Tuesday 30 January 2001

Charles Dickens: Oliver Twist (1837)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 734

The story of Oliver Twist is extremely well known, mainly because of children's versions of the novel and the film and musical versions. It is a melodrama, about the orphan who grows up in the workhouse, is apprenticed and escapes to London. There, he falls in with a group of young thieves led by the Jew Fagin, but also meets kindly, well off people who help him to the point where his history is discovered and he is restored to his estates.

Oliver Twist was Dicken's first real novel (The Pickwick Papers being a series of episodes), and in fact shows more signs of careful planning and structural thought than some of his more mature works. Like them, Oliver Twist was published in serial form, but reading it in a single volume reveals few signs that this was the case. It is also one of Dickens' shorter novels, which may have also helped its structural unity.

It is of course inspired by the way in which the English Poor Law operated, where the poor were treated more like criminals than anything else, where the system allowed corrupt bullies like Mr Bumble the beadle a free hand, where children were effectively sold as apprentices to tradesmen looking for the cheapest of cheap labour. The social campaigning side of the novel is not handled as well in Oliver Twist as it is in many of Dickens' later books; it frequently threatens to overwhelm the story, which then descends into sentimentality. This is partly because Oliver, like a several other children in Dickens (Little Nell and Paul Dombey are other examples) is very colourless and bland. He is both too naive and powerless to provide much of a commentary on what happens to him.

The most interesting characters in the novel, in fact, turn out to be Fagin and his gang of thieves. He is a bit of a stock character, and has led to accusations of anti-Semitism against the novel. (The character of Riah in Our Mutual Friend is to some extent intended as an apology for Fagin.) These are to a certain extent justifiable (he is consistently described in such terms as "villainous Jew", for example), but Dickens is quite mild by comparison with some of his contemporaries, and he is, of course, a man of his period. There is no particular reason why Fagin should be Jewish, except that Jews have always been accused by their enemies of making up a kind of underground community, closer to their co-religionists than to Gentile neighbours. This is used to give him links to accomplices in other parts of the country.

Nancy is the most three dimensional of all the characters, torn between her pity for Oliver and her desire to do something right on the one side and her love for the unpleasant Bill Sikes and her fear of Fagin on the other. She refuses an offer to help her escape her life, but is then killed because of Fagin's suspicions that she might betray him. Her tragic situation raised Dickens to write better once it had been established, and makes the last hundred or so pages of Oliver Twist come alive much more than the duller earlier sections.

Saturday 27 January 2001

Edmund Crispin: The Moving Toyshop (1946)

Edition: Penguin, 1958 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 733

Set almost entirely in the city of Oxford, The Moving Toyshop begins with the accidental discovery of a body in a toyshop by a distinguished poet. When he returns with the police (some time later, as he was attacked and knocked unconscious), the toyshop is not there at all, and the police are inclined to believe he imagined the whole thing because of the blow to the head. However, his friend Gervase Fen, professor of English and amateur sleuth, thinks differently, and the two of them uncover a bizarre mystery.

The Moving Toyshop is a classic of the crime genre, but it is also a funny self-mocking satire. The plot is very silly - much of it hinges around a bizarre will in which legatees have been chosen because they are like Edward Lear limericks (a young lady of Ryde, for example). The characters are often very aware that they are in a book (at one point choosing a direction because of the location of the offices of Gollancz who originally published the novel), as well as providing comedy in themselves. The Fen novels of Edmund Crispin are often enjoyably over the top, but The Moving Toyshop is more so than most of them. Funny and engrossing, it is one of my favourite detective novels.

Jon Cleary: Ransom (1973)

Edition: Companion Book Club, 1974
Review number: 732

Scobie Malone, Cleary's Australian policeman hero, has finally married his upper class girlfriend Lisa. While on honeymoon in New York, she is kidnapped, because she unfortunately happens to be present when the wife of the city's mayor is abducted; she is an innocent victim, taken only to preserve the anonymity of the kidnappers. Ransom is the story of the investigation to find the two women before time runs out; Malone is put into the difficult position of desperately wanting to be involved even though not only having no official standing, but also lacking the detachment which would be regarded as desirable in an official investigator.

While not as good as the earlier Helga's Web, Ransom is quite enjoyable, with strong central characters.

Gavin Lyall: Venus With Pistol (1969)

Edition: Companion Book Club, 1971 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 731

Like the "hero" of Midnight Plus One, Gilbert Kemp is aging and on the point of retiring from his role as a man of action. This is rather less admirable than that of Lewis Cane, as he is a professional art smuggler rather than a hero of the French Resistance. He is employed to help a rich Nicaraguan woman set up a national gallery there, evading the "tiresome" restrictions on the export of art. However, some sort of rival gang knows what is going on and people are being attacked and even killed.

The title of Venus With Pistol is that of a rather silly sixteenth century painting with which Kemp becomes involved, a picture of a naked woman with a pistol on her lap; a painting with obvious Freudian interpretations. The novel as a whole is never totally serious; it is a self-deprecating first person narrative. It is a passable read, entertaining if never really gripping. Midnight Plus One is rather better.

Friday 26 January 2001

Orson Scott Card: Ender's Shadow (1999)

Edition: Orbit, 1999
Review number: 730

Ender's Game is one of the most popular and successful science fiction novels of all time. The sequels Card produced were less popular, though (or perhaps because) more adult and thought provoking. Now, Card has returned to the events of the first novel, and has written a companion to it rather than another sequel, retelling the same events from the perspective of another character, Ender's chief lieutenant Bean. The project was originally intended to let other writers set stories in the universe invented by Card, but he wrote the novel himself after becoming enthusiastic about the idea.

Basically, the two novels have the same plot - children trained in strategy to run an attack on the aliens known as the Buggers - with Bean's childhood taking the place of Ender's here. Bean is a nameless foundling, intelligent way beyond his years, who grows up in the street gangs infesting Rotterdam, which has a vast population of starving poor after being turned into somewhere for the world to dump refugees. Then he is noticed by a nun who is looking for the one who will be the saviour of the human race by leading the campaign against the Buggers, and is sent to the orbiting school which trains the children in strategy, principally through a team game which simulates tactical situations.

The best parts of Ender's Shadow are those which overlap with Ender's Game. That is partly because of the problems which Ender's Shadow has as a novel considered on its own. (That is, of course, difficult to do; it will always be compared to the better Ender's Game.) It lacks a certain freshness, sometimes just seeming to go through the motions. It is quite sentimental. Even in the Rotterdam gamgs, the children lack the believable nastiness present in, say, The Lord of the Flies. Card can write nasty children; in Ender's Game, the sibling rivalry between Peter and Ender Wiggin is an example, as is that between Calvin and Alvin in the Alvin Maker series. Here, however, even the serial killer Achilles does not provoke the uncomfortable reaction in the reader that he ought to. In addition, Ender's Shadow has a tacked on, sentimental ending, far less powerful than the remorse Ender grows into which fuels Speaker for the Dead.

If Ender's Game did not exist, this novel would be a reasonably competent piece of science fiction; but as it is, it will always be the poor relation of one of the classics of the genre.

Thursday 25 January 2001

Phillip Mann: Pioneers (1988)

Edition: Gollancz, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 729

In the future envisaged in this novel, humans have attempted to colonise the universe in a rather strange manner (probably suggested to Mann by short stories by Brian Aldiss). They sent out the Pioneers, who have been genetically altered to make them able to adapt themselves to an extremely wide range of possible environments. (They evolve in a non-reproductive manner, changing their own genome and bodily structure in an unspecified and frankly rather unlikely manner.) But as the Pioneers have prospered, Earth has begun to decline, as the human reproductive powers have declined. So the Pioneer Rescuers are sent out to bring back the Pioneers for the sake of the ancient genes only they now contain. (The Pioneer programme is made more unlikely as each planet has just one Pioneer, not a colony.) The novel is the story of a couple of the Rescuers.

The scenario of the novel is patchy, and so is the writing. Parts are excruciatingly poor (the account of the rescue of Pioneer Rip is like one of those cliched Star Trek episodes in which advanced aliens play psychological tricks on Captain Kirk), while other sections are much better. Judging by A Land Fit For Heroes, which I read part of before giving up, the poor parts are more typical of Mann's writing. Not recommended.

Martin Russell: Death Fuse (1980)

Edition: Collins, 1981
Review number: 728

Bombing campaigns seem to be something that happen in big cities nowadays. In London in the nineties we had the bombing of Bishopsgate and Canary Wharf by the IRA (I was near enough to hear the latter), and nail bombs in Soho and Brick Lane set by a lone killer. When Death Fuse came out, there were fewer, particularly of the second type; it is about the police investigation into a campaign of more or less random attacks on crowded places in Central London - restaurants, nightclubs, cinemas and so on.

Like all serial killers, this bomber is difficult to trace - because no motive links him to the victims - and causes terror - because no one knows where he might strike next. Though the characters in this novel are fairly stereotypical (psychopathic loner on one side, innocent victims and solid policemen on the other), it grabs the attention because of its subject matter and the competent writing.

J.D. Robb: Ceremony in Death (1997)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
Review number: 727

In this Eve Dallas novel, her investigation in the New York of the future involves her in the murky world of Satanic ritual murder. Most of the interest in the crime part of the novel lies in the confusion between one group and another, particularly between completely legitimate Wiccans and black groups masquerading as Wiccans. Without witness evidence, it is virtually impossible to tell the difference between pretence and reality, particularly for an outsider like Dallas. And when witnesses contradict each other, and get killed, it's hard for the police to know who is doing what.

While Ceremony in Death has some very unpleasant scenes, it is well written, neither seeming patronising to someone who knows a fair amount about the occult nor difficult to follow for someone who barely has heard of Wicca. The mystery is not difficult to solve; it's more interesting to work out how to prove anything. One of the best novels in an enjoyable series.

Wednesday 24 January 2001

Cyril Tourneur (?): The Revenger's Tragedy (1607)

Edition: Nick Hern Books, 1996
Review number: 726

Originally published anonymously, The Revenger's Tragedy was attributed to Tourneur later in the seventeenth century - but as part of a list of plays others of which were linked to the wrong authors. It is today apparently considered to be by John Middleton, but nobody can really know. Anonymous publication was not particularly uncommon, and the play has political nuances which may provide a motivation for the author to hide their identity.

The plot of The Revenger's Tragedy is sufficiently convoluted that any summary of it seems to invite the rider "Confused? You will be after this episode" which followed the plot reminders in eighties spoof soap opera Soap. Basically, it is set at a decadent Italian court where the Duke's son has attempted to rape a virtuous woman, Gloriana; her death prompts her betrothed Vindice to swear revenge on the Duke's family. His plots are aided by the lusts and ambition of the various members of the family; most of them die flamboyantly before Vindice is led off to face justice at the end of the play.

The political comment is highlighted by the name of Vindice's dead lover - Gloriana, the poetic nickname of Queen Elizabeth, who died three years before the play was first published. The name makes explicit an idea common to several similar plays of the time, that the court of James I was corrupt and depraved.Elizabeth's ministers were hardly better, but it appears to have hardly taken any time before her reign came to be regarded as a golden age.

In the early seventeenth century, there was a genre of rather gothic revenge tragedies; Hamlet is on the fringes of it. They tended to be set in some foreign - usually Italian - court, and have a lot of baroque murders (here, for example, the Duke is killed when he kisses Gloriana's skull, which has had poison smeared on it) in poetic language; there are frequently hints of incest and other crimes. The Revenger's Tragedy is almost a parody of the genre, it is so fantastical and over the top. For a tragedy, it is great fun.

Tuesday 23 January 2001

Mervyn Peake: Titus Alone (1959)

Edition: Penguin, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 725

The third volume of the Gormenghast trilogy is the story of the life of Titus, 77th Earl of Groan, far from the ancestral castle of Gormenghast and the life of ritual lived there. It was one of the last pieces of writing completed by Peake before he succumbed to his eventually final illness, and there are signs of haste about it. Originally, more novels were planned to follow it, and parts of Titus Alone read more like plans and outlines than completed work. It is quite a lot shorter than its predecessors, and has a far smaller group of characters.

There are two main themes in Titus Alone. Having gone so far from Gormenghast that its name is not even known, Titus regrets some things that he has left behind, and is constantly thinking of it. In delirium with fever, it is the constant subject of his ravings, to the extent that his nurse when later she is a spurned lover can create a parody of the main characters to torture him with. In the end, he seeks to return home.

Then there is the contrasting modern world in which Titus is now living. There are clear signs that the background is more modern, as it contains devices unknown in Gormenghast - helicopters, cars and watching devices rather like flying TV cameras. Titus, of course, does not fit in, and most of the friends he makes are society's outcasts. (The exception to this is a fading society beauty who falls in love with him.) Titus, once ruler of all he surveyed, is reduced to being a beggar in rags - but he is free of the ceremony which was his whole life before his rejection of Gormenghast.

The whole of the framework of the novel is allegorical. Rejecting senseless rules from his childhood, Titus becomes an adult; as an adult, difficulties make him long for the security of those rules. Yet the modern world offers nothing better than a travesty of the old rules, and we cannot return to our childhood. This is the importance of the ending of the novel, and the moment when Titus turns away once more from the Gormenghast he has almost reached makes a fitting conclusion to his story, even if not originally intended to be the final moment.

Gormenghast is Peake's masterpiece; Titus Alone is more a monument to what might have been had not illness intervened.

Saturday 20 January 2001

Duncan Kyle: Green River High (1979)

Edition: Collins, 1980
Review number: 724

The first chapter of this novel leads the reader to think that they are about to read something quite unique. George Hawke Tunnicliffe, an ex-soldier, is wounded as he prevents a bank robbery, and his sight is endangered. A thriller with a blind central character would be extremely interesting, if difficult to pull off.

Green River High is not as original as to attempt this feat. Tunnicliffe's stay in hospital and the publicity surrounding his foiling of the robbery combine to form a useful plot device to draw him to people's attention and make him easy to find. His father had disappeared just after the war, and two people who know something about this contact him - a man who helped him fill a plane with gold and rubies, and a woman who nursed him after his plane crashed in the remote, virtually inaccessible jungle of the highlands of Borneo.

This woman, Charity Franklin, is the most original feature of this thriller. She is a retired missionary nurse, who gained the friendship of several Dyak communities in Borneo before the Japanese invasion forced her into hiding. Now returned to England, she is a tough sixty year old, whose idea of a relaxing Christmas Eve is to do the Three Peaks walk, which she does every year.

Though there is nothing particularly unusual in the story of their journey to Borneo and through the jungle to the wrecked plane, it is well written and the character of Franklin adds interest.

I'm not sure what the reasoning is behind the title; it seems to bear no relevance to the themes of the novel.

Jerome K. Jerome: Diary of a Pilgrimage (1891)

Edition: Dent, 1951
Review number: 723

The passion play at Oberammergau is unique, and to many people a journey to see it would be something of a pilgrimage. Such a journey is the subject of this comic novel, very much in the style of Jerome's big success, Three Men in a Boat. The journey is made by rail, and the humour is on such subjects as the obscurity of railway timetables.

It is interesting to compare Diary of a Pilgrimage to Jerome's later Three Men on the Bummel, which is also about a German holiday. The later novel is much more anti-German and intolerant, while Diary of a Pilgrimage is easy going. Neither novel is as funny as Three Men in a Boat; both are more interesting from a social history point of view - answering questions like, how have the things that people find funny changed in the last hundred years, how did the attitude of the British to Germany change in the years leading up to the First World War - than they are humorous today.

Friday 19 January 2001

Helena Osborne: The Joker (1979)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1980
Review number: 722

Susie Burke is an actress, one who obtains parts more for her
looks than her ability. She also carries out slightly shady jobs on
the fringes of the intelligence world, entertaining people who need
to be kept out of the way for one reason or another. She is also
having a clandestine affair with Home Secretary David Hallam.

The various threads of her life become entagled when she is
involved in the search for Eva Pech, a senior Hungarian official
who has disappeared in England - possibly kidnapped, possibly in
hiding before attempting to defect.

Written from Susie's point of view, The Joker is an
amusing thriller. Susie is not as dumb as she acts, but it does
take her a fair amount of time to work out exactly what is going
on. She does so just in time to provide quite a tense ending.
Enjoyable, undemanding, fun.

Thursday 18 January 2001

Lindsey Davis: Two for the Lions (1998)

Edition: Century, 1998
Review number: 721

It seems incredible that Davis' enjoyable Falco series could have already reached its tenth instalment, yet this is it. He has ended up working with one-time Empire Chief Spy Anacrites, whom he despises. The Emperor Vespasian is currently organising a tax census, and the two of them are given the job of investigating returns which seem too low, in return for a percentage of the extra they collect. They concentrate on a seedy but profitable industry, the supply of animals and gladiators for the circus. While they are carrying out an audit of one supplier, one of his lions is killed, and Falco becomes fascinated by the mystery of the animal's death.

Basically, if you like the other Falco novels, this one will please you too. It is amusing, and a well-constructed mystery. The background is not quite as well done as usual; this seems to be because Davies has smoothed out some of the rougher edges to counteract modern distaste for Roman popular entertainment. While Two For the Lions is not a good source of historical data on the circuses, it is fun, enjoyable and lightweight.

Helen MacInnes: Agent in Place (1976)

Edition: William Collins, 1977
Review number: 720

At its beginning, Agent in Place is about the leak of a NATO memo to the American press. However, it becomes clear that the Russians have orchestrated the leak of the comparatively innocuous first part of the memo to get hold of the second and third parts, which detail the reasoning behind the first part and so provide information which will enable them to unmask important Western agents.

As the investigation into the leak proceeds, and the action of the novel moves from New York to the Riviera resort of Menton, it keeps becoming clear that the situation is more serious than the reader and the investigators suspected. This is how MacInnes raises the tension and keeps up the suspense in what is a good Cold War thriller.

Wednesday 17 January 2001

T.S. Eliot: The Elder Statesman (1958)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 719

Eliot's final play has much the same intellectual tone as the others, and is particularly like The Confidential Clerk in tone. Its central character is a politician who has been successful without ever rising as high as he once expected himself to. Forced to retire for medical reasons, he is hounded by revelations from his past - a man who as a student he led into bad company, a singer with whom he had an affair and who was bought off by his father. These people, well enough off on their own account, are not blackmailing him for money; they want to spend their time reminding him of his guilt, of how his public image does not match the real man underneath it.

It is strange that for such a wonderful poet, Eliot wrote plays which are mostly neither particularly poetic or dramatic. They are not as allusive as the poems, but they tackle similar intellectual and philosophical issues; Eliot's preoccupations remain the same whatever the genre in which he is writing. All the plays are interesting to read, but don't impress as being likely to be gripping on stage.

T.S. Eliot: The Confidential Clerk (1958)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 718

When Sir Claude Mulhammer's confidential clerk is forced to retire because of ill health, he appoints a young man to replace him. This sets in motion a plot which is reminiscent of Joe Orton, as both Sir Claude and his wife become convinced that the new clerk is his or her illegitimate child - both had affairs before their marriage. This obviously sounds like a recipe for a farce, but The Confidential Clerk is not a farce.

Like all Eliot's plays, The Confidential Clerk is about who we are under the facade meant for public consumption, when successive layers of pretence and secrets from our past (in this case, an example would be the identities of our parents) are stripped away. They look at this in an unusually philosophical way, but The Confidential Clerk is probably closest to a conventional drama than any other. It is not particularly dramatic, but it has more character differentiation than Eliot's earlier plays.

T.S. Eliot: The Cocktail Party (1949)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 717

Edward and Lavinia Chamberlayne are about to hold a cocktail party in their London flat when Lavinia leaves Edward; the first act has Edward meeting those of their friends that he has been unable to contact. These include a man who is a stranger to him, who promises to help him sort his life out. This man turns out to be a rather strange philosophical psychologist, and the second act takes place in his office where meetings are contrived between various of the characters, including the woman Edward was having an affair with (the partner in Lavinia's affair has gone to California to work on the script for a film).

The question behind The Cocktail Party is how much we understand other people. The psychologist plays a key role in revealing something unknown about the other characters to themselves and each other. This new knowledge plays a big part in their lives from that point on, as it sends one character to her death, and brings the Chamberlaynes back together again.

Like Eliot's other plays, much of The Cocktail Party is intellectual and dry in tone. It has some interesting things to say, though I don't think it is the kind of play I would enjoy on stage.

Tuesday 16 January 2001

Michael Pearce: The Mamur Zapt and the Spoils of Egypt (1992)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1992 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 716

One of the scandals of the archaeological world is the way in which the heritage of the eastern Mediterranean, particularly Greece and Egypt, was ransacked in the nineteenth century to create the collections of museums and individuals in the West. Very little attempt was made to stop the removal of artefacts, because it was not in the financial interest of powerful men to do so. Tourism was not sufficiently important, in the days before mass air travel, to compensate for the riches brought by this trade.

When an American woman from a society opposed to the export of antiquities who is well connected starts making trouble the Mamur Zapt becomes involved. After an attack on her and several supposed accidents on one archaeological dig in the south, it becomes clear that something serious is going on.

The issue of the missing artefacts is one which many Egyptians today feel strongly about, and perhaps so does Michael Pearce. It has, at any rate, led him to write a rather more serious Mamur Zapt novel than most of the series. The Mamur Zapt and the Spoils of Egypt is still fun, but it is not as funny.

Saturday 13 January 2001

Anne Stevenson: Turkish Rondo (1981)

Edition: Piatkus, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 715

A whirlwind romance ends in marriage for Frances Howard and Robert Denning, but when Robert disappears Frances starts to learn things about her new husband that she had never suspected. She follows him to Greece and then to the tense area around Van in eastern Turkey - near the Russian border, and home to rebellious Kurdish tribes.

In essence, Turkish Rondo is a standard Cold War thriller, but with the elements twisted around and the marriage given so much importance that it becomes more the centre of the novel than the usual parts of the plot. (This of course helps greatly for the characterisation of Frances.) Having a thriller begin with a marriage is quite unusual; as a result, Turkish Rondo is inventive and romantic.

T.S. Eliot: The Family Reunion (1939)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 714

I found it a little difficult to understand exactly what The Family Reunion is about; it would probably be a lot easier to do so seeing it in the theatre. Clearly, there is a secret at the centre of the relationships of the Piper family, brought together at the ancestral home for the first time in several years. It is equally clear that hatred is the principal emotion that most of the family feel for each other, and it becomes clear that the power in the family lies not with apparently dominant mother Amy but with her sister Agatha.

That the secret is some kind of crime against family is shown by the presence of the Eumenides, traditional pursuers and tormentors of such criminals in Greek myth. They are silent, which is rather different from their usual portrayal as vociferous accusers.

Apart from being in verse, The Family Reunion reads as though it were one of the Ibsen plays about family and inherited taints - Ghosts, for example. It is rather less gripping to read and much more difficult to work out what it is about, however.

Friday 12 January 2001

T.S. Eliot: Murder in the Cathedral (1938)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1969 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 713

The best known of Eliot's five plays, Murder in the Cathedral is about the killing of Thomas a Beckett in 1170 in Canterbury cathedral. Really part of the long concluded struggle between secular and religious authority, aspects of Beckett's death have conspired to make it seem more important than it really was: the dramatic way in which the murder took place; the vague connection with one of the most important developments in medieval England, the concept that not even the king was above the law; and the massive cult which developed quickly around Beckett and which survived until the Reformation.

The short play has two scenes, one about a month before the murder, when Beckett returned to Canterbury from exile in France, and the actual murder itself. As an interlude between them stands Beckett's Christmas Day sermon from that year, and the second scene also includes an interlude in which the four knights who killed Beckett plead their case to the audience. These interludes are in prose, and the rest of the play is blank verse.

Murder in the Cathedral is a very intellectual play, though apparently compelling on stage. Much of the dialogue is more like philosophy than drama, and much of the structure is related to medieval mystery and miracle plays. This is particularly apparent with the four tempters who come to Beckett in the first act, trying to persuade him (for example) to renew his friendship with the king. In no sense is Eliot attempting to be historically accurate or even convincing; in real life people would never speak the way they do in this play. Nevertheless, it is interesting to read.

Robie Macauley: A Secret History of Time to Come (1979)

Edition: Corgi, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 712

A double apocalypse hits the US in the early eighties in this science fiction novel. First, racial tension escalates into civil war between black and white; then, Russian and Chinese bombs destroy the cities when it looks as though the blacks are going to win. There follows a dark age of hundreds of years, during which the existence of men with dark skin is seen as one of the many unbelievable myths about the times of the ancients.

The narrative is, to start with, the diary of the commander of a black commando unit in the war. He has visions of a traveller from the future, and these visions come to dominate the second half of the novel completely. This is quite an interesting way to do things, as it creates doubts in the reader's mind about the reality of the traveller and his world. It makes for a somewhat unsatisfying structure for the novel, however, as the diarist - who is actually, from a science fiction genre point of view, more interesting and unusual - disappears completely soon after the middle. Little is made of parallels between the nature and situations of the two central characters, and no explanation is given of the connection between the two of them (unless, of course, one is just a fantasy of the other). There are ironies in the post apocalypse scenario, as well as the standard ones where people dismiss as myth true stories about the capabilities of twentieth century technology. The man from the future is, for a large part, involved in tracking a gang who have kidnapped a woman to sell as a slave in the south - with no black people left, whites are selling one another.

The later sections of A Secret History of Time to Come are reminiscent in places of the greatest post-apocalyptic novel, A Canticle for Liebowitz. It is mostly a fairly standard adventure story, with some excellent writing (the very first vision of the future is an example of this). The diary sections read rather like a John Brunner dystopia. Basically, the writing is good but the vision is neither original nor broad enough to make this novel a science fiction classic.

Thursday 11 January 2001

John Barnes: Earth Made of Glass (1998)

Edition: Gollancz, 1998
Review number: 711

The sequel to A Million Open Doors is set over a decade later. The central characters, Giraut de Leones and his wife Margaret (who met in the course of the first novel) are in something of a rut in their relationship, despite the interest of their job as ambassadors seeking to help bring back together the splintered Thousand Cultures of humanity as instantaneous travel between the human colonised planets of the galaxy has become possible. They are given a new assignment, to travel to Briana, settled by two xenophobic cultures where the teleportation system is likely to bring war. The two cultures are literary, like Giraut's home Occitan background, put together by scholars, based on the ancient Maya and Tamil.

In Earth Made of Glass, as exciting and inventive as A Million Open Doors, we learn a lot more about how the splintered human cultures came into being. This is basically because Giraut, as narrator, is no longer an enthusiastic adolescent from a planet recently recontacted, but an older diplomat who knows a great deal about the ways in which human beings interact. (This does not, of course, make him able to understand his wife.) The development of Giraut's personality is a strong part of the novel, a lot of his narrative being taken up with introspection about the changes within him, and it is very well done.

One of the major strengths of the novel, like its predecessor, is the portrayal of the two cultures. This is a more difficult task here, where both of them will be far less familiar to most Westerners than the machismo of Occitan and the Puritans of Caledon. The Tamil culture, in which most of the action takes place, is particularly well drawn. This has something to say for today, as these cultures know that they are doomed by the cultural and economic imperialism of the Interstellars, as distinct cultures today are threatened by the American way of life. We are today far more homogeneous than at almost any time in the history of the human race, and so much is lost to us as a result. To go into a Spanish bookshop, as I did fairly recently, to find that almost all the books for sale are translations of English bestsellers is a good illustration of this. It may be convenient, but it is impoverishing.

Tuesday 9 January 2001

Dorothy Dunnett: Gemini (2000)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 2000
Review number: 710

I found the final novel of the House of Niccolo series almost as disappointing as the one which preceded it, Caprice and Rondo. The series comes to a climax with the fifth novel, To Lie With Lions, in which the identity of the secret partner in the Vatachino trading house whose rivalry is attempting to destroy that of Niccolo is revealed. This is surprising and almost crushing; the last two novels of the series amount to around 1500 pages trying to wrench the situation round to a happy ending. Both contain new hidden enemies, but the revelations about them are not as well prepared and the repetition of the same plot ceases to be interesting, and becomes more far fetched - surely there must be a limit to the number of secrets related to Niccolo's origins.

The story this time takes place in Scotland, scene of some of Niccolo's earlier adventures. This location is necessary for the promised connection to Dunnett's Lymond series. Niccolo becomes involved in the complicated Scottish politics of the 1480s, born of the crisis caused by the incapacity of the Stewart royal family. Basically, King James III and his younger brother both have personalities in which there are strong elements of stupidity, vanity and bad temper, and difficulties between them are fertile ground for exploitation by the old enemy of England. Niccolo is still also involved in a vendetta with the St Pols of Kilmurren and another old enemy, David Salmeton, is now based in Scotland, making the already dangerous situation personally antagonistic to Niccolo.

The series draws to a disappointing end; a pity, when its first five novels are so good. Gemini is also likely to be Dunnett's final novel, and it is even given a literary introduction, as though she were already dead. The Lymond and Niccolo series will ensure that she is remembered, but not this novel itself.

Rudyard Kipling: Just So Stories (1902)

Edition:  Weathervane Books, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 709

Of all Kipling's writing for children, the Just So Stories are aimed at the youngest readers, and, in fact, are clearly intended to be read aloud to small children. The stories are basically whimsical original myths, mostly about how the world came to be "just so". (The Butterfly That Stamped doesn't quite fit into this category, and is more like one of the Arabian Nights tales.)

The charm of the well known stories remains, both for adults and children, and a large part of this is derived from the language Kipling uses. Considering the age of those at whom the stories are aimed, the vocabulary is extremely complex, much more so than most writers would dare to use today. The words are used in a poetic way which really comes alive when read aloud; the sentences are full of alliteration and rhymes and the descriptions are rich and ingenious. Like every Kipling story, the backgrounds are vivid, creating a very different world from that actually around us. The illustrations by Kipling himself are part of the way in which the background is established.

Some aspects have dated. There is too much arch humour, particularly in the captions to the illustrations. (The stories about the invention of the alphabet don't work very well; they are too much catalogues of the origins of each letter and assume that the Roman alphabet is the only logical one.) The best stories are why this book is a classic; my favourites are How the Elephant Got His Hump and The Cat That Walked by Himself.

Friday 5 January 2001

Lois McMaster Bujold: A Civil Campaign (1999)

Edition: Earthlight, 2000
Review number: 706

The latest Vorkosigan novel is in a completely different genre from the others. They were thrillers with a science fiction setting, while A Civil Campaign is a comedy of manners with a science fiction setting. There have always been humorous elements in Bujold's writing, but this novel is very funny indeed.

Miles Vorkosigan has returned to the imperial capital on Barrayar to take his part in the preparations for the Emperor's wedding (at which he is to be best man). He also wants to pursue his courtship of widow Ekaterine Vorsoisson, but it too shy to make his purpose at all clear to her. At the same time, he becomes rather reluctantly involved in two political causes involving the right to hold titles.

The whole plot, combined with a new business venture for Miles' brother Mark, is a recipe for disaster, which duly happens about half way through with a set piece dinner party at which everything which could go wrong does go wrong. The rest of the novel is basically about sorting out the mess.

Bujold has shown that she can write interesting science fiction, exciting and humorous thrillers. A Civil Campaign is evidence of mastery of a very different type of writing, with almost its only common features with her earlier work being the setting and the consistently well drawn characters.

Charles Dickens: The Old Curiosity Shop (1841)

Edition: Heron
Review number: 708

Like Dickens' other earlier novels, The Old Curiosity Shop was a huge success at the time, even eclipsing The Pickwick Papers. Today it is much less well liked, for a variety of reasons. When I first read it, I thought it his poorest work, tough now I would not quite say that of it.

The plot is simple. The villainous dwarf Mr Quilp is determined to destroy the virtuous, to bring down whoever he can get into his power. This includes the owner of the shop of the title, a real place which is still a minor tourist attraction. (I work close to it, and there are usually two or three people taking photos outside it.) His innocent, virtuous teenage granddaughter Nell is destined by Quilp to be his second wife (once he has succeeded in hounding the first to her grave). Just as Quilp is about to demonstrate his power over the pair, they flee from London.

The descriptions of the journey of Nell and her grandfather are the best pieces of writing in the novel. They encounter picturesque travellers long since driven out of business by cinema and TV - a punch and judy troupe, stilt-walkers, a travelling waxworks - and these are vividly brought to life, so that they are fascinating even to those of us who are not social historians. (Dickens does the same with Astley's circus in London, visited by another character.)

The outcome is also interesting, for virtue triumphs more because Quilp overreaches himself than through positive heroic action. This is unusual, though Dickens in general pays fairly perfunctory attention to plotting. The discovery of the villain's plots is quickly followed by his destruction in an accidental fire - dramatic, if far fetched. The virtuous characters, which can, I think, include the good at heart but weak Dick Swiveller, are very passive; this is again unusual but has several parallels throughout Dickens' writing.

The novel has two closely related structural defects. It was not, apparently, conceived as a novel from the very start, and this makes its beginning very slow. It was originally meant to be the first of a series of impressions rather like Sketches by Boz. This is where the first chapter is coming from, in which a narrator absent form the rest of the novel visits the shop; he is Master Humphrey, and the name of the journal in which the serial appeared was Master Humphrey's Clock. Even when the novel itself begins, it is a long time before the plot starts to move.

The novel has its most famous scenes near the end - the death of Quilp and the death of Nell. The latter, which was for a long time the best known piece of nineteenth century fiction, doesn't take place until the seventieth chapter. It is obvious what is going to happen almost from the beginning of the novel; Nell seems to have been conceived as an illustration of the phrase "too good for this world". The death itself is very sentimental, which is both why it was popular at the time and why it has become less appreciated. It is an admirable piece of writing, all the more so for not appearing to be calculating in its effects. However, by the point where Nell's death occurs, the main interest of the novel is already over; Quilp is the driving force behind it, and what forward momentum it has dissipates with his death.

Jerome K. Jerome: Three Men on the Bummel (1900)

Edition: Penguin, 1994
Review number: 707

The sequel to Three Men in a Boat was written over a decade later, and Jerome begins with his characters aged an appropriate amount, two of them married with children. "J", George and Harris decide they want a break from London, and so set out on a bicycle tour of the Black Forest. They choose a suitably roundabout route to get there, via Hamburg, Berlin and Dresden, and have several reasonably amusing adventures. (A bummel, by the way, is an aimless pleasurable wandering.)

There are two main targets of the humour, such as it is, in this novel. One is tourists, and particularly ones who do not speak the language. The funniest joke in the book falls into this category. George is trying to buy an embroidered cushion as a present, but asks the girl in the shop for a "kuss" rather than a "kissin". He is rather surprised when she won't sell him one, and insists, so that she eventually gives him the kiss he actually asked for.

The jokes about the German character are not so funny. They are perhaps not particularly offensive, but they are stereotypical, predictable, and what might be expected from a man who was later one of the more enthusiastically pro-war writers in 1914.

Thursday 4 January 2001

Victor Canning: The Python Project (1967)

Edition: Hamlyn, 1968
Review number: 705

The Python Project is very similar to The Whip Hand, an earlier Canning thriller; it has the same background, many of the same characters, and virtually the same plot. Rex Carver, shady private detective, is hired to investigate the theft of some jewellery by an insurance company, and swiftly finds himself involved in something very dangerous and obscure, but an affair at least agreeably full of good looking young women.

The main interest in this novel is when Carver's partner, the organised Hilda Wilkins, who disapproves of Carver's operational methods, becomes involved in the active side of the case, much to her dislike. However, the novel as a whole is far too similar to The Whip Hand to be truly successful; you can't help feeling that a private detective whose account of every case he has involves reiterating the phrase "If I'd known what I was getting into, I'd have left it alone" is not quite in the right line of work. (This is one of the more annoying, if small, similarities.) Either novel by itself would rank among Canning's best, but taken together, one of them must seem very unoriginal.

Richard Hughes: A High Wind in Jamaica (1929)

Edition: Harvill, 1998
Review number: 704

Following a fairly idyllic childhood in 1860s Jamaica, a group of children are sent to England to go to school. Their ship is waylaid by pirates, and they are captured. They spend some months on the ship - their parents having been told that the pirates have killed them - before their captors, unable to think what to do with them, put them aboard a legitimate passenger ship.

The plot of A High Wind in Jamaica is not particularly important. It is a novel about what it is like to be a child, and it is perhaps the best evocation of that world that has ever been written. It is a world with dark corners; the oldest of the children, a teenage girl, is molested by one of the pirates, another girl kills a man, and one of the boys is accidentally killed. However, most of the life of the children is taken up with enjoying new experiences and inventing all kinds of games and stories - the boys imagining themselves as pirates, for example. The resilience of childhood is one of the novel's most important themes.

From a literary point of view, the significance of A High Wind in Jamaica is that it is one of the earliest novels to treat of children in a naturalistic way. Children in earlier novels tend to be saints or little adults, or to have unlikely idyllic childhoods. Mark Twain is of course an important precursor, but Tom Sawyer is a bit older and his child characters are more mischievous than rounded; it is more to writers like Frances Hodgson Burnett that Hughes should be compared for contrast. Lord of the Flies is the novel which comes to mind most readily when reading A High Wind in Jamaica; Golding's children are more savage, which is partly because they are again older and partly because they are more completely outside the adult world.

Wednesday 3 January 2001

Peter Tremayne: Act of Mercy (1999)

Edition: Headline, 2000
Review number: 703

The seventh Sister Fidelma mystery is to be the last, as far as I am concerned. I had hoped that with the setting moved away from Ireland the novel would be an improvement on the previous couple in the series, which had got into something of a rut. It is better, but not sufficiently so for me to continue with the series.

Fidelma sets sail for Santiago on a pilgrimage to the shrine of St James. This was not the massively important place it would become in the later Middle Ages, after a vision had revealed the presence of the body of the saint, but there are apparently records of Irish pilgrims travelling there at the date when the series is set. (This is mentioned in the rather defensive foreword.) However, one of her fellow travellers goes overboard during a storm, and evidence comes to light to show that this was murder.

Characterisation is sketchy; the background is far too clean. (Tremayne's picture of seventh century Ireland seems to have been strongly influenced by the romanticised picture of Celtic history fashionable in the late nineteenth century as part of the Celtic Revival.) Act of Mercy is poorly written and the mystery is unconvincing.

Paul J. McAuley: Four Hundred Billion Stars (1988)

Edition: Gollancz, 1988
Review number: 702

McAuley's auspicious debut, this novel, won awards, which were well deserved. It is an imaginative and original piece of science fiction.

Humankind is engaged in a war throughout the galaxy with mysterious, high tech aliens, who attacked an unmanned survey ship. No alien has ever been seen, because they always self-destruct their ships when in danger of capture. There is a small clue to their identity, as another survey has discovered a planet which was already planoformed in the past - set spinning when it must have at one time had one face perpetually turned to its sun, as the moon does to earth. The planet has a strange ecology, which includes animals which have been extinct for millions of years from a range of locations including Earth. But it is the unique animals which draw the attention of the human scientific community and military it is thought that they are possibly the degenerate descendants of a colony of the aliens they are fighting.

Astronomer Dorthy Yoshida is sent to the planet not because of the speciality that she has chosen to follow but because of one she has rejected. She has telepathic powers, able to sense something of what is in the mind of others. The idea is that she can try to find out the truth about the origins of the animals by searching for clues in their minds. However, as she descends from orbit to the surface of the planet, she has the momentary impression of contact with a vast intelligence. Finding that intelligence becomes the focus of her time on the planet.

The novels that Four Hundred Billion Stars most reminded me of are both among the best known in the genre: Orson Scott Card's Speaker for the Dead and Dan Simmons' Hyperion. While not as subtle as the former or as gritty as the latter, this gives an indication of the quality of the novel.

Tuesday 2 January 2001

Asbjorn Aarseth: Text and Performance: Peer Gynt and Ghosts (1989)

Edition: MacMillan, 1989 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 701

As part of a series aimed at sixth form and undergraduate study of drama, Aarseth writes about two of Ibsen's best known plays, Peer Gynt and Ghosts. They are both among his more complex, though the have little else in common. Parts of Peer Gynt, in particular, can seem almost incomprehensible, and it often seems especially strange on stage. (It was written to be read rather than performed, like Goethe's Faust.)

The structure of the book is to discuss the text of each play first, and then their performance histories, with two case studies for each (one Scandinavian, one in London). Each section is really too short for a detailed discussion to develop, and Aarseth concentrates on one aspect in the textual analysis, the themes which are frequently lost in translation from Norwegian. Much is made, for example, of the animal imagery in Peer Gynt. Traditional animal metaphors are difficult to translate, because they carry meanings beyond their literal words, and often the sense is retained in translation at the expense of the animal. This is quite important, because the major theme of the play is the nature of human as opposed to animal nature.

Most of what Aarseth has to say is interesting; the problem is that it is not enough. Even concentrating on certain aspects of each play, he can only be relatively sketchy, and there are many interesting questions about which he has nothing to say at all. By fitting into what I suspect are the confines of the series, the interest of the book is diminished.