Friday 31 August 2001

C.S. Lewis: Perelandra (1943)

Original title: Voyage to Venus (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Pan, 1960
Review number: 930

Medieval theologians argued about the question of the multiplicity of worlds, whether there could exist other environments which were home to living creatures. A major issue in these arguments was the way in which the fall and redemption of mankind would have affected such communities - were the sin of Adam and Eve, the incarnation and crucifixion events that happened only on earth but affecting the rest of the Universe, or were there parallels to them elsewhere, or were there even communities where the fall hadn't taken place at all?

Since science fiction writers began approaching the issue of extraterrestrial life from another point of view, this has become of interest once again. There are at least two novels of note which take these theological questions as their starting point - this one, the second of Lewis' Ransome novels, and James Blish's A Case of Conscience. Perelandra - the original title was insisted on by the publishers and never pleased Lewis - is a truly magical tale, completely unique in the science fiction genre.

Ransome is commissioned to go to Perelandra (Venus) by the eldila (the angelic supernatural agents encountered in Out of the Silent Planet); he is propelled there in a coffin-like box. Perelandra turns out to be a newly living planet, the description of which owes much to that of Tormance in David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, a novel which the publisher's title for this one seems designed to evoke.

After some time just enjoying the way that everything on Perelandra is full of life, Ransome meets a human native, a glamorous and beautiful woman who is the equivalent of Eve, and the purpose for which he was brought to the planet becomes clear when Weston, the physicist of Out of the Silent Planet, turns up. Weston has now been completely posessed by the spiritually evil power who rules the earth, and he aims to bring about the Fall again on Perelandra. Ransome is there to argue against him.

These arguments take up quite a lot of space in the novel, and make it among the most theologically explicit pieces of Christian apologetics in Lewis' fictional output. This may put off many readers. However, the dramatic interest of the idea of the argument and the descriptions of the pre-Fall planet make Perelandra still one of my favourite science fiction novels.

Justina Robson: Silver Screen (1999)

Edition: Macmillan, 1999
Review number: 931

One of the most important themes of science fiction since at least the publication of Neuromancer in the mid eighties has been the future of computing. Silver Screen is a novel in this tradition, and is, like Neuromancer itself, about the nature of artificial intelligence.

The central character, Anjuli O'Connell, stands out from those around her because of her high intelligence and perfect memory. Ever since her childhood in a school for gifted children, she has worried about the nature of her own mind - she may seem to be an unusually intelligent human being, but does her memory mean that she is actually some sort of freakish machine? She cannot convince herself that she relates to the world and, more specifically, other people, in the same way that the other pupils do and this creates a massive feeling of inferiority in her.

Years later, and she is one of the world's most prominent AI psychologists; she works on 901, latest in a series of evolving, self-replicating and massively complex systems. Following the suicide of one of her closest and oldest friends, the unstable Roy Croft, a legal bid is made to have 901 declared a person with the same rights as any human being. Anjuli's employers OptiNet are fighting this, and she is clearly going to be the major expert witness. Roy's death is also connected in some way to the theft of some dangerous nanotechnology from OptiNet's laboratories, and Anjuli's boyfriend has become obsessed with military cyborg technology; both of these problems are things she finds very disturbing.

While it is possible to criticise aspects of Silver Screen - Anjuli's ability to do mathematics better than her classmates because of her memory is unlikely, there are inconsistencies about the levels of technology required for some of the different computer systems, and the way that the trial goes ahead quickly and apparently without any legal wrangling is very unlikely - it is a clever novel which has something interesting to say about our relationships to computers, now and in the future.

Thursday 30 August 2001

Timothy Findley: Pilgrim (1999)

Edition: Faber & Faber, 2000
Review number: 929

What can you do with a man who persists in attempting to commit suicide, yet always comes back to life after doctors pronounce him dead? In this novel, set in pre-First World War Europe, the answer is to pack him off to the Burghölzi clinic in Zurich, a centre of the new science of psychiatry, where Jung is one of the medical staff.

The novel tells the story of Mr Pilgrim's treatment there, and the reader has to make the same decision as the characters: what should be made of his story, that he has been living for hundreds of years as a variety of people - the model for the Mona Lisa, a shepherd boy befriended by St Theresa of Avila, a craftsman at the construction of the windows of Chartres cathedral, and so on.

With its theme of long life and gender swapping, the obvious novel to compare Pilgrim to is Virginia Woolf's Orlando. Though the similarities are more than superficial, there is a profound difference. Orlando is about a particular personality (it is a portrait of Vita Sackville-West), but Pilgrim is about the mind. That, I think, is the reason for the different types of people he has been.

Another aspect of the interest in mind in the novel is the depiction of the Burghölzi. There, Pilgrim and some of the other patients seem happier than the doctors, all of whom, including Jung, are portrayed as understanding little of what they are doing.

Pilgrim is a fascinating novel, written in a style reminiscent of Jill Paton Walsh which gives it a magical air.

Leslie Charteris: Thanks to the Saint (1958)

Edition: Coronet, 1961
Review number: 928

In this late fifties collection of six stories, Simon Templar returns to the America that has really been his home for the preceding twenty years. It is not one of the more interesting collections, though it does have an unusually high proportion of tales where the Saint is investigating a murder. The reluctance with which he does this is something of a running joke throughout the entire series of stories, objecting on the grounds that he is an action hero rather than Sherlock Holmes, but he does usually take on the role reasonably competently. (The motive for doing so is normally that the police automatically assume that he is responsible for any crime committed while he is in the neighbourhood, so he is working to clear his name. In these stories, this isn't the case, for some reason, but the reluctance is still there.)

Wednesday 29 August 2001

John le Carré: The Secret Pilgrim (1991)

Edition: Coronet, 1991
Review number: 927

The last Smiley novel is unique in le Carré's output. It is very episodic, and in many places reads like a collection of short stories. It has a regretful, valedictory tone, but is one of the easiest of le Carré's novels to read.

The narrator is Ned, the former head of the Russia House in the novel of that name, now running a secret service training course. He invites the long retired, legendary George Smiley to talk to the group, to find that the discussion that follows sparks memories of his own past.

Like most of le Carré's spy fiction, the episodes which come to Ned's mind do not reflect much credit on the British secret service and, being arranged neatly chronologically, demonstrate his growing disillusion with the job he is doing. Even so, the tone is light, perhaps a response to Ned's retirement, the vantage point from which he is writing. It is also, presumably, from le Carré's point of view part of giving Smiley a proper send off; it is made very clear that no more is to be written about him (he even asks, at the end of the evening, not to be asked back again, so that the new generation can move on from his influence).

Jacob Bronowski: The Ascent of Man (1973)

Edition: BBC, 1976 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 926

Like Kenneth Clarke's Civilisation, The Ascent of Man is a series looked up to by every producer of factual, educational TV programmes. It probably wouldn't get made today, as its broad canvas is not really fashionable, and it is not about ordinary people. Its subject is the history of science, far removed from the pseudo-anthropology of "Reality TV".

The arrangement of material is a little unusual; it is basically thematic, each chapter tracking a particular subject (evolution, or the structure of matter, say) to modern times. The coverage of each theme is also slightly idiosyncratic and yet is exceptionally clear, even when not accompanied by the TV picture (the text sometimes refers to footage, which can be slightly confusing).

After thirty years, a fair amount is out of date, but much remains to form an excellent introduction to basic modern scientific ideas, including some of the best explanations of relativistic travel and a wonderful demonstration of Pythagoras' Theorem.

Sunday 26 August 2001

Ngaio Marsh: Enter a Murderer (1935)

Edition: Collins, 1986
Review number: 924

The earliest Ngaio Marsh novels have a rather tentative air which probably would not be tolerated by publishers today. This, her third and the first with a theatrical setting, is the one in which she really hit her stride.

The plot is simple. Journalist Nigel Bathgate, who appears in many of the early novels, takes Inspector Alleyn to a West End play. It is a thriller, which climaxes with a shooting. But this particular night, someone has switched the dummys usually used with real bullets.

It is one of the archetypal plots of crime fiction, reused by Marsh in her last novel, Light Thickens (whose title also comes from Macbeth). The puzzle here is quite easy, especially given the hint in the mildly amusing foreword. The character of Alleyn is still in the process of development in this novel, though he is already considerably more human than in The Nursing Home Murder and A Man Lay Dead.

Saturday 25 August 2001

Christian Meier: Caesar (1982)

Translation: David McLintock, 1995
Edition: HarperCollins, 1995
Review number: 925

The transition of the Roman government from Republic to Empire is one of the pivotal moments of world history, and Julius Caesar is the key figure of this period. Luckily, there are many sources dealing with his life which are contemporary or nearly so (including Caesar's own writings), and it is on these that Meier draws for his study of the man.

The basic problem that afflicted the Republic, though, as Meier continually stresses, this was not understood by contemporaries, was that its political structures were not really scalable to cope with the demands of a large empire rather than a small city state and its surrounding farms. Order in the city was breaking down, a process culminating in the Civil War between Caesar and Pompey. Caesar, by the way that he used this unrest to accumulate power (and he was not alone in doing this), precipitated the rapid changes to archaic institutions which enabled himself and his great nephew Octavian (Augustus) to rule as effective Emperors, even if both were shy of the title.

The important issue which arises from Caesar's life and which any biographer must attempt to answer is why he was the man who had this pivotal role. Traditional answers to this tend to be in terms of his personal greatness, the gifts that he had; to Meier, the answer lies more in that he was an outsider to the traditional career paths for Roman nobles by temperament if not by birth. To me, it seems that this point is laboured rather than proved, and this would be my major criticism of the book. It is difficult, in particular, to see why Meier's observation applies better to Caesar than to, say, Pompey or Clodius, and so I was not convinced.

I found the style of the translation a bit abrupt, and there are some strange details, such as using the spelling Juppiter rather than the usual English version, Jupiter.

Friday 24 August 2001

Michael Moorcock: Mother London (1988)

Edition: Penguin, 1989
Review number: 921

Much of Moorcock's fiction is set in London, and Notting Hill and Ladbroke Grove in particular are home to many of his characters, including Jerry Cornelius and Maxim Pyat (in old age). This novel is a celebration of the city over a period roughly corresponding to Moorcock's own lifetime, from the blitz to the book's publication.

The novel tells its story in a very fragmentary way, with chapters not at all in chronological order (though they helpfully have years as part of their titles). The three main characters have a unique ability, to pick up the thoughts of those around them (an idea strongly related to Rushdie's Midnight's Children, which is a novel quite like Mother London, using a similar device to illuminate the story of post-independence India). This ability, uncomprehended by those around them, means that they each spend time in a mental hospital.

Much of the novel is filled with regret, mainly related to the loss of the sense of community important to the city before the Blitz. This is combined with a contempt for some of the things London has become - a heritage theme park, a place where the old working class areas are becoming gentrified and soulless.

There are some beautifully written passages in the novel, which was Moorcock's most successful from a literary point of view. As he moved away from the fantasy genre in the nineties, Mother London pointed the direction in which Moorcock was to go.

Cordwainer Smith: The Rediscovery of Man (1975)

Alternative title: The Best of Cordwainer Smith
Edition: Gollancz, 1988
Review number: 923

In the fifties and sixties, Cordwainer Smith was one of the most original writers in the science fiction genre. His stories include many undisputed classics - Scanners Live in Vain, The Game of Rat and Dragon, The Lady Who Sailed the Soul, The Dead Lady of Clown Town, for example - and introduced a level of psychological interest which was much greater than usual in a field generally considered fit only for the cheap pulp magazines. (Under his real name, Paul Linebarger was responsible for the US Army's textbook on psychological warfare.)

The original title of this collection reveals its purpose; it was presumably changed for this reprint because it would affect re-publication of the rest of Smith's output - a novel, another volume of independent short stories, and a collection of related ones. As the best of his work, it provides an excellent introduction to every aspect of his writing.

What is it that was - and in many cases still remains - distinctive about Smith's writing? He has a unique ability to express the alien in a single phrase; examples include referring to space travel as "going into the up-and-out" and the first lines of his earliest published story, Scanners Live in Vain: "Martel was angry. He did not even adjust his blood away from anger".

There is a breadth of vision about Smith's writing which marks him apart from his contemporaries. Like two of the most successful science fiction authors of the period, Robert Heinlein and (to a lesser extent) Isaac Asimov, Smith's stories can be fitted into a consistent conception of a future history spanning hundreds or thousands of years. (Smith's, reconstructed from the stories as his notes don't survive, covers about twelve thousand years.) Comparing Smith with these other authors, a clear difference is immediately obvious. Most science fiction of the time is concerned with technological change; there is a tendency to assume that American capitalism will always be the mainstream of human culture. Smith, on the other hand, is interested far more in social and psychological change, with technology being used only to illuminate his ideas.

Paul Johnston: The Bone Yard (1998)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1998
Review number: 922

The bleak world of the Edinburgh of the future under a regime supposedly based on the ideas of Plato's Republic has already been explored through the eyes of maverick blues fanatic and private investigator Quintilian Dalrymple in Body Politic. The Bone Yard, set a couple of years later, is the story of another of his investigations, into the horrific murder and mutilation of a young man who had asked for protection. This quickly leads to the realisation that there are serious problems at a senior level in the regime, as it looks like someone is conniving at the development of a new and dangerous drug, set to sweep the city.

It takes some time for The Bone Yard to grip the reader, but its bleak story and background - Ian Rankin meets George Orwell - eventually do, and then don't let go. While not particularly original either as mystery or science fiction, it leaves the feeling that it is an impressive novel.

It is interesting that Johnston's vision of a fragmented Britain of the near future is very similar to that of his fellow Scot, Ken MacLeod. Maybe the idea has been inspired by Scottish devolution!

Thursday 23 August 2001

Michael Innes: Sheiks and Adders (1982)

Edition: Penguin, 1983 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 920

As with An Awkward Lie, it seems likely that the story of this lighthearted Appleby novel was suggested by the pun in the title. In the novel, Appleby attends a large fancy dress ball, intrigued by suggestions that the host has been acting strangely. Why is this eminent financier against his prospective son in law attending as an Arab sheikh, while at the same time encouraging some of his colleagues to do so?

The answer to this question is the main plotline of the novel, the adders being something of an afterthought (provided by a herpetologist collecting specimens in the local woods).

Sheiks and Adders is much more a humorous thriller than a detective story. It is enjoyable, in places very funny, and harmless fun.

Franz Kafka: Metamorphosis and Other Stories (1916-1931)

Translation: Willa and Edwin Muir, 1933, 1949
Edition: Penguin, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 919

Kafka's most famous short story is one of the peaks of twentieth century fiction; in this collection, it is accompanied by others which explore related themes and were chosen as his best.

Metamorphosis itself is about the reaction of Gregor Samsa's family when he turns into a giant insect overnight; this is an allegory about how invalids are perceived and treated by those around them. The title is obviously a reference to Ovid's famous stories of the transformations of mortals and gods into animals and plants from Greek myth. The sick are no longer human; that is the point.

Investigations of a Dog and The Burrow continue the theme of illuminating human behaviour by reference to animals. The first consists of the thoughts of a dog philosopher speculating about the origin of the food which mysteriously appears when certain rituals are performed, and has clear theological overtones, while the latter is a study in paranoia.

Two of the remaining three stories are about bestial humans, antlike crowds in The Great Wall of China and inhuman torturers in The Penal Settlement. Thus the general theme of the stories (including the remaining one, The Giant Mole) is that people tend not to consistently live up to their best, perhaps a self-evident truism, but not one which a lot of literature would support; Kafka's writing is a counter to the heroic tradition.

Wednesday 22 August 2001

Lindsey Davis: Ode to a Banker (2000)

Edition: Arrow, 2001
Review number: 918

Recent novels in Davis' Falco series have tended to select a particular area of Roman life on which to concentrate; One Virgin Too Many, for example, has several plot strands concerned with religious ritual. In this novel, it is the literary establishment which she satirises. This makes for one of the funniest novels in the series, as Davis works jokes about the clichés of today's publishing world, critics and writers, into her first century setting.

It has already been established that Falco has aspirations as a poet, and at the start of the novel he has been persuaded to join a friend in a public reading. This brings him to the notice of a banker who runs a scriptorium - a sweatshop of slaves copying manuscripts - as a sideline. When this man is eventually murdered, Falco investigates. This is an intricately plotted mystery as well as a humorous historical novel; combining the two this successfully is a considerable achievement. Ode to a Banker is one of the best novels in the series.

Michael Wood: In Search of the Dark Ages (1981)

Edition: BBC Books, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 917

The TV series which this book accompanied was my first introduction to Michael Wood's style of history; then, it was not as personal as it has become (In Search of Alexander and Conquistadors being as much about his own journeying as about the history). Perhaps Wood's background as a Dark Ages scholar has something to do with this, making the book more academic in tone.

In form, the book is a series of examinations of pivotal characters from Britain between the Roman and Norman conquests - Boadicea, King Arthur, the Sutton Hoo body, Offa, Alfred, Athelstan, Eric Bloodaxe, Ethelred the Unready, and William the Conqueror. The emphasis is clearly political; even though the conversion of the English and the disputes between the Roman and Celtic churches are important to the development of medieval Britain, very little is said about them. There is nothing outside England, either, though this may because its history is better documented than other areas of the British Isles.

Of course, the book is not intended to be a narrative history of the period. It is a set of snapshots of prominent secular figures, and if there is any unifying theme, it must be the nature and development of Dark Ages kingship in England. The format certainly has the advantage that even the most uninformed about history are likely to have heard of most of the figures covered. In this way, the book does introduce a reader to the scene of England in the thousand years described here; at the same time, there is plenty of material to interest the reader who starts knowing more.

Tuesday 21 August 2001

Terry Pratchett: The Fifth Elephant (1999)

Edition: Doubleday, 1999
Review number: 916

With several of Pratchett's more recent Discworld novels, there is a considerable diminution in the concentration on humour. There are still funny parts, but they are at the service of the plot rather than the other way around.

The world of the dwarves, secretive and separate from the lives of most Discworld inhabitants, stirs when a progressive is elected to the post of Low King. Samuel Vimes, commander of the Ankh-Morpork city watch, is sent to the coronation as the city's ambassador, a role he has some difficulty with.

The Fifth Elephant is more exciting than funny, and is well worth reading as a fantasy novel. Those looking for Pratchett's humour should seek out the earlier novels in the series, even if there are still funny touches here with the Pratchett trademark, such as the Igor, identical servants in every house based on those henchmen in horror films.

C.S. Lewis: Out of the Silent Planet (1938)

Edition: Pan, 1952 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 915

Out of the science fiction he admired - clearly discernible influences on this novel include H.G. Wells and David Lindsay - and ideas from Christian theology, Lewis created a truly original classic of science fiction in his adult trilogy.

The central character is Cambridge don Ransome, who is kidnapped while on a walking holiday during the long vacation, and forced to travel in a spaceship to an unknown destination, by brilliant but utterly heartless scientist Weston and sinister businessman Devine. Before they land on Malacandra (Mars), Ransom discovers that on their previous, first, visit to the planet, the two of them were ordered to bring back another human for, they assume, sacrifice.

At the first opportunity, then, Ransome runs away, and ends up befriending a group of Malacandrian natives, using his skills as a philologist to help learn their language. The theological theme comes in when Ransome is taken to speak to the Oyarsa, not so much ruler of the world as its guardian angel.

The strengths of Out of the Silent Planet are the depiction of the aliens and the way that Ransome's perception of them changes, and the contrast between Ransome, Devine and Weston. Weston is a perhaps now rather old fashioned portrayal of the amoral dedicated scientist, convinced that crimes committed in the name of progress are no crimes at all. At one point, he says of a young man who would nowadays be described as having learning difficulties that a sensible government would earmark him as a subject for research, the same chilling point of view which led to some of the most unpleasant actions of the doctors of the Third Reich.

Saturday 18 August 2001

John le Carré: The Russia House (1989)

Edition: Coronet, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 914

Perestroika must have come as something of a shock to the writers who had been making a living from the Cold War, just as it seems to have done to Western secret services. Obviously, to some extent, the process was basically cosmetic, but at least the Russian authorities had admitted there was a problem, which is more than the British government, now one of the most secretive in the world, has ever done.

The Russia House is le Carré's first novel set in this period when the Cold War was beginning to thaw, and it is characterised by the attitude of most of the characters, who would prefer to hold on to the relative certainties of the past.

The central character, Barley Blair, runs a London publishing house which prints Russian fiction. At a party in Russia, he says something which impresses a man known as Goethe; a scientist working in the Russian missile programme, he chooses to betray to the world the chronic problems of their defence systems, and he prepares a manuscript he believes that Blair will publish to the world.

Because Blair doesn't appear at the next British Council book fair in Moscow, the manuscript goes astray and ends up in the hands of British Intelligence. They begin a major operation, recruiting a reluctant Blair to return to Russia and work with Goethe's chosen courier, with whom he falls in love.

The story is supposedly narrated by a disillusioned lawyer in the secret service, but in many places scenes are filled out with detail de Palfrey could not have known at the time and was unlikely to ever find out. Clearly his sympathy lies with Goethe and Blair, but he is unable to act. The story is not in le Carré's usual style; the feeling that something sordid is going on, which is common to most of le Carré's writing and which would seem to be particularly appropriate here, is missing. This, if deliberate, is a clever touch.

Le Carré obviously hadn't at this point quite decided how he would respond to the changes in Russia, and The Russia House is, as a result, not among his very best work. On the other hand, it is one of his most readable novels and is probably the one which fits easiest within the traditions of the thriller genre.

Kurt Vonnegut: Galapagos (1985)

Edition: Flamingo, 1994
Review number: 913

It would, I think, be fair to describe just about all of Vonnegut's writing as cynical about human achievement and particularly about twentieth century Western civilization. Galapagos is his most misanthropic novel, with nothing positive to say about "big brained" humanity.

The narrator of Galapagos is a ghost, of a son of Vonnegut's fictional alter ego Kilgore Trout. He tells the story of a calamity which strikes humanity in 1986, which eventually leads to the extinction of all the human race except those descended from a small group shipwrecked on the island of Santa Rosalia, most northerly of the Galapagos. (What happens to the several thousand people who live on the islands today he doesn't say.) Over the next million years, their descendants evolve into seal-like creatures with much smaller brains, greatly increasing the general level of happiness.

Vonnegut undermines his main point by spending almost all of the narrative describing the events leading up to the shipwreck and the main characters from the first generation of the island's inhabitants. Virtually nothing is said about their descendants, which is of course because they are much less individual and so less interesting. Describing the first generation also allows the narrator to make many caustic comments from his perspective, looking back from a million years later.

While occasionally very funny, the novel novel spends rather too much time trying to hammer home the main point that people would be happier - if less interesting - if they had much smaller brains. Galapagos ends up being enjoyable but not as thought provoking as Vonnegut's best work.

Friday 17 August 2001

Leslie Charteris: The Saint Around the World (1957)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1961
Review number: 911

This collection, concluding a mid-fifties jet-setting theme in the Saint saga, literally does take Simon Templar around the world, starting in Bermuda, working through Europe and Asia to Vancouver Island. They include what may be the worst of all Leslie Charteris' Saint stories as well as the last case for Simon's old sparring partner, Chief Inspector Teal.

The best of the stories is a little murder myster set on the famous naturist island of Hyeres; also enjoyable is the silly story about dowsing for oil in Arabia, The Lovelorn Sheikh. The final story is the poorest, mainly because of the B-movie Russian villain (all "Russian engineers invented [a part in an aeroplane engine], but it was stolen by Henry Ford's spies"), but also because it trades shamelessly on the past glories of the series, introducing a girl who is the unknown child of Norman Kent, who sacrificed himself to save his friends in The Last Hero. A sad end to an enjoyable collection.

Michael Pearce: The Mamur Zapt and the Girl in the Nile (1991)

Edition: HarperCollins, 1991 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 910

When the body of a girl is reported to have fallen overboard from the yacht of the influential Prince Narouz (a potential heir of the Khedive) and then disappears, the Mamur Zapt (the head of the Egyptian secret police) knows that he faces an investigation fraught with political complications - life as usual, in fact.

And this is business as usual for Pearce. The Girl in the Nile is another amusing crime novel, with the excellently drawn background of Edwardian Egypt. This novel may just be repeating the formula, but it is a winning formula.

John L. Casti: Paradigms Lost (1989)

Edition: Scribners, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 909

Areas on the cutting edge of scientific research tend to generate controversy for several reasons. Experiments have not yet definitively ruled out possibilities, so that people are free to theorise. The disagreements are really philosophical and political (since they often determine the allocation of funding for research) rather than scientific. Personalities become involved, and frequently toes are trodden on in other disciplines - which computer programmer, for example, would want to be told by a psychologist whether or not his work might ever produce a computer that can be called intelligent?

Casti chooses six example controversies, all of which have something to do with the uniqueness of human beings - the origin of life on earth, the "nature vs nurture" debate, the origin of the human capacity for language, artificial intelligence, the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence, and the role of the observer in quantum mechanics. The selection is completed by an introductory chapter on scientific method (needed to help explain why some arguments are non-scientific later). Casti explains the issues involved and the arguments used for and against the main points of view reasonably clearly (the most difficult sections being some of the quantum mechanical descriptions) for the non-scientist. It is perhaps a bok aimed more at someone who has read some popular science before rather than someone completely new to the ideas, because it is about more philosophical issues than many books on these subjects. It also doesn't portray science as monolithic and complete, as there is a tendency to do.

Casti isn't afraid to speak his mind, and can be quite scathing, particularly about arguments which have nothing to do with science, such as some of the more obviously politically motivated attacks on the work of Noam Chomsky. At the end of each chapter, he says what his own views on the subject are, and why, and is unfailingly interesting. The book concludes with an excellent "Further Reading" section, the utility of which is only slightly diminished by the age of the book, which is just beginning to seem a little out of date in places. I must look out for Casti's more recent work!

Fyodor Dostoyevsky: The Gambler (1866)

Translation: Jessie Coulson, 1966
Edition: Penguin, 1966
Review number: 912

Dostoyevsky wrote this short novel in three weeks to clear his debts. It is, like many famous nineteenth century Russian novels, partly autobiographical, but it paints a very different picture of that country's soul from any other. Almost uniquely, it is set abroad; the Russian countryside is completely absent.

The theme of The Gambler is addiction; its narrator starts playing roulette in a German resort, just as Dostoyevsky did, and is continually willing to lose everything, always expecting to win. It is an honest portrait of addiction, a precursor to Burroughs' The Naked Lunch, but the novel also contains humour. There is a wonderful portrait of a terrible old lady, Antonida Vasilyevna Tarasevichev, who starts out as a background figure whose death will solve everyone's financial troubles, but who suddenly appears without warning in Roulettenburg and herself starts gambling away the inheritance.

Even for someone, like myself, who has never really felt the appeal of this kind of gambling - I would like to win because of intelligence or skill, not because of luck, particularly with the odds are stacked against the gambler, as they are in casinos - Dostoyevsky's novel paints a fascinating portrait. This is especially the case, as in The Naked Lunch also, because it is to a large extent autobiographical.

Thursday 16 August 2001

Lois McMaster Bujold: Borders of Infinity (1989)

Edition: Pan, 1992 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 908

Though this book is described as a novel, it is a collection of three previously published novellas with linking passages which amount to the thinnest of narratives and which can only total about ten pages. The three stories are of a far higher standard, particularly Borders of Infinity itself.

The first story, The Mountains of Mourning, set early in Miles' career, is a murder investigation, complicated by the backwoods Barrayan attitude to mutations - a baby has been killed because it has a hare lip. This is not just a whodunit, but a story which highlights some of Bujold's interests, including genetics and politics. Oddly enough, it was this story which won the 1990 Hugo award for best novella.

Genetics also plays a part in the second story, Labyrinth, which, like several other Miles Vorkosigan adventures, is set at the amoral biological laboratories of Jackson's Hole, but politics alone dominate Borders of Infinity.

The reason that the title story impresses so much is because of its setting. This is a futuristic prisonor of war camp, basically a forcefield dome containing the minimum requirements for the survival of its inhabitants - a totally featureless place. Miles manages to get himself interred there, as part of a mission to help a high ranking officer escape to lead a resistance movement; with nothing, he has to improvise an uprising of the demoralised, anarchic prisoners. Bujold makes what seems to be a minimalist background fascinating.

In the end, though, the three stories leave the reader with the feeling that her true talent is for the novel. Not reflecting the best of Bujold, and certainly improved by acquaintance with the series in general, Borders of Infinity remains inventive and enjoyable.

Peter Ackroyd: Dickens (1990)

Edition: Minerva, 1991 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 907

As the most popular writer of his age, and as a social campaigner, Charles Dickens had an immense influence which still shapes modern literature and the culture in which we live - his stories helped shape our ideas of the "traditional" Christmas, apart from the more difficult to trace effects of his writing about social issues.

The man who had this influence was extraordinary in himself as well. As a result, he has always been a magnet for biographers, from his friend John Forster onwards. Ackroyd's acclaimed biography concentrates on what formed Dickens' character, and how his life influenced his fiction.

For someone following a sedentary profession, Dickens had an interesting life, and was certainly an unusual personality. While he could often be the life and soul of any party, his self-centredness made him a difficult person to deal with. This is brought out strongly by Ackroyd, who is also particularly good at retreading the well worn path of his relationship between his life and work (especially his childhood and the probably platonic affair with Ellen Tiernan).

It is probably the case that to write this kind of biography you would need to be a fan, and this is certainly the case with Ackroyd, who likes certain of the novels far more than I do and hasn't really a bad word to say about any. This isn't really a failing, as there is no particular reason why people shouldn't have different opinions, but it does lead to an occasional loss of sympathy on the part of this reader.

Another minor problem with this biography, which reduces its usefulness as any kind of reference, is the lack of dated information. Not only is there no separate chronology of Dickens' life, but there are relatively few dates given in the text; to try to work out, say, the dates of the first and last appearances of Bleak House in serial form is extremely difficult.

Clifford D. Simak: Enchanted Pilgrimage (1975)

Edition: Berkley, 1975
Review number: 906

Like The Goblin Reservation, Enchanted Pilgrimage puts together a large number of ideas in a light fantasy setting. Its plot is a traditional quest by a small group of travellers, who go into the Wasteland, home of magical creatures and a place from where humans are generally barred, to search out the Old Ones. They encounter several strange, and sometimes not completely clear even to the reader, individuals who are none of them quite what they have been led to expect.

All that Enchanted Pilgrimage demands of its readers is that they don't think too hard. Accepting it at its level, the novel is entertaining if not particularly original or memorable.

Wednesday 15 August 2001

Michael Moorcock: Jerusalem Commands (1992)

Edition: Phoenix, 1996
Review number: 905

The third Pyat novel is largely set in North Africa, where he travels, in the guise of Hollywood star Max Peters, to make a film on location in Egypt. It is a real exhibition of Moorcock's talent as well as a superb evocation of twenties life.

As the series progresses, the extent to which Pyat's memoirs are fantasy becomes more apparent. The unpleasantness of his views and his total self-centredness have never been in doubt, but continue to be underlined. He manages to proceed from one self-wrought disaster to another, but still remains convinced that all his visions will come true, that he only fails through the treachery of others and the determination of the Jews to destroy him. (One thing which isn't quite clear, deliberately, is how much the attitudes of the old man writing his memoirs in Notting Hill in the mid seventies are imputed to his twenty five year old self, as though nothing has changed.)

Though Flashman remains the clearest influence, in this particular novel T.E. Lawrence is clearly a reference point. In the section on Pyat's captivity and degradation at the hands of the man who insists that he be called "God", de Sade is also important. As before in this set of novels, though, Moorcock distils something different from his influences, creating a powerful historical narrative and character study.

Tuesday 14 August 2001

Anne McCaffrey: Restoree (1967)

Edition: Corgi, 1970 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 904

A common theme in science fiction and fantasy - and one which succeeds admirably in attracting would be escapists to the genre - is the sudden travel of a normal person to an alien environment. It also, in the science fiction context, ties in with the idea of alien abductions, though this is something that has become much more widely talked about since Restoree was published.

What McCaffrey does in Restoree is an unusual version of this idea. The adaptation of the individual concerned to their new environment is usually taken as a matter of course, but here the stress and terror involved in her abduction send her temporarily insane. She is almost catastrophically unfitted for the role she ends up having to assume when she escapes from an asylum with the Regent for the Warlord of the planet Lothar, drugged to appear insane by his political enemies.

The novel itself, though ringing the changes on one of the clichés of the genre, is easy reading. It is in McCaffrey's habitual light, slightly romantic style, and is one of the novels which leaves the reader with a silly grin on their face.

Robin Hobb: The Mad Ship (1999)

Edition: Voyager, 1999
Review number: 903

The second of the Liveship Traders trilogy is Hobb's poorest novel to date, the only one in which the reader becomes conscious that it is very long. The story, like many mid-series fantasy novels, continues that of Ship of Magic without introducing any new elements and this, combined with the diffuse nature of the narrative (alternating between the main characters) is what makes it less gripping.

Some issues which are not perhaps properly thought out become more obvious in the novel, as there is less of interest to distract the reader. Structurally, the most important of these is that no particular reason is given why events coincide, the coalescence of the pirates as a nation opposed to the slave trade at the same moment that there is upheaval among the sea serpents. Unless these events are connected (which may of course be only established in the third part of the trilogy), there is no reason why they should coincide.

It is only at the very end, in the strange city of Trehang in the trees over the Rain Wild River that The Mad Ship comes to life, with scenes of some power in the ruined chambers of the Elderlings beneath it. This is Hobb back up to her usual standard, and so she hooks the persistent reader once more to get them to go on to the third volume.

Saturday 11 August 2001

Ursula K. le Guin: Tehanu (1990)

Edition: Bantam, 1991
Review number: 902

It is rare for a sequel written many years later to match up with a famous original, and Tehanu is not an exception to this rule. In time it follows on immediately from the end of The Farthest Shore, and it continues the story of Tenar, one-time priestess of the Nameless Ones in The Tombs of Atuan. Rejecting the fame she could have had, she married a farmer from the island of Gont, birthplace of Sparrowhawk, the central character of all the Earthsea books. She is now a widow whose grown up children have left home, and she takes in a small girl, victim of extreme abuse - rescued from a fire in which she was put by her father, she is terribly scarred.

Tehanu is much more aimed at adults than the original trilogy, even if they had a dark side which would make them unsuitable for younger children. Its intended audience is probably those who, like myself, had enjoyed the first three novels at the appropriate age and who had grown up by the time Tehanu came out. Even so, it is a disappointment.

Ann Granger: Murder Among Us (1992)

Edition: Headline, 1992 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 901

There is more humour in Muder Among Us than in most of Granger's crime novels. The murder is committed at the opening of a country house hotel, during a demonstration by a local historical society opposed to the conversion of the old house (actually an undistinguished example of late Victorian Gothic). As Granger says, the bored TV reporter covering the opening must have thought he'd won the pools - the murder follows a streak by one of the women protesters.

There is also a subplot which is almost a parody of the sort of novel beloved of pony-mad young girls. In the restaurant grounds is a refuge for horses, donkeys and ponies, which faces closure. Markby's niece helps at the refuge, and her response to overhearing a discussion about the possibility that one of the donkeys might need to be put down if better quarters couldn't be found by the winter is to take the animal and disappear into the surrounding woods.

There is a self-aware quality about many of the Mitchell and Markby novels, and the humour is particularly strong here, making Murder Among Us one of the most entertaining novels in the series.

Anthony Trollope: Phineas Redux (1873)

Edition: Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library; taken from the Oxford Text Archive version, 1994
Review number: 900

The fourth Palliser novel, as its title says, is about Phineas Finn's return to the political scene. Standing once again for parliament takes up the first part of the story, along with the renewal of his acquaintance with the women who played an important part in his early career before his marriage, Lady Laura Kennedy, Madame Goestler and Glencora Palliser, now the Duchess of Omnium.

The second half of the novel rather overshadows this, however. Here, Phineas is accused of the murder of a political rival on circumstantial evidence; it takes the efforts of the three women to unearth the evidence which proves him innocent at the last minute of his sensational trial.

Phineas Redux is clearly from the middle of a series; it would be inconceivable as a stand-alone novel. Its purpose is to contain the further adventures of characters well known to its readers. Its main interest is the depiction of Phineas' mental state while he is in prison awaiting his trial. Phineas Redux does not particularly grab the attention; it is one of Trollope's poorer novels.

Thursday 9 August 2001

Rudyard Kipling: Rewards and Fairies (1910)

Edition: Wordsworth, 1995 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 899

While Rewards and Fairies is a sequel to Puck of Pook's Hill, it is probably much better known as the original home of Kipling's most famous poem, If -. Myself, I don't like the poem very much - it's too much the sort of "uplifting" thing children used to be forced to learn in school.

The format is identical to that of its predecessor, as Puck introduces the two children to a series of people - all male - who illustrate the history of Sussex, where Kipling himself lived in the latter part of his life. The tales this time, which range back right to the end of the Bronze Age, are not so interesting, and the collection as a whole has a perfunctory feel, as though Kipling doesn't care.

Nick Aitchison: Macbeth: Man and Myth (1999)

Edition: Sutton Publishing, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 898

Because of Shakespeare's play, Macbeth is easily the most famous Scottish king (Mary Queen of Scots may be the country's most famous monarch). However, the drama's version of his life bears little relation to the small amount of contemporary information about him. Aitchison's book attempts to put what we do know in the context of early medieval Scotland, and then to examine how and why the myth enshrined in the play developed.

Basically, the only fact common to the known facts and the myth is the murder of Duncan, and this is crucial to understanding it. Until about the tenth century, when Macbeth lived, murder was the most common cause of death for Scottish kings. Their system of succession was the reason for this; the kingship alternated between different branches of the royal family, and when a lengthy reign began to make it look as though a turn might be missed, murder was the common and acceptable solution. Macbeth had even more justification, for Duncan was the grandson of the previous king, Malcolm II, who had tried to change the rules to a patrilinear succession of the eldest son. Thus Duncan's kingship (also marked by military failures, not a propitious sign for his regime) threatened the existence of Macbeth's right to the throne.

So if his "crime" was justified by the rules of the period, and given that Macbeth went on to become a successful monarch (having a long reign, and a country stable enough for him to become the only Scottish king to make the pilgrimage to Rome), why did he become the centre of the story of treachery and witchcraft current by the end of the medieval period? The key to this is in the success of Duncan's son Malcolm III in completing the change in the rules of succession; from Duncan are descended all the Scottish kings after 1058. This line had every interest in promoting the legitimacy of their rule, especially as the English were beginning to interfere in Scottish affairs, and so they portrayed Macbeth as an usurping criminal - he was an early victim of political spin. The other elements gradually crept in until the story we know today appeared in the history of Boece (1527) and the chronicles of Holinshed (1577), the source for many of Shakespeare's historical plays.

The story is fascinating, for anyone interested in early medieval history or in the way in which stories develop. Aitchison tells it well, making quite academic points in a clear and easily understood manner. In some places, the book is marred by over-repetition, and the final section about the places associated with Macbeth is dull, but in general this is an excellent book.

Wednesday 8 August 2001

Leslie Charteris: The Saint on the Spanish Main (1955)

Edition: Pan, 1962
Review number: 897

This collection, like The Saint in Europe before it and The Saint Around the World after it, has a theme of travel, with each of its five stories set in different locations. They are all, in this case, in the Caribbean, which with their fifties date makes them feel more like Ian Fleming's James Bond stories than any others in the Saint series.

All five stories are nondescript and easily forgettable as thrillers, but two of them stand out because of the interest of their settings. One is Haiti, where Simon Templar becomes involved with an American businessman who is studying voodoo with the aim of cost cutting in his factories by employing zombies; it has a supernatural element unusual in Charteris' writing, but is inferior to, say, the film of Live and Let Die in its atmosphere.

The setting of the Jamaica story involves a less well known aspect of Caribbean culture. In the mountains of the island lies the territory of the Maroons, which was an effectively autonomous little state founded by runaway slaves in the eighteenth century. This is a similar story to the creation of the state of Haiti. The story itself doesn't live up to what is a fascinating and romantic background, and throughout the collection Charteris is not really at home with the Caribbean as he seems to be when writing about Europe and the United States.

Tuesday 7 August 2001

David and Leigh Eddings: The Redemption of Althalus (2000)

Edition: Harper Collins Voyager, 2000
Review number: 896

Although this stand alone epic fantasy has all the familiar ingredients that have characterised the Eddings' writing in the genre since Pawn of Prophecy, it does have some differences; the most obvious is of course that it is in a single, if lengthy, volume.

Althalus is a thief, hired to steal a book - an item rare enough that he doesn't know what it is - from the House at the End of the World. When he gets there, he doesn't expect what he finds: a talking cat. Slowly educated by her, Althalus eventually comes to understand something of what the book is about - the creation of the world. Time means little in the House, and Althalus is surprised to find that when he leaves with the cat, it is over two thousand years later; they set out to gather a group of companions to oppose the attempted destruction of the world by the people who originally wanted the book stolen.

The style of The Redemption of Althalus does not present any real surprises to readers of earlier fiction by the Eddings. It is written in the usual easy to read prose, with the trademark arch and sometimes slightly annoying humour. This is less of a problem than the characters, which are rather too similar to those of the Elenium and Tamuli series - time to move on!

Like all of the Eddings' fantasy, a central theme of the novel is the relationship between humans and their deities. The theological framework of the novel is less complex than any of the others; there are three deities, two male, one female, who basically represent creation, destruction and evolution respectively. This is quite an important difference from their earlier theological schemes, which tend to have titular deities for each major ethnic group. The overlap of and conflicts between their spheres of interest provides the background to the novel and could easily provide inspiration for a lot more than is used here; a virtue of the novel is that it doesn't exhaust the possibilities but leaves many others which are only hinted at, which makes the world seem more complete.

The Redemption of Althalus continues both the virtues and failings of earlier novels by David and Leigh Eddings (although Leigh's name has only been coupled with that of her husband in recent novels, David has acknowledged considerable involvement on her part before that). It is likely to appeal to all their fans but would probably not convert any who disliked an earlier novel.

Saturday 4 August 2001

John le Carré: A Perfect Spy (1986)

Edition: Coronet, 1987
Review number: 895

One of le Carré's non-Smiley novels, A Perfect Spy is far more about the psychological pressures which create a secret agent than about the mechanics of spying itself. It is part of le Carré's move away from writing genre thrillers that really began with Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.

Magnus Pym is quite a senior operational officer, who has been running networks of British spies in Czechoslovakia for many years. After the death of his father Rick, Pym goes missing, and it begins to look as though he has been a double agent all this time.

His father's death leads Pym to take stock of his life, and he writes its history, principally detailing his relationships with Rick Pym and Czech spy Axel. Some of this is a bit confusing, as in his memoirs Pym refers to himself in the present as "I" and in the past as "Pym". Rick is the formative influence on Pym as a person, and he is the novel's major problem as far as I am concerned. Like Shamus in The Naive and Sentimental Lover, he is meant to be charming, but comes across as obnoxious. He is a con-man, with massively grandiose schemes, alternately successful and falling through. The qualities that Magnus inherits from him are the charm and the ability to put together and carry off a successful lie, at least for a time. This, and his allegiance to himself over any patriotic sentiment makes him a perfect spy in the eyes of Axel.

Basically, if you dislike Rick, as I did, the first two thirds of the novel will be heavy going. As far as I am concerned, le Carré is unable to portray charm; it is a difficult characteristic to put across, but all his characters who are supposed to have it seem to me to be unpleasant, self-centred and unscrupulous. The novel is part of le Carré's ongoing attempt to write like Graham Greene, but he doesn't have that kind of talent.

David Lindsay: A Voyage to Arcturus (1920)

Edition: Canongate, 1998
Review number: 894

A Voyage to Arcturus is one of the great eccentric novels which helped influence the development of science fiction without becoming part of its mainstream. (Other examples include The Worm Ouroboros and, more like Lindsay's writing, The House on the Borderland.)

The title alone would lead one to expect a story about space travel, like those written by Jules Verne, say, but the novel is not about the journey to Acturan planet Tormance at all. Instead, the subject of the novel is a psychological journey made by the central character Maskull, something which could be described as a post-Freudian Pilgrim's Progress, although it is much looser in structure than Bunyan's allegory.

The idea that travel towards the sound of the drums of Muspell is like a journey to the source of life is clearly present, but many of the encounters on the journey seem to be more or less arbitrary fantasy on Lindsay's part, even if the events are inspired by his ideas about the mind, particularly the battle between duty (and the pain which accompanies it) and pleasure (which brings guilt).

It is the strength of the descriptions which grips the reader, Lindsay conveying the complete otherness of Tormance vividly. It is a newly created world, with everything still in the process of developing towards the fixed forms equivalent to Earthly scenery (so that we have new colours, animals appearing out of thin air, Maskull developing new limbs and sense organs appropriate for each experience). Lindsay's writing is a tour de force of the imagination, a benchmark to aspire to for any would-be describer of the alien.

The novel was a flop when first published, but later picked up admirers including C.S. Lewis. His science fiction, which is rather more mainstream, is clearly influenced by A Voyage to Arcturus; both Out of the Silent Planet and, even more so, Perelandra bear clear traces of Lindsay. Maskull lacks the morality Lewis gave to Ransome, and so his actions are harsher - he kills a fair number of people in the novel, for a variety of reasons. It is hard to think of anyone else who has been directly or obviously influenced as much as Lewis, though any fantasy novelist able to create vivid descriptions would be a possibility.

Thursday 2 August 2001

Saki: Beasts and Superbeasts (1914)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 893

The best known collection of Monro's short stories is also a bit uneven. Most are fine, but one or two feel as though he were just going through the motions. The savagery of Sredni Vashtar is missing, but the best stories here (The Story-Teller and The Lumber Room) are also about child psychology and adult incomprehension of childhood. It is probably the attention-grabbing, Nietszchian title which has ensured the survival of this collection, though it would at least serve as a good introduction to Saki's writing.

Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Time (1988)

Edition: Bantam, 1998 (revised tenth anniversary edition)
Review number: 892

It is difficult, from the contents of A Brief History of Time, to see how it managed, famously, to become the least read bestseller of the twentieth century. The answer, of course, is the romance of Hawking's life and the way in which he was able to overcome his disability.

The book itself, in this revised edition marking the tenth anniversary of the original publication, is a clear account of modern cosmology from one of the subject's leading researchers. To anyone who has read this sort of thing before, it contains no particularly difficult concepts, and its style is simple and generally easy to follow (with occasional lapses into more technical language). Hawking's involvement in many of the advances in the field lends his writing a particular authority, and even those who read a lot of popular science will find this classic a useful summary, more or less up to date. (The current research into neutrino violations of the Standard Model is the main development to have taken place since publication.)

Wednesday 1 August 2001

Clifford D. Simak: The Goblin Reservation (1968)

Edition: Berkley Medallion, 1977 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 891

Simak is best remembered today for serious science fiction like Way Station, but he wrote several more whimsical novels, of which this is one. It is still full of ideas, but these are presented to amuse rather than to make you think.

The invention of a mechanism for time travel has led to some surprising discoveries, not least that creatures such as goblins and trolls had at one time really existed. Peter Maxwell is an expert on them, but an interplanetary trip goes wrong and he is kidnapped by an alien race. Well treated, he is eventually returned to earth, only to find that he is believed dead; a second version of himself came back safe from his trip and then was killed in an accident.

The tone of the novel is something like Robert Heinlein's earlier stories, The Rolling Stones or the short story We Also Walk Dogs. It doesn't have quite the excitement of Heinlein's writing, and also doesn't quite match up to the standard of Simak at his best, but it is still enjoyable.

Ahdaf Soueif: The Map of Love (1999)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 1999
Review number: 890

One of the books written in the last few years that I have most enjoyed was The God of Small Things. I wanted to read The Map of Love as it had received reviews making it sound similar, but now that I have I am rather disappointed. Some related themes - post colonialism written about from the point of view of the inhabitants of the former colony; the reaction of ancient civilisations to European control - has led to the novels provoking superficially the same reaction, though to me The God of Small Things is better written and immensely more interesting in what it has to say.

The Map of Love contains two parallel stories. In the early 1900s, young English widow Lady Anna Winterbourne moves to Cairo, and falls in love with Egyptian nobleman Shari Basha al-Baroudi. The two almost completely separate British and Egyptian communities in the city find this extremely difficult to deal with, and Anna is ostracised. In 1997, one of their descendants, the American Isabel Cabot, travels to Cairo with documents belonging to her great grandmother, having met and fallen for her cousin, international conductor Omar Ghamrawn. Together with Omar's sister, Isabel pieces together Anna's story, against a background of renewed nationalist unrest - the terrorist attack on Luxor tourists takes place while they are working.

The first reason that The Map of Love is not a novel which commands the attention is that it has these two rather hackneyed love stories, which could both come from trashy romantic fiction, at its centre. The concern with politics makes the novel a bit deeper than these romances, but this is not enough. It is the modern story which really drags things down. Anna's romance is much more interesting than Isabel's, and is set against an atmospheric background of real tension because of the British rule in Egypt (while Isabel is not so centrally connected to the nationalist violence going on in 1997). Each time the focus changes to Omar and Isabel, the reader just waits impatiently for a return to the earlier story. Even the discovery that Omar had an affair with Isabel's mother and might conceivably be her father - he is much older - is treated in such a way that it fails to kindle interest in their affair.

The relationship between British and Egyptian, as seen from the point of view of someone who moved from one culture to the other, could form the basis of an interesting novel, but this isn't it.

John G. Carpenter: Kingdom Wink (2001)

Edition: Xlibris, 2001
Review number: 889

At the beginning of this novel, its subject appears to be a literal dropout. The narrator, has become homeless and given up a dull filing job, she says, to devote time to observing the world around her. She does this in a generally misanthropic way, noticing particularly how much of most people's time is wasted as they pass her with their everyday preoccupations.

However, she is not as detached an observer as her narration would have the reader believe. Her relationship with her parents, her despised alcoholic mother and the dead violent father who had wanted her to be a boy, is the centre of her life. Even though she is not living in her mother's flat, she remains in the area and depends on being able to return there at intervals.

As the novel unfolds, the complexity of the narrator's internal life becomes as apparent as the fact that there is much that is not being said, not least the precise nature of the "Opportunity" that she is looking for while observing passing humanity. Part of the complexity is due to the irony that, rejecting the pointless lives most people in her opinion have, the narrator is reduced to the even more passive role of a waiting observer.

Kingdom Wink is an enigmatic and well written novel, which involves the reader so much that in the end its openendedness produces a feeling of frustration.