepared in the first two volumes, and she sticks to the conventions of the genre more than before, so that there are no eleventh hour surprises.

Much of the effort Lisle has put into the series has gone into setting up the situation in the first two novels, particularly into the atmospheric Diplomacy of Wolves, so that the unwinding of the plot is not a major disappointment.

Tuesday 11 December 2001

Michael Moorcock: The Ice Schooner (1966-1985)

Edition: Orion, 1996
Review number: 1009

Although part of the general repackaging of Moorcock's fantasy output around the Eternal Champion theme, The Ice Schooner is not really that closely linked to the other novels. Having a hero and a quest is not really enough; there are few novels in the genre by any author which would share these common elements.

The much revised novel is set in a future Ice Age, so severe that oceans of ice cover almost the entire surface of the Earth. On these frozen wastes sail great ship-like wind powered sledges, hunting the land whales evolved from the sea creatures of our own time. Konrad Arflane is captain of such a vessel fallen on hard times until he rescues a dying man out on the remote ice. He turns out to be the ruler of an important city, but more relevantly to the plot, he gives Arflane a quest, to find the fabled lost city of New York, a vision, in his daughter, and a ship, a great ice schooner, to captain. The voyage to New York is the quest at the centre of the novel, as Arflane and Ulrica fall in love even in the presence of her husband.

The Ice Schooner is quite a minor piece of early Moorcock, even with the later revisions. Its apocalyptic setting is clearly influenced by the ecological disaster novels of J.G. Ballard, but it lacks the satirical edge. In fact, it is an enjoyable piece of straightforward fantasy with an unusual setting.

J.D. Robb: Holiday in Death (1999)

Edition: Berkley, 1998
Review number: 1008

From almost the very start of crime fiction as a recognised genre, detective stories have been produced which bring murder into the context of Christmas festivities. There are novels by Christie and Marsh which do this, though Robb is clearly more closely following the example of Ed McBain. The homicide and suicide rates do increase around Christmas time, which is a stressful time for many people, but that isn't the only reason why such novels are produced. There is of course the obvious commercial reason, that a Christmas theme ties in to the highest sales period, but there is also some fascination in the idea of violence marring the season of goodwill. In this novel, Eve Dallas is combining the search for a serial killer dressed in a Santa suit who gives his victims jewellery with themes from the successive verses of the Twelve Days of Christmas with gearing up to celebrate her first festive season as wife of billionaire Roarke.

The Christmas theme makes Holiday in Death a bit different from the earlier novels in this enjoyable series, but generally it is the mixture as before.

Friday 7 December 2001

Andrew M. Greeley: Contract With An Angel (1998)

Edition: Tor, 1999
Review number: 1006

The Faust story is about a man who makes a contract with the devil, selling his soul for magic powers and the caresses of Helen of Troy. In this novel, unscrupulous businessman Raymond Needham makes a contract with an angel, who appears to him on a nearly disastrous plane journey, in which he undertakes to follow angelic guidance for the salvation of his soul. There is a tendency for stories involving angels to be rather sentimental (several films could easily be cited as support for this), and though Contract With an Angel is no exception, it is an enjoyable read.

Though Greeley is a Roman Catholic priest, his depiction of angels in his novels is not totally orthodox; but this has little direct effect on this particular story, even if his depiction of God as at least partially female might offend hidebound traditionalists. The angelic purpose is worked out almost entirely through Needham's attempts to restore broken relationships within his family; he is not successful in every case but manages to satisfy the demands of his guardians without much backsliding. (If neither of these statements were true, Contract With an Angel might have been a more literary novel, but probably less enjoyable.) Light and likely to leave a silly grin on the reader's face, Contract With an Angel makes an ideal pick-me-up.

Josephine Tey: Brat Farrar (1949)

Edition: Penguin, 1980
Review number: 1007

Tey's famous novel takes a theme common in Gothic fiction, impersonation of an heir, and creates a mystery story which more or less renders the idea unusable in the future without reference to her writing. Brat Farrar is a foundling who has been working on a ranch in the States; returning to the England where he grew up, he is accosted by a stranger. Alec Loding at first believed him to be his cousin Patrick Ashby, the heir to the family estate who had gone missing seven years earlier. Now he would be about to come of age, and once Loding believes that Brat (a corruption of Bartholemew) is not Patrick he comes up with an audacious plan to train him in every aspect of Patrick's life so that he could turn up and take the farm from his younger twin brother Simon.

While most of the Ashby family accept Brat as Patrick, Simon seems certain that he cannot be, not because of his resentment or because he has caught him out but for some other reason which seems to Brat to be not just menacing but slightly ominous, clearly connected to the reason for Patrick's disappearance. Brat's feelings about this are contrasted throughout the novel with his growing appreciation of becoming part of a family, and this is one of the reasons why Brat Farrar is so successful.

The reader knows from the start that Brat is an impostor, and so the interest of the novel lies in two areas: we want to know what happened to the real Patrick Ashby, and we want to know if Brat can carry off the deception. It is a far fetched story, but Tey makes it fascinating and believeable; and that is why this is a great thriller.

Thursday 6 December 2001

Roger Zelazny: The Dream Master (1966)

The Dream Master coverEdition: iBooks, 2001
Review number: 1005

Psychiatric care in the future is not a particularly common theme in science fiction, possibly because even though it has developed rapidly through the twentieth century it seems that many of its fundamental precepts are not yet very strongly established - so how can we guess what ideas and techniques will be available in the future? One idea that does seem clear is that dreams play some vital role, both in diagnosis and as part of the mind's own healing process.

So Zelazny's central character, Charles Render, is a dream shaper: his therapy consists of participating in and controlling to an extent the dreams of his patients. Too strong a psychosis or abnormal desire in the subject can overwhelm the mind of the therapists, but he hardly hesitates before embarking on the greatest challenge of his career. Eileen Shallot is also a psychiatric doctor, who comes to him wanting to be trained to become a shaper herself. The problem is that she is congenitally blind, and is at least partly driven by a desire to share the vision of those she will treat. Render needs to giver her therapy to overcome her anxiety about vision, showing her the world, at the same time dealing with the resentment of her guide dog, a genetically modified Alsatian with greatly enhanced intelligence who thinks that his mistress will cease to need him.

The major strengths of the novel are the powerful theme of the desire for sight, the unusual concentration on psychiatry, and the depiction of the dreams shared by Render and Shallot. Only one of them fails to work well, a recreation of a Walt Whitman poem which is a rather dull catalogue of visual images. Even if it is always a little strange to read a science fiction novel set at a date now past (1998), The Dream Master remains unusual and a powerful classic of the genre.

Wednesday 5 December 2001

Jean Anouilh: Colombe (1951)

Translation: Dennis Cannan, 1951
Edition: Methuen, 1959 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1004

Like Ardèle, which accompanies it in this Methuen volume, Columbe is about the right to freedom of expression. The young woman in the title role seems content to be the wife of aspiring and penniless musician Jean, until his call-up papers arrive. Then they are forced to ask his estranged mother, a famous actress, for help, which she gives them by providing Colombe with a part in the production in which she is starring.

This act, and the absence of her husband, brings Colombe into contact with a completely different world, full of men paying her compliments, full of expensive gifts and, above all, full of fun. Is this more important than dutiful devotion to her husband, his art, and their baby (which she seems quite grateful to be able to afford to pass on to a childminder)? Her new life also includes Jean's half-brother Paul, who is the opposite of Jean and to whom she is strongly attracted.

Colombe is remarkable for the way in which the character of the mother is drawn so quickly and skilfully, even though like the others (in what is after all quite a short play) she contains liberal amounts of stereotype. It is not among Anouilh's more profound plays, but is no doubt extremely effective on stage.

Kate Ellis: An Unhallowed Grave (1999)

Edition: Piatkus, 2000
Review number: 1003

There are, perhaps, a rather limited number of ways to connect archaeology to a murder mystery. You could have archaeologists discover a modern body, or a member of a dig could be killed, or be an investigator, or they could find an old body whose history parallels a modern crime, or they could be in the area where a completely independent crime takes place. I have read novels using all the first four ideas, if not the last. The way that Ellis' series of detective novels is set up means that they will quickly become repetitive, and she is not quite a good enough writer to ring the changes on the details.

This particular novel uses the fourth scenario, along with the use of the third, which is generic to the series, having as investigator an archaeologist turned policeman. In a Devon village, a woman is found dead, an apparent suicide hanging from the boughs of a yew tree in the churchyard. It is quickly established, however, that she had been at least partially strangled before the hanging - hands leaving a different pattern of marks on the neck from a rope. At about the same time, the skeleton of a medieval woman is found in a rescue dig at a potential housing development on the edge of the village; she had been rather more professionally hanged.

An Unhallowed Grave is enjoyable, even if the reader never loses the feeling that it is far fetched as the parallels between events now and in the fifteenth century are developed.

Tuesday 4 December 2001

Jean Anouilh: Ardèle (1948)

Translation: Lucienne Hill, 1950 (original title Ardèle ou la Marguerite)
Edition: Methuen, 1959 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1002

Ardèle is a tragic idea written in the form of a slightly absurdist French bedroom farce. Its central character is never seen or heard on the stage, which is another unusual feature. It is set in a château where a family conference has been called to discuss what can be done about Ardèle, the old maid of the family. A hunchback from her youth, she scandalises her relations when she and the new tutor, also a hunchback, fall in love.

This is an entirely hypocritical reaction, as every other family member is openly having an affair. (The exception is the General's wife, who never emerges from her room and whose periodic calling for her husband is dismissed as insanity.) Knowing that her future is under discussion, Ardèle has locked herself in her room and refuses to come out, despite the arguments made through the keyhole of her door.

The meaning with the play is connected to the right to have personal freedom, to love and be ones true self. Ardèle shocks the other characters not because of the social distance between her and the tutor, but because they have never considered her a fit person to love or be loved. Ardèle's passion is clearly far more deeply felt than the bedroom-shuffling antics of the rest of the family, and even evoked only through the words of the others she comes across the better deserving of the freedom to love.

Saturday 1 December 2001

John D. Barrow: The Universe That Discovered Itself (1987, 2000)

Edition: Oxford, 2000 (revision of The World Within the World, 1987)
Review number: 1001

Barrow's book, an updated version of The World Within the World, is a philosophical look at the history of science and contemporary scientific ideas with a rather unusual slant. It takes a list of nine statements about the laws of science and how they relate to the underlying reality of the universe, and then sees a general trend up to the work of Newton to establish these statements, followed in the twentieth century by the opposite trend with the development of new theoretical frameworks very different from the Newtonian one. These statements are things like "Space and time exist" or "The world can be described by mathematics", and are a set of basic philosophical assumptions about the universe, informing scientists' attitudes to physical theories.

The Universe That Discovered Itself is aimed at the experienced reader of popular science. Even though brief explanations are given, it would be difficult to follow without a previous acquaintance with relativity, quantum mechanics, string theory, and the anthropic principle among other ideas. With a familiarity with these concepts and an interest in the philosophical, there is much pleasure to be obtained from the book. The title refers to the thought that we, as part of the universe, have discovered a great deal about it, and is particularly appropriate given the quite lengthy discussion of the role of the observer in quantum mechanics and particularly quantum cosmology.

The presentation is typical of Barrow, with each section enlivened by interesting and frequently amusing quotations, including the following anecdote. In an Oxford physics viva in the 1890s, a student was asked to define electricity. His response was that he did know but had forgotten, to which the examiner drily replied, "How very unfortunate. Only two persons have ever known what electricity is, the Author of Nature and yourself. Now one of them has forgotten".

I'm not sure how radical a revision was made to the earlier book, and there are some sections which seem to be less up to date than others, which is a pity. Still, I found The Universe That Discovered Itself a fascinating exploration of the philosophy behind modern physics.

Wednesday 28 November 2001

Robert Louis Stevenson: Catriona (1893)

Original title: David Balfour
Edition: William Heinemann, 1924 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1000

When reading Kidnapped, it seems as though all the loose ends are tied up; but as soon as you move on to the sequel, it becomes clear that a large gap has been left. This is that no move has been made to clear the name of Alan Breck Stewart of the Appin murder, which David Balfour witnessed in Stevenson's earlier novel.

Unlike the earlier story, Catriona is a love story rather than a thriller, as David falls for the daughter of a rogue. Stevenson concentrates on the character of David; Catriona Drummond is pretty much a typical Victorian heroine. More interesting is her mischievous friend, Barbara Grant, and the introductory note by Stevenson's wife records that he found it difficult for her not to gradually become the heroine. (It also records that the original title of the novel caused confusion, as people thought it was just a new edition of Kidnapped under the name of its hero.)

Catriona is a satisfying sequel, even if, like many such, it would not be a great novel if read on its own.

C.S Lewis: Screwtape Proposes a Toast (1965)

Edition: Fontana, 1965 (Order from Amazon)
Review number: 999

This collection of generally hard to obtain but previously published pieces by Lewis was the last book he worked on before his death. There is no unifying theme; most of it consists of sermons and talks delivered over a period of around fifteen years.

The title piece is rather different, being - as its name indicates - a follow-up to The Screwtape Letters in which the demon Screwtape is addressing the graduation dinner of the Tempter's College. Screwtape being Lewis' most famous creation, with the possible exception of Aslan, people continually pressured him to write a sequel to the Letters, which he resisted doing for several reasons. The obvious one is that he felt that the idea of diabolical letters was exhausted, but more interestingly he had been alarmed to find how easily he was able to assume the demonic point of view. The idea that he did think of producing as a sequel was to write an equivalent from a guardian angel's point of view, but he felt he couldn't do justice to this (and I suspect that it would have been less interesting in the same way that Paradise Lost is more striking than Paradise Regained).

None of the pieces match up in terms of quality of writing to the rest of Lewis' theological output, but the collection manages to be thought provoking in places, particularly when it challenges the underlying assumptions which came to be commonplace during the twentieth century.

Alastair Reynolds: Revelation Space (2000)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000
Review number: 998

Reynold's debut novel is billed on its cover as "the first great science fiction novel of the century". Leaving aside pedantic dissections of this based on its date of publication, this is only a little over the top; it is one of the best attempts to combine hard science fiction with intelligent characterisation that I have read, and it contains a fascinating depiction of life a few hundred years in the future that is much more unlike our own than many writers ever manage.

The story starts off, as several science fiction novels have before, at an archaeological dig into alien artefacts from a vanished race. This is a fertile beginning, and related scenarios have produced wildly different stories (as Dan Simmons' Hyperion, Frederick Pohl's Gateway and Paul J. McAuley's Four Hundred Billion Stars testify). In this case, the Amarantin were a birdlike people who were wiped out by some kind of anomalous event in their star, but they have left tantalising clues that somehow a pre-technological people had actually mastered space flight.

The dig, run by the leader of a colony on the Amarantin planet set up for the purpose, runs into trouble when dissension among the colonists leads to a coup. This leader, Dan Sylvestre, is a member of a powerful family, who is, in the other main facets of the plot, being pursued by an assassin and by the crew of an Iain M. Banks - like spaceship who want him for the medical knowledge contained in a computer simulation of his father. (The relationship between Dan and his father is very complicated, and is central to the depiction of the main character.)

This excellent novel paints a convincing picture of a possible future, of some of the ways in which humanity might change. In five hundred years, people will be at least as incomprehensible to use as our way of life would be to an Elizbethan, but not many science fiction authors make much of this. Indeed, given the speed of current developments in the biological and computer sciences, the sort of advances depicted by Reynolds and their psychological consequences may well be with us sooner than this.

Wednesday 21 November 2001

Mary Stewart: The Last Enchantment (1979)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1979
Review number: 997

Many modern adaptations of the Arthurian legends have a tendency to flag and fade as they move towards their end. The reason that this happens, I suspect, is connected to the current fashion for putting Merlin at the centre of the story, when his place in the legends is virtually over with Arthur's accession of the throne. Then, the initiative shifts, and considerable changes would be needed to make him remain the most interesting hero. He is involved less and less before falling prey to Nimue, in what is the most interesting legend about his later life.

Mary Stewart does her best, but suffers from this problem as much as other authors who have used a similar approach. The best part of the novel is towards the end, as Merlin tells of his experience of illness and near death. Stewart might have been better off editing her material down from a trilogy to a pair of novels, because the second one, The Hollow Hills, also fails to set the imagination alight.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint on TV (1968)

Edition: Pan, 1970 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 996

After two series of The Saint TV programme, there was no more suitable material remaining among the Saint stories written in the previous thirty five or so years. This may seem a little strange, considering the vast amount that Charteris had written, but there are good reasons why so little was reusable. The initial agreement had been that no new stories were to be developed, and the decision to make each fifty minute episode self-contained was a major limitation. Other decisions were to cut out permanent companions (and Patricia Holm or Hoppy Uniatz occur pretty frequently), and to ignore easily datable tales, which makes all the wartime stories and some of those from previous years unusable. Budgetary constraits were quite stringent, ruling out stories with easily identifiable exotic locations. So, as he explains in the introduction, enough money was offered to overcome Charteris' scruples, resulting in the stories chosen here, two of the most memorable of all the TV episodes. Both are stories originally by John Cruse, adapted by Fleming Lee; the screenplays were by John Cruse and Harry W. Junkin.

The better story is the first, The Death Game. Here, Simon Templar gets involved in a student craze for simulated assassination, and discovers that it is an orchestrated front for the recruitment of real killers by a criminal organisation. In the other story, he is contacted by a furious sculptor who is convinced that the Saint has seduced his girlfriend; when Simon goes to visit this man and try to find out what has really happened, the artist is murdered in front of his eyes and attempts are made to frame him for the killing.

By choosing two of the best stories from the series, this collection is able to match up to the bulk of Charteris' output; it is one of the best of all the postwar Saint books.

Tuesday 20 November 2001

Michael Moorcock: London Bone (2001)

Edition: Scribner, 2001
Review number: 995

In Moorcock's earlier short story collection, The Opium General, the title story was by no means the lengthiest item. The same is true here, but London Bone dominates the collection (in terms of quality and memorability) and deserves to provide the title. (There is also a marketing reason for using it as the title, which is the connection it establishes with Mother London, one of Moorcock's best and most successful novels.)

The story London Bone is set in a near future, and is narrated by a speculator who finances West End shows, temporarily suffering a setback because of a collapse in the popularity of Andrew Lloyd Webber. He becomes involved in a new venture, the supply of an incredibly beautiful material initially thought to be mammoth bone from a London building site. It is eventually shown to be human bone, transformed by lime, London clay, and seepages of raw sewage. The story is about the effect that the nostalgia trade has on London, as it cannibalises its past, selling the bones of its ancestors and destroying the soul of the city. It is a powerful and memorable story.

The long story in the collection, The Cairene Purse, is set in Egypt, again in the fairly near future. A western engineer is searching for his sister in Aswan, on a Nile virtually abandoned by tourists because of pollution, the destruction of most of the monuments and their replacement by Disney-built replicas at desert resorts far from the impoverished mass of the Egyptian population. Atmospheric and thought provoking, it is nonetheless not as significant a story as London Bone, perhaps partly because of the length, which feels a touch over extended for the story's ideas.

The Cairene Purse is an odd one out in the collection, for even though not all the other stories are set in London (Doves in the Circle is in New York), they share a metropolitan background which is as well realised as the fantasy backgrounds which were the staple of Moorcock's earlier career. The stories also share a nostalgia for an earlier age, particularly London before or just after the war and certainly before Thatcher, a politician viewed by Moorcock as the destroyer of the essence of her country. Typically for Moorcock, cross references to his other stories abound, characters such as the Cornelius brothers frequently being mentioned in passing.

The best of the stories not yet mentioned is the second, whose title, London Blood, makes it a companion to London Bone. This story, an anecdote of pre war South London, is the most like the novel Mother London. There is really, though, no great connection between these stories and the novel, and London Bone

Thursday 15 November 2001

Anthony Trollope: The Prime Minister (1875-6)

Edition: Oxford, 1983
Review number: 994

The fifth Palliser novel is one of Trollope's longer, and, as is customary in the series, combines its political plotlines with a romantic subplot, the political plot relating to the other parts of the series and the romantic one specific to this novel. The latter is more interesting than the time spent by Plantagenet Palliser, Duke of Omnium, as Prime Minister, even if it is that which provides the novel's title. The most memorable aspect of the Palliser Ministry is that its leader is reluctant and does not enjoy his position at all.

In the other plot, Trollope introduces a scoundrel rather like Melmotte in The Way We Live Now. Ferdinand Lopez is a penniless adventurer who uses other people's money in dangerous speculation; even worse, to some of the characters, is that he is foreign and Jewish despite a façade of the English gentleman. (Trollope has occasionally been accused of anti-Semitism because of characters like Lopez, but he was interested in the reactions of society to Jews rather than in attacking them.) He manages to marry an heiress, the innocent Emily Wharton, against the wishes of her family, but eventually his schemes overreach themselves when he runs as a candidate for Parliament. What is interesting about his character is that as an outsider he doesn't understand conventions of society, but that he continually attributes his failures to the enmity and bad faith of others, and thus the results of his actions bring out the worst in him.

The structure of the novel is dominated by Lopez, but in the end the conventional happy outworking of the Lopez/Wharton plot is subdued by the fall of the Palliser Ministry. This makes it one of Trollope's better novels, but the many references to the earlier members of the Palliser series mean that it shouldn't be read on its own.

Wednesday 14 November 2001

Philip K. Dick: The Zap Gun (1965)

Edition: Grafton, 1975 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 993

Philip K. Dick had two concerns which appear over and over again in his novels, the meaning of humanity and the chance or occult motivation of events. The second theme is of primary importance here. The idea of the novel is that the arms race is effectively over, but that those not in the know ("pursaps" as opposed to "cogs") need to be persuaded that weapons research is still going on. So there has arisen a "weapons fashion industry", which each week comes up with a design, which is shown in action on TV (against androids; none of the weapons really work) and then elaborately "ploughshared" - turned into some peaceful gadget. The weapons designers get their ideas acting as mediums in trances, which is where the occult motivation of events comes in.

The crisis comes when Earth is invaded by aliens and suddenly real weapons are required - weapons which the pursaps believe to be already in existence. Or is this what is happening - the only source of information about what is going on (cities disappearing after satellites appear in orbit) is a toy designer who appears to have travelled in time from the future with a warning.

The extremely trashy title may have prevented this novel, which with its theme of the alien slavers is a satire on the pulp science fiction genre, being one of Dick's better known, but it is easily up to the high standard regularly reached by his fiction. It lacks the punch of his biggest classics, but doesn't fall far short.

James Thurber: Thurber Country (1953)

Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 992

The essays in this collection, mainly written for the New Yorker in the early fifties, are typical of Thurber's gently satirical humour. Though some now seem rather dated, particularly in terms of the depiction of women, most are still very funny. Thurber had an unerring eye for little absurdities - a typical example being his dissection of the reading of lists of famous people who share a particular day as their birthday on local radio stations - and a wonderful fund of anecdotes.

While humour based on the absurdities of society is generally a transient thing - cartoons from nineteenth century magazines are uniformly unamusing today - Thurber's vision has lasted better than most, and collections of his writing are still worth reading.

Tuesday 13 November 2001

Josephine Tey: The Franchise Affair (1948)

Edition: Penguin, 1951
Review number: 991

The Franchise Affair may be Tey's best known novel (it is probably a toss up between it and Brat Farrar). It takes a famous eighteenth century crime and updates it into the twentieth century, and it may well be the most famous crime novel which doesn't involve a death.

The Franchise is the name of a house which stands on its own on a main road, and which is inhabited by the Sharpes, mother and daughter. Their quite life is suddenly interrupted when a sixteen year old girl makes a serious accusation against them - that they kidnapped her and imprisoned her in their attic, where she was systematically beaten over a period of a month. Her story is corroborated by her knowledge of the interior of the Franchise, a house which the Sharpes say she has never entered.

The story is told from the point of view of the Sharpes' solicitor, who is more used to the duller kind of work which would be expected of a small market town solicitor, mainly wills and conveyancing. It is thus assumed throughout that the girl is lying and that the aim is to prove it, by showing what she was doing in the missing month and how she came to know about the interior of the Franchise. Tey comes up with ingenious solutions to both of these problems though they have the flaw that they rely on twentieth century technology and so couldn't solve the equivalent problems for the eighteenth century version of the mystery.

One of the major themes of the novel is how it is impossible to know the truth about what is reported in the media, illustrated by the way that a tabloid takes up the girl's story and the misinformed comment in a liberal magazine which follows. While Tey takes things a little far to make her point - surely there must be some causes of this type which deserve to benefit from media publicity (child abuse scandals in children's homes are perhaps an obvious example) - it is difficult not to agree that much journalism panders to the prejudices of the lowest common denominator.

The slightly facile psychology of The Franchise Affair (particularly apparent in Tey's recurring fascination with the possibility that criminals could be infallibly detected through their facial features) does not stop the novel from deserving its place as one of the classics of the genre.

Saturday 10 November 2001

Lois McMaster Bujold: Cetaganda (1996)

Edition: Baen, 1996
Review number: 990

The central idea of this Miles Vorkosigan novel can be summed up in a sentence from it (also quoted on the back of this edition): "Miles had always dreamed about saving the Empire. He just never expected it to be the Cetagandan Empire." Although currently at peace with his native Barrayar, Cetaganda has long been a traditional enemy, having at one time been an occupying power Miles is a member of the Barrayan delegation to the mourning ceremonies for the Dowager Empress, but the reader will not be very surprised when things go wrong right from the start, when his spaceship is attacked when it docks with a space station orbiting the capital planet of the Empire.

The main aspect of Cetaganda which differentiates it from the other Miles Vorkosigan novels is its portrayal of the bizarre imperial culture. This is clearly modelled around ideas from imperial China - aristocratic, secretive, delicately artistic and at the same time brutal; incomprehensible to outsiders, providing endless opportunities to offend against obscure protocol. Reflecting Bujold's interest in the biological sciences, the Cetagandans have spent decades enhancing the genome of their senior aristocrats, ending up seeming to be hardly human - impossibly beautiful and long lived, committed to incomprehensible goals.

As a well written, exciting and occasionally humorous science fiction thriller, Cetaganda is typical of the series, if less thought provoking than some; and the series is one of the most enjoyable in modern science fiction.

Terry Pratchett: The Truth (2000)

Edition: Doubleday, 2000
Review number: 989

In about twenty years, Terry Pratchett has produced twenty five Discworld novels, of a fluctuating standard; The Truth, which is the twenty fifth, is one of the best of them. Several others share the plot device where an idea from our world leaks through to the Discworld to cause havoc - Hollywood in Moving Pictures, rock'n'roll in Soul Music, and now newspaper journalism in The Truth. It succeeds better than the earlier novels in this vein, because the humour is part of an interesting plot.

The newly emerged Ankh-Morporkh Times (slogan the wonderful misprint "The truth shall make ye fret") has a huge story almost as soon as its first issue. The ruler of the city, Lord Vetinari, appears to have killed his secretary, a most uncharacteristic action. The editor, William de Worde, is driven by his desire to find out the truth, while constantly distracted by people with funny shaped vegetables and a rival, National Enquirer style, tabloid.

The Truth manages to balance its plot with the need for jokes much more successfully than many other Pratchett novels, and introduces another memorable character in William de Worde to go with those from earlier in the series.

Thursday 8 November 2001

Bram Stoker: Dracula (1897)

Edition: Oxford, 1983
Review number: 988

The most famous vampire story of them all has become an enduring part of the mythology of our culture. Hundreds of books, films and TV programmes have been based on the ideas in this novel; its only rival as a Gothic myth is the story of Frankenstein.

The story is told in what I suspect was a new variation on the form of the epistolary or journal novel, being supposedly a collection of documents - letters, journals and newspaper clippings - that together tell the tale of Count Dracula's involvement with Jonathan Harker and his friends. There are three distinct parts to the story - Harker's visit to the Count's Transylvanian castle; the Count's arrival in Whitby and the death of Lucy; and the campaign against the Count under the direction of van Helsing.

The novel has obvious defects. The sensationalist prose may have set the standard for trash fiction, and certainly fits the subject matter, but it would hardly win prizes for literary merit. The contributions supposedly the work of different hands all read much the same - a common defect in this sort of structure. Some of the novel's most important events are unmotivated, particularly the decision of the Count to move to Whitby (with considerable inconvenience, given his need for the soil of his homeland and the difficulty he has in crossing water) after centuries of safety in Transylvania. His meeting with friends of Jonathan Harker, who has just escaped from him in Romania, is an unlikely coincidence, too.

The reasons that the story has succeeded so spectacularly despite these defects are also quite easy to see. Stoker has taken several existing traditions and made an exciting and atmospheric whole from them. This whole is clearly related to psycholgical ideas current at the time of publication. While it would be wrong to explain away the story as being about repressed sexuality - especially female sexuality - or the subconscious, these ideas are obviously present. (The principal victim of Dracula in England is a woman, and she is transformed from a pure angelic being into a predator.) By tapping into ideas that were around at the time, Stoker ensured the immediate popularity of his novel. The themes he picked have continued to fascinate through the twentieth century, and so the myth's continued success has some connection to the way that ideas of the irrational have shaped our own time.

There is indeed an interesting strand of anti-rationality in the story; van Helsing cannot fight Dracula by explaining him away or through the application of science (the only use he makes of technology is to journey to Romania by rail rather than sea to get there before the vampire). Instead, he must attack him with knowledge of religion, arcane lore and superstition - the crucifix, stake and garlic. This is a tradition which has continued right down to Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

There are repeated images of madness throughout the novel, with it being consistently used as a metaphor for the feeling experienced when under the control of the vampire. Van Helsing hypnotises Mina when she falls under Dracula's spell, and this was a technique used at the time for the treatment of the insane (by Freud, among others). There is also a character, Renfield, who is an inmate in an asylum and whose insanity, influenced by the vampire, takes the form of a need to consume animal flesh (flies, spiders, and small birds).

The vampire is in part a way to externalise this type of irrationality, just as in the past a poor farmer might blame witchcraft for failed crops. Today, people tend to blame their upbringing or the government for their own shortcomings rather than the supernatural, but the connection still makes the story compelling. Stoker has turned his psychological interests into an adventure story, and while lurid it is never so trashy as to be off-putting; those are the secrets of the success of Dracula.

Saturday 3 November 2001

C.S. Lewis: The Screwtape Letters (1942)

Edition: Fount, 1982 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 987

After the Narnia series and possibly his science fiction trilogy, The Screwtape Letters is Lewis' best known work. It isn't intended, like most of his fiction, as an apologetic for Christianity, but as an aid to a Christian - it is designed to help someone overcome temptation. This purpose is carried out in such a way that it is entertaining even to a non-Christian.

The reason for this is partly the method used, the conceit that the contents are letters addressed by a senior devil to a more junior, inexperienced tempter, and partly that the whole book is very well written and clearly thought out. If the theological background is accepted, even for a moment, then the letters are convincing; if not, then they are certainly entertaining and occasionally thought provoking.

Friday 2 November 2001

Leslie Charteris: Vendetta for the Saint (1963)

Edition: Charter, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 985

The first full length Saint novel for some years turns out to mark an end point in the series; with the next book, the stories are lifted from the TV series rather than the other way around. As the title indicates, it pits Simon Templar against the Mafia in Sicily; when he witnesses a tourist rebuffed in a Neapolitan restaurant after asking an innocent question and then hears that the man has been murdered the next morning, he is convinced that a secret is hidden in the question and that he wants to do something to avenge the killing.

One of the interesting details of this particular novel is that Charteris seems to have finally decided to age the Saint - a decision reversed for the TV series, naturally. There are several references to the way that things might have been done differently had Simon Templar been in his prime - not that he doesn't manage to pull off superhuman feats of dexterity and endurance all the same. Perhaps too much so - the story, with its extremely powerful villains worsted by one man, is one of Charteris' more ludicrous.

Peter Guttridge: The Once and Future Con (1999)

Edition: Headline, 1999
Review number: 986

The recent foot and mouth outbreak has shown how much the British rural economy is dependent on tourism rather than simply on agriculture. This industry is increasingly reliant on heritage, as that is one of the UK's major selling points (the other being the convenience to Americans in particular of being and English speaking nation). This humorous crime novel is set in one particularly important yet controversial part of the tourism industry, the heritage built up around the Arthurian legends.

This is, of course, because the legends have been attached to many (incompatible) places, whether by multiple identifications of names in earlier traditions (as with Camelot) or by downright invention in later ones (as with Tintagel). The total absence of artefacts that can be reliably associated with Arthur - assuming that he even existed, which some doubt - also provides opportunities for the unscrupulous. This could be very lucrative; the best known Arthurian sites, Tintagel and Glastonbury, are among the most visited in the country.

The situation is clearly ripe for satire, especially given that most tourists are not interested in historical accuracy. They want a good time, and for many this means a theme park style experience which is like the films they have seen - fifteenth century jousts not fifth century cattle rustling. The Once and Future Con attempts to do just this, being about a murder investigation during the inauguration of a theme park centred around the supposedly newly discovered bodies of Arthur and Guinevere.

Unfortunately, the novel is neither funny enough to succeed as a satire, nor is the mystery absorbing enough for it to succeed as part of the crime genre. Indeed, I spent quite a lot of time while reading it wondering whether it was worth the effort, and continued mainly because that involved less thought than finding another book to read. It is mildly entertaining, but not as good as the reviews imply that Guttridge's earlier Nick Madrid novels are.

Wednesday 31 October 2001

Mary Stewart: The Hollow Hills (1973)

Edition: Coronet, 1974
Review number: 983

The second of Stewart's Arthurian novels continues the story from the point of view of Merlin, from Arthur's conception until his ascension of the British throne. Of all her novels, it has least of the sense of adventure that is important in a thriller, and it suffers massively as a result. It amounts to a tedious sequel to the enjoyable Crystal Cave.

The Hollow Hills has most of the virtues of Stewart's other novels - well drawn characters and background, an easy style - but it fatally lacks the suspense and tension. The main device in the plot is Merlin's search for the sword Caliburn (Excalibur), to be used to proce Arthur's claim to the throne, and this is made too simple through supernatural means to bear the weight of a whole novel. T.H. White's Sword in the Stone proves a far more interesting and exciting retelling of the childhood of Arthur.

The exception is the melodramatic scene near the end where Merlin confronts Morgause after she has seduced Arthur, before he discovers his identity and that she is his half-sister. It is a set piece which doesn't quite come off, but its tone is startlingly unlike that of the rest of the novel.

John Fowles: The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969)

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 984

The nineteenth century novel is an important part of the legacy of English literature, and the Victorian age is one which has continued to fascinate throughout the last hundred years (particularly in this year, the centenary of Victoria's death). The French Lieutenant's Woman is a homage to the novels of writers like Dickens, Thackeray and Trolloppe (with nods towards Hardy and James), together with a commentary on the period to which much of the last century's culture has been a reaction.

The type of story told here is, with certain modifications such as overt sexuality, one which could have been the plot of a nineteenth century novel. Set in Lyme Regis (location of important parts of persuasion and, as a fossil hunter's paradise, essential to developments in Victorian scientific ideas), The French Lieutenant's Woman is about Charles Smithson, heir to a baronetcy, and the woman to whom he is engaged, Ernestina Freeman,rich heiress of a merchant. She is spending the summer with her aunt, a resident of the town. The woman of the title is a former governess who haunts the quay after having been abandoned by her lover, a French sailor; respectable people assume that she is no better than a prostitute. Charles becomes fascinated with this outcast from the comfortable society in which he has lived all his life despite his advanced Darwinian views.

The principal way that it is clear that Fowles is a twentieth century writer is in the way that the story is told. The narrator takes a large part in proceedings himself, and is more a guide to explain the psychology and culture of the characters than a traditional storyteller. The reader is constantly kept at a distance from the story, always being made aware of how it illustrates the Victorian age. It is done in a moderately academic way, making The French Lieutenant's Woman quite an intellectual novel, but it is always fascinating. A good example of the sort of thing that Fowles does is the treatment of Charles' Cockney servant Sam; we are given quite a lengthy digression just after the introduction of the character about the similarities to and the differences from the most famous fictional Victorian servant, The Pickwick Papers' Sam Weller.

In fact, The French Lieutenant's Woman is almost as much about the twentieth century attitude to the Victorian age as it is about its setting. Fowles makes much of contradictions (such as the popularity of pornography in a supposedly straitlaced culture), implicitly drawing attention to similar contradictions a hundred years later. (The novel is set almost exactly a century before it was written.) In science fiction, it is commonto use the future to criticise the present, but it is much more unusual for a historical novel to attempt to use the past for the same purpose.

Tuesday 30 October 2001

Vernor Vinge: Across Realtime (1984/1986)

Edition: Millennium, 2000
Review number: 982

Although presented in this edition as a single entity, Across Realtime is really two novels, as it was originally published: The Peace War and Marooned in Realtime.

Te concept which fuels the plot of the two novels is is an impenetrable sphere of force, perfectly reflective and frictionless, which encloses whatever is within it in a fixed instant of time until the bobble bursts. Not much is said about the physics of these objects, which are basically unexplained plot devices in a traditional science fiction manner. My feeling is that they are impossible, since quantum tunnelling would allow particles to pass through the skin, and this would force a thermodynamic connection between the inside and outside, making time pass.

In the first novel, which has the excellent title The Peace War, the bobbles have been used by the Peace Authority to set up a world wide dictatorship (just bobble any opposition). The plot is about the fight to overturn them, led by the man who invented the bobble and a young boy, his genius apprentice.

The second novel, Marooned in Realtime, is set millions of years later. It is a more successful story than The Peace War, which takes quite a long time to get going. It is a murder investigation, and it has three mysteries at its heart. Wil Brierson is a policeman from the late twenty first century, who was effectively murdered - separated from his family and friends by being bobbled for thousands of years by a fugitive suspect. This crime was punished by the courts by bobbling the perpetrator for the same length of time, and placing this bobble and an account of the crime next to that of the victim so that he could prepare his own vengeance after his release.

This wouldn't be much of a mystery except for the central fact of the novel. The long term bobbled have found themselves in a world with no humans, and a variety of untestable theories are put forward for the disappearance - alien invasion, the second coming, a universal transcendence to some higher level of being. Marta and Yelen, among the last survivors to leave civilisation (and therefore among the most technologically advanced), decide that the only hope for human survival is for all the remaining people to band together, and as part of this they rescue Wil's assailant and give him a new identity.

The third investigation, which is the principal one in terms of the crime plot, is into murder committed with an opposite method to the attack on Wil. To gather as many recruits as possible, Marta's growing community bobbles itself through thousands of years until other bobbles break; but now an enemy hacks her computer system so that she is left outside the bobble, alone on the planet until the end of her natural lifespan away from medical technology.

Wil's investigation into this makes the novel a fascinating mystery, with an interesting background among the animals evolved since the disappearance. Marooned in Realtime is easily the better of the two stories, and The Peace War is really more like an explanation of its background than something similar to it in stature. Both, however, are of interest; Marooned in Realtime is one of the best pieces of eighties science fiction.

Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886)

Edition: Cassell, 1898 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 981

This deservedly famous novel marks a stage of development in the popular thriller from the romances of writers like Scott. It tells the story of David Balfour, who discovers, on his father's death, that he is the rightful heir of the estate of Shaws, in the hands of his miserly uncle Ebenezer. However, his uncle has him kidnapped and put on board a ship, which plans to sell him as a slave in America. The ship is wrecked on an island off the Mull of Kintyre, and David makes his way back across the Scottish Highlands to where he can communicate with a lawyer, in the company of wanted Jacobite Alan "Breck" Stewart. (The story is set soon after the 1745 rebellion, when the clampdown on Jacobinism was at its height.)

The relationship between David and Alan Breck - who is a historical character - is the heart of the novel, the rest being a hackneyed missed inheritance plot against a background of Highland scenery. Neither is portrayed as flawless, though David as narrator is far more aware of Alan's faults than of his own. They are different, rounded characters and, even if the novel seems old-fashioned in places, they are why Kidnapped has become a perennial classic.

Saturday 27 October 2001

Sharyn McCrumb: Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987)

Edition: Penguin, 1989
Review number: 979

Whether or not you have ever attended a science fiction convention, this comic crime novel will be hilariously funny. Engineering professor Dr J.O. Mega has written a hard science fiction novel under the name Jay Omega, and so is able to attend local con Rubicon as a guest author. The other guest, far better known, is Appin Dungannon, author of the lengthy Runewind series and, to fans, almost as well known for his violently difficult behaviour as for his pretty dreadful sword and sorcery epic. When Dungannon is murdered, Mega helps solve the crime for which just about every con attendant is a suspect, but the real enjoyment of the novel is its accurate yet reasonably sympathetic portrayal of the con itself.

Michael Innes: Money From Holme (1964)

Edition: Gollancz, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 980

Like several other minor Innes novels, this one seems to have been suggested by the pun which makes up its title. Sebastian Holme was a painter, who found genius when inspired by the African country of Wamba, only to die in the course of a coup. The value of his paintings has of course increased massively, and the variety of rather unpleasant characters who appear in the novel have one thing in common: the desire to make money from Holme.

The main character, critic Mervyn Cheele, is particularly unpleasant in a small time kind of way, and he things that he has discovered that Holme is still alive, posing as his brother Gregory. He tries to blackmail him into recreating some paintings destroyed in the revolution, knowing that their value is at its height.

Cheele is only the worst of a bad lot, and there is no one with whom a reader might want to identify in this novel. It is also very inconclusive, and is enigmatic about what is going on in a way which is annoying in a thriller; it is as though Innes became bored and couldn't quite decide what to do with his story.

Michael Wood: Domesday (1986)

Edition: BBC, 1986 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 978

Produced as part of the nine hundredth anniversary of the production of the Domesday Book, this is the least accessible and least individual book which Wood has written. This is mainly because of the subject matter; to most amateur historians, Domesday is mainly of interest for local history of by the fact of its existence (being the earliest nationwide survey of land ownership and obligations of any European nation). Much of its true significance is seen by detailed and technical analysis, looking at the entries either statistically or in relation to whatever other information is available about a locality (Anglo-Saxon charters, for example).

Wood's book is actually not principally about Domesday itself. It is an account of the manorial system recorded there, about how it developed from Roman and early Anglo-Saxon farming practices until its decline in the later Middle Ages (the crisis being the plague of the 1340s). Since comparatively little is recorded about the lives of ordinary people in this period, much of the account is inferred from what evidence there is, which makes the book Wood's most academic. Considerable interest in history is required, but for the right reader there is much to enjoy.

Friday 26 October 2001

Olaf Stapledon: Last Men in London (1932)

Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 977

Stapledon's second book about the last generation of humanity is not a sequel to First and Last Men, which was a history of the human race from the 1930s across millions of years to the end, when the solar system is destroyed. What it is instead is a companion piece, describing the thoughts of the Last Men on the history of the early twentieth century.

The epic sweep of the earlier novel is replaced by human interest. The narrator from the future targets one man for his investigations, chosen for his sensitivity. Paul is observed (from inside his mind) and influenced from hie early childhood in the 1890s, though to his participation in the First World War, which is seen as the pivotal event which makes the eventual downfall of our civilisation inevitable.

As a novel, the human scale of Last Men in London makes it more immediately appealing than its predecessor. The device of showing the view that the Last Men take of contemporary society allows Stapledon to include parallels and commentary not normally accessible to the novelist writing about a time close to the date of composition; this does not always work (the story of the gentle lemurs is frankly silly), but can produce interesting effects. The best use of this is the major parallel between the Great War and the catastrophe foreseen in the last days of the human race, but the transfer of early twentieth century sexual taboos to a later culture's attitude to eating is also effective.

The purpose of Last Men in London is clearly to express a critical view of thirities culture; from a science fiction point of view, the problem with it is that the criticism is very much that of the intelligentsia of the time, as parodied, for example, in several Lord Peter Wimsey novels. A lot of it reads like sub-Aldous Huxley, without Huxley's own insight and unwillingness to just accept a fashionable idea. So Lost Men in London is easier to relate to than Last and First Men, but ultimately has less to say.

Sophie Hannah: gripless (1999)

Edition: Arrow, 1999
Review number: 976

Most readers of this novels will probably find themselves in one of three categories. Either they will find it hilarious, or the narrator intensely irritating, or these feelings will alternate. This last group is the one in which I find myself.

Belinda Nield has a wonderful new job, as creative writing tutor at a Berkshire drama school. She also is several years into a comfortable relationship. But all thought goes out of her head when, at rehearsals for the summer play, she meets teenager Tony Lamb, and falls hopelessly in love (losing her grip on reality, hence the title). Everything is stacked against the relationship working out the way she wants it to: the age gap, her job (and the distinct possibility that she might lose it if she has an affair with a student), her partner, Tony's seeming indifference and total inarticulacy, his past (he is taken on at the request of his social worker, who thinks a drama production might be good for his problem, the specifics of which Belinda doesn't initially know).

A lot of Gripless is sharp, intelligent, well observed and very funny. Belinda is essential to this, but I kept on feeling that someone should give her a good shake and shock her out of believing that she is in love with someone to whom she has not even spoken (he utters a total of about fifty words in the entire novel).

Thursday 25 October 2001

C.S. Lewis: Till We Have Faces: A Myth Retold (1956)

Edition: Fount, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 975

All of Lewis' fictional writing is an apologetic for Christianity, except for this novel. It still has a related message, but one which is simpler and broader in scope: it is an attack on the ideas of rationalism, on the view that the material world is all there is.

The story of Cupid and Psyche is quite well known, even though its first appearance is quite late for Greek or Roman myth (in Apuleius' Golden Ass). Psyche was a girl so beautiful that she aroused the jealousy of Venus, who sent her son Cupid to destroy her. But he fell in love, and carried Psyche away to a mysterious palace where all her wants were met. He visited her every night, but would not permit her to see his face, because his glory would overwhelm her. After some persuasion from Psyche, Cupid brought her jealous sisters to visit her, only to poison her mind by asking what kind of monstrous lover would be unwilling to show his face to her. Staying awake after they made love, Psyche uncovered a lamp to see Cupid as he was, only for some oil to spill and wake the god. He returned to heaven and she mourned him until, after the gods took pity on her, she was made an immortal and married to her lover.

The story is adapted by Lewis principally through being told from the point of view of one of the sisters, Orual or Maia, who is made far from spiteful, not even realising the emotion that prompts her to act for what she rationalises as Psyche's own good. The three sisters are made the daughters of a Middle Eastern barbarian king in the period of ancient Greek civilisation, who on the one hand grow up in a country which belongs to the anti-rational, frightening goddess Ungit (whose idol is a grotesque black stone) but who on the other have a Greek tutor, who acts as the voice of rationalism.

The crucial moment in the novel is when Orual visits Psyche in the palace built for her by her lover. The magnificent buildings and gardens Psyche sees are invisible to her sister; with the eyes of rationalism, it seems to Orual that Psyche is living in a mountain valley in the open. This is the essence of what Lewis wants to say, that there are experiences which are beyond rational explanation and that it is wrong to reject them. It is not even enough to regard others' descriptions of their mystical experiences as metaphors, as Orual does when Psyche offers her a magnificent wine (invigorating spring water) from a beautiful cup (her hands). Clearly, this kind of parable in no way proves Lewis' point, but it certainly provides an interesting illustration.

Whether or not the reader agrees with Lewis, and even if it is read as a simple story with no deeper meaning, Till We Have Faces is an enjoyable novel.

Julian May: Sagittarius Whorl (2001)

Edition: Voyager, 2001
Review number: 974

Though the Rampart Worlds series was not announced in advance as a trilogy, it has turned out to be one. The second novel, Orion Arm, didn't read like a typical mid-part of a trilogy, but as a member of a longer series, in my opinion a good thing; now, though, Sagittarius Whorl seems to be a longer narrative squeezed into a single volume, which is less good.

A large part of the story is told as flashback, which reduces the suspense, until the point when this catches up, from where it is a rapid rollercoaster ride to the end. The beginning comes two years after the end of Orion Arm, at the end of a legal battle with Rampart's rival Concern Galapharma masterminded by trilogy central character Asahel Frost. He then sets off alone on a trip to verify his suspicions that the Haluk aliens are not keeping to the terms of their treaty with humanity - something which works only too well when he is kidnapped and an illegal clone takes his place.

While May's aims in this series clearly include writing something simpler than her Galactic Milieu novels, something which will be a series of science fiction thrillers, this novel in particular contains undertones relating to the history of the genre, particularly in the US. During the fifties and sixties, a lot of xenophobic literature was produced, and the idea of an alien invasion (especially when there was a human fifth column) was frequently used as a metaphor for McCarthyite fears of a Communist takeover. The plot of Sagittarius Whorl is very close to these ideas, so that May ends up working quite hard to make it seem less so, with frequent hints that not all the Haluk are evil and dangerous while some humans are. The best that can be said for much of this older science fiction is that it produced exciting stories, and the Rampart Worlds trilogy is obviously a successful attempt to reproduce this. The main way that May makes things palatable to modern sensibilities is by putting much of the blame for the way that the human-Haluk situation develops on greedy human capitalists. (Other ways to re-work the ideas have been appearing recently, an example being the scenario of the Roswell High books and TV series.)