Wednesday 31 October 2001

Mary Stewart: The Hollow Hills (1973)

Edition: Coronet, 1974
Review number: 983

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

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

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

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

Edition: Vintage, 1996
Review number: 984

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

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

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

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

Tuesday 30 October 2001

Vernor Vinge: Across Realtime (1984/1986)

Edition: Millennium, 2000
Review number: 982

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Robert Louis Stevenson: Kidnapped (1886)

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

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

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

Saturday 27 October 2001

Sharyn McCrumb: Bimbos of the Death Sun (1987)

Edition: Penguin, 1989
Review number: 979

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

Michael Innes: Money From Holme (1964)

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

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

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

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

Michael Wood: Domesday (1986)

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

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

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

Friday 26 October 2001

Olaf Stapledon: Last Men in London (1932)

Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 977

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

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

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

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

Sophie Hannah: gripless (1999)

Edition: Arrow, 1999
Review number: 976

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

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

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

Thursday 25 October 2001

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julian May: Sagittarius Whorl (2001)

Edition: Voyager, 2001
Review number: 974

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

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

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

Elizabeth Peters: Seeing a Large Cat (1997)

Edition: Chivers, 1998 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 973

Each of the now lengthy list of Amelia Peabody novels is a light, enjoyable mystery set against the background of late nineteenth century archaeology in Egypt, memorable for the opinionated proto-feminist narrator. By this point, her son Ramses, for long the focal point of much of the series' humour, has nearly grown up (at sixteen), and her "memoirs" are now supplemented by excerpts from a "manuscript" by him, which gives a very different view of what is going on.

The plot bears some similarity to the story of the supposedly Persian mummy from Pakistan which turned out to be a modern body. Here, Peabody and her husband find a body which is more obviously recent, and this sets her off on a trail of detection combined with interference in the affairs of everyone around her. Enough explanation is given for cross references to make sense even to a newcomer to Peters or to someone, like myself, who has only read a selection, though it is clear that there would be something to be gained by greater familiarity with the earlier Peabody novels. All of Peters' writing is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, the Peabody novels rather less so than some, and here the trademark sharp dialogue is in evidence combined with a plot complex enough for a serious thriller; it is one of the best in the series.

Wednesday 24 October 2001

J.K. Rowling: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2000)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2000
Review number: 972

The fourth Harry Potter novel, about as long as the other three put together, continues to match his increasing age by becoming more adult. A lot of The Goblet of Fire covers what is by now familiar territory; it begins with the summer holidays, and goes on to describe a school year, with elements such as the unpleasant Dursleys and Harry's fluctuating popularity at Hogwarts repeated from earlier novels. The main plot is about a competition between champions of the three schools of magic, in which Harry is entered even though below the age limit by an enemy who put his name in the magic implement which chooses the champion (the goblet of the title) in the name of a non-existent school, hoping to use the opportunity of the contest to harm Harry in the cause of dark wizard Voldemort.

There are some quite subtle differences, part of Harry's growing maturity. For example, his relationship with the Dursley's has been changing ever since he first went to Hogwarts, and now they are almost frightened of him and his friends. The changes which gained most publicity when the novel was first published, the handling of awakening sexuality and the additional seriousness brought by the death of a Hogwarts student, are more obvious, as is the increasing use of the techniques of the horror writer which begins with the introduction of the Dementors in Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban and which is continued in the chilling first chapter here.

Does the way that the series is developing make the fourth Harry Potter novel better than the first? The fact that it continues to grab the reader all the way through - to the extent that I stayed up all night reading it - is testimony to Rowlings' technical maturity. Like all the best children's books, the series has always included subtleties aimed at adult readers, but I suspect that younger fans are likely to find aspects of The Goblet of Fire offputting. It certainly lacks some of the freshness of The Philosopher's Stone, and is far less humorous and exciting than the other novels. On balance, I probably enjoyed it less than its predecessors but admire it as an achievement, even if I wouldn't go so far as to say that it was as good a piece of fantasy as the Hugo award it has received implies. It is also not difficult to see why Rowling is taking longer than expected over the fifth novel, especially as she cannot really allow it to get any longer this time.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint in the Sun (1964)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966
Review number: 971

This early sixties collection includes stories from the preceding decade, several of which were turned into scenarios for the TV series. One is set in the Bahamas, and in the TV series a gloomy Brands Hatch (I think) stood in for a race track at Nassau, cheaper but not nearly so glamorous, and that is possibly the most interesting thing to say about these stories.

Tuesday 23 October 2001

Mary Stewart: The Crystal Cave (1970)

Edition: Coronet, 1971 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 970

Mary Stewart's Arthurian novels, particularly the first three, are her biggest selling. This is the first, a first person narrative of the childhood and early adult life of Merlin. It makes him the illegitimate child of Ambrosius, conceived when he was a fugitive long before he became High King of Britain, and a Welsh princess from Carmarthen, the town supposedly named after Merlin. (The main political events of the novel, from the reigns of Vortigern and Ambrosius, are taken directly from Geoffrey of Monmouth's "history" of the kings of Britain.)

In this novel, Stewart minimises Merlin's magical powers, allowing just some minor charms and some prophetic ability, together with intelligence and a somewhat better education than would be common at the time, even among the upper classes or in the church. It fits quite closely with the kind of minor paranormal powers given to characters in some of her later novels, particularly Touch Not the Cat and Thornyhold.

What makes The Crystal Cave work is that it is one of the clearest and most consistent rationalisations of the strange myths created around Merlin's origins. The style is (not surprisingly) very like Stewart's thrillers, and so it is easy to read and has a convincing enough background. It certainly deserves its place as one of the best known novelisations of the legend.

Holly Lisle: Vengeance of Dragons (1999)

Edition: Millennium, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 969

Lisle manages to avoid the main pitfall common to mid-trilogy fantasy novels in the second of her Secret Texts series. Instead of being just a continuation of the first novel in which nothing new or surprising happens, there are interesting developments in the plot and we learn a great deal about her world and the various systems of magic which give the titles of the three novels (as practised by those nicknamed wolves, dragons, and falcons).

The story continues to revolve around the Mirror of Souls, key to releasing the souls of the dragons from the Veil (limbo) where they have been imprisoned for thousands of years since the Magicians' Wars. By deceiving living people, they manoeuvre the Mirror to the centre of the city of Calimekka, where it can restore them to bodies from which the rightful souls have been banished.

The major characters that we are meant to sympathise with, Kait Galweigh in particular, are very well drawn, their opponents somewhat less so. The background is unusual and interesting, and I look forward to reading the conclusion of this excellent trilogy.

Saturday 20 October 2001

Simon Schama: Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (1991)

Edition: Granta, 1991 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 968

A death forms the centre point of each of the two parts of this book. The first is a famous death, that of General Wolfe on the Heights of Abraham as his army was victorious. Schama looks at the way the event has been mythologised, including the completely unhistorical painting by Benjamin West and the more accurate account by American historian Francis Parkman. The second death is that of this historian's uncle, which prompted a famous murder trial in Boston in the 1850s.

The section on Wolfe is more conventional history than the other, and is rather like some of the essays on the reinterpretation of historical events in M.I. Finley's The Use and Abuse of History. It is, as one would expect from Schama, extremely well written, but it doesn't catch the interest as much as the Parkman murder.

The murder case is described as though it is a crime novel, complete with courtroom confrontation. It is a fascinating story, with circumstantial evidence the main prop of the prosecution case, the identification of the body right at the limits of the forensic science of the time, incompetent advocates, and an antagonistic judge.

In the afterword, Schama tries to show a connection between the two stories which means more than the relationship between historian and murder victim. It strikes me that he could probably be as convincing about any pair of tales of this length, and that the real connection between them is that they appealed to the historian.

The "Unwarranted Speculations" part of the title refers to the novelistic way in which the stories are told, with feelings and internal narratives attributed to the characters involved in a way that departs quite significantly from normal historiographical practice. It seems to me that this helps the stories come alive and, unlike the way in which historical novels work, it is quite easy to separate what Schama has added from the information which comes from the source documents - at least, it seemed to me to be simple.

Cordwainer Smith: Quest of the Three Worlds (1966)

Edition: Gollancz, 1987 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 967

Four linked short stories, set later in Smith's imaginary future than any of his other completed fiction have been put together to make up this novel. They all concern the character Casher O'Neill, exiled from the planet Mizzer when his uncle, its dictator Kuraf, is deposed. (The names in the stories tend to refer to other things; Casher's sounds like a Cairo street name, Mizzer like the Arabic name for Egypt, and Kuraf is an anagram of that of Faruk, Egypt's last king.) Although Casher didn't approve of his uncle's corrupt regime, he doesn't think much of the man who has taken over either, and begins a quest to try and improve things on his home planet. This leads him to sort out bizarre problems on other worlds in the hope of obtaining help, and these problems are the subjects of the original stories.

These three stories are fascinating, and Casher is an interesting character who grows as a result of his experiences. The final story, originally entitled Three to a Given Star, does not fit in so well, Casher's involvement being tangential and the major tension of the novel already resolved. It is also one of Smith's poorest stories and by appearing as the ending of Quest of the Three Worlds, can only serve to undermine its quality as a novel.

George R.R. Martin: A Clash of Kings (1998)

Edition: Voyager, 1998
Review number: 966

At the beginning of this second novel in Martin's Song of Fire and Ice series, it is clear that the Seven Kingdoms are about to descend into anarchy. Following the death of Robert Baratheon, first ruler of his line, just about every one of his male relations has proclaimed himself king - both his brothers, and his supposed son Joffrey (actually the child of an incestuous relationship between the queen and her brother). In addition, the new head of the powerful Stark family has taken up their ancestral title of King in the North, and the exiled daughter of the king deposed by Robert Baratheon remains implacably determined to return in triumph.

As the second in a series, the narrative is less interesting than in A Game of Thrones, and the length of the novel is a bit much for it to sustain the reader's attention all the way through. The characterisation and the depiction of brutal political manoeuvring remain very well done (as each putative king has to face up to his desperate need for resources). Of particular note here is the way that Martin conveys the age of the characters. Adulthood comes early when life expectancy is low, and Martin manages to show both the enforced maturity and continued childishness of many of the characters, who are in their early teens.

Friday 19 October 2001

Olaf Stapledon: Last and First Men (1930)

Edition: Penguin, 1973
Review number: 965

Stapledon's classic novel purports to be a history of the human race from the thirties to the time when the destruction of the solar system and the species' end are near, as written by someone acting as a kind of medium for one of the last generation. It describes events on an epic scale, as catastrophes wipe out civilisation after civilisation, only for human culture to rise again (and for the human form to evolve).

Covering hundreds of millions of years, there is little space in this novel for individual characters, and this limits the appeal of Last and First Men. Women are almost completely ignored, given just about no role other than motherhood and only one being mentioned individually, and this is also potentially off-putting to modern readers. There are some dull or repetitious passages, though in the end the story is gripping enough.

Thursday 18 October 2001

Stendhal: The Pink and the Green (1830/1837)

Translation:Richard Howard, 1988
Edition: Hamish Hamilton, 1988 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 964

Stendhal worked twice on the story of Mina (de) Wangel, writing first a completed, but put away and unpublished, short story, and then, seven years later, beginning a novel (by which time the aristocratic "de" was lost). Both are presented here, in reverse chronological order, just as they were first published in French.

The plot is one which is typical of romantic novels from earlier in the nineteenth century, with Mina, a rich German heiress, despairing of ever finding a suitor who is not after her money, coming to Paris where no one knows her. In the short story, she even pretends to be her own sacked maid. The scenario enables Stendhal to make lots of digs at the hypocrisy of French society (a constant sarcastic refrain in the German scenes is "of course, nothing like this has ever happened in France").

Each version of the story is amusing, but the initial chapters of the novel are much better written, the extra space making it possible for Stendhal to improve the characterisation of Mina greatly.

C.S. Lewis: The Pilgrim's Regress (1933)

Edition: Fount, 1977
Review number: 963

Lewis' earliest novel gives fullest reign to the allegorical impulse which was to form an important part of all his fictional writing. Intended to be a Pilgrim's Progress for the twentieth century, the story of his central character John mimics Lewis' own spiritual journey from the dry church of his childhood to a personal Christian faith. (Even without confirmation from the later foreword, the autobiographical element should be clear to anyone who has read Surprised by Joy, his memoir of this process, or knows that he was called "Jack" by his friends.)

In Bunyan's work, the major difference is in intent; The Pilgrim's Progress is designed to show the tribulations of the Christian after conversion while Lewis is more interested in the journey to conversion. This difference may partly be connected with a change in emphasis in the Protestant church in Western Europe towards evangelism rather than the development of the individual - and Christian is very much an individual rather than part of a church congregation. Lewis was almost certainly not going to want to update Bunyan's famous story, the most read book in English after the King James Bible.

There is also a difference in method. Bunyan externalises Christian's psychological states and spiritual experiences at least as much in geography as in the people that he meets - the Slough of Despond being the most famous example. Lewis has John meet personifications of major twentieth century mindsets; the landscape is far less important, even though it is the fulfilment of a vision of an island that John is seeking.

Lewis' novel is far less successful than Bunyan's story, as might be expected of a work so thoroughly in its shadow, and indeed is less convincing as fiction than anything else he wrote. The reason for this, as the foreword indicates, is that the journey he describes is not typical. Though it maps Lewis' own philosophical wanderings before he embraced Christianity, most people don't even generally introspect about what they believe and don't change so comprehensively. Most people today also don't come from a church background, though this change has occurred since the thirties. (This return to something like the start is needed for the title to make sense, of course.)

However, it would be possible to enjoy the novel not as an allegory on each person's spiritual life but as a satire on thirties ideas, except that Lewis makes another mistake which is common for a convert. He shows little sympathy for the philosophical ideas he is mocking, but portrays each as something so insubstantial and ludicrous it is impossible to see how anyone can be taken in. This gives The Pilgrim's Regress the feeling of a novel which contains only one dimensional, repetitive characters, and makes it a dull read. Perhaps Lewis needed to get this out of his system, but it is his poorest published writing, fiction or non-fiction.

Wednesday 17 October 2001

Robert McLiam Wilson: Eureka Street (1996)

Edition: Secker & Warburg, 1996
Review number: 962

We had just moved to London from Northern Ireland when we saw the TV adaptation of this novel; we were entranced by the way in which it seemed to encapsulate so much of the character of the country and the bitter struggle fought over it. Against an atmospheric soundtrack, a moving story full of black humour was very well acted.

Soundtrack and actors are obviously missing, but in all other ways this description holds for the original novel as well. Its main characters are two best friends who, though they come from opposite sides of the sectarian divide, are moderate in their views. Chuckie Lurgan is a Protestant, and in his thirties after a lifetime of unemployment discovers a genius for business which he doesn't understand, when he manages to persuade one of the organisations eager to grant money to ecumenical projects between one ceasefire and the next to give him a large sum with an improvised and ludicrous business plan.

At the same time, Jake is trying to sort out his life after his English girlfriend has left him. He works as a repo man with two bigoted Protestants, who don't know that he's a Catholic; he hates his job. His side of the story is mainly concerned with the ultra-Republican Aorghe, flatmate of Chuckie's new girlfriend, and the street boy Roche, who reminds him of himself as a boy.

The pivotal event in the novel, a bombing in a Belfast café, is described tenderly, while in the remainder of the novel black humour is the main element. It is very much true to Northern Ireland as we experienced it, albeit as outsiders.

Tuesday 16 October 2001

Bernard Lovell: In the Centre of Immensities (1979)

Edition: Hutchinson, 1979 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 961

Now sadly out of date, Bernard Lovell's wonderful popular science book was an inspiration to me in my teens. It tells a familiar story, the history of human understanding of the cosmos and our species' place in it, but stands out because of the excellence of Lovell's writing and a slightly unusual viewpoint.

Most popular science books seek to make the reader wonder at the marvels of the universe, particularly the paradox that the best descriptions currently available are not intuitively obvious. There is a subtext to this, though, which is that science is wonderful for having discovered so much out about the universe and for describing things in such a subtle way.

Lovell is interested in the wonders of the universe, but he is also concerned with the way in which changing perceptions of the universe have affected our species' view of itself. A considerable proportion of the book, including the whole last chapter, is about morality, something which it has become fashionable for scientists to ignore completely with the argument that scientific research is morally neutral. The problem with this is that the application of research is not neutral, and there is certainly some scientific work which is so tightly tied to a particular application that it can itself hardly be termed neutral (biological weapons work, for example).

The foregoing perhaps overstates the importance of this aspect of In the Centre of Immensities. It is this, though, which makes it different from most histories of cosmological speculation, and it is this which made it such an important book to me.

Eugène Ionesco: The Lesson (1954)

Translation: Donald Watson, 1958
Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 960

This is the only Ionesco play I have seen, and it is very funny on the stage. It describes a visit by a pupil to the house of someone who can only be described as a mad professor, who teaches her bizarre mathematics and ludicrous linguistics before attacking her with a knife.

The mathematical jokes are similar to those involving the Logician in Rhinoceros, and The Lesson reads like a preparatory excercise for the later play, a less surreal version of that play's lighter moments.

The Lesson is lighter than the other plays in this collection, and so unlike them it doesn't particularly seem to need to be supplied with a meaning.

Saturday 6 October 2001

Leslie Charteris: Trust the Saint (1962)

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1964 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 957

Six Saint stories from the early sixties, as the date approached the launch of the TV series. Indeed, the final story is one which I remember seeing Roger Moore in, memorable because it is a silly tale about the search for the Loch Ness Monster.

Apart from this, Trust the Saint is one of the least memorable of all the collections of Saint stories. The tales are enjoyable enough when read, but quickly fade from the mind.

Eugène Ionesco: The Chairs (1954)

Translation: Donald Watson, 1958
Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 959

Two old people prepare an auditorium for a lecture. They welcome large numbers of invisible guests, holding conversations with several of them including the Emperor. Then, when the lecturer arrives, he turns out to be deaf and dumb, unable to communicate except by sign language and gibberish written on a blackboard.

The conversations between the old man and woman and their imaginary guests are reminiscent of Beckett. It has the world weariness, even if the wordplay is missing. It is not particularly funny on the page, unlike Rhinoceros and The Lesson, but could come alive on the stage.

As with Ionesco's other plays, the question is whether it is meaningful or not, and, if it is, what that meaning is. There are several possibilities for the play's theme, if it has one, and the key element is what Ionesco wants to convey with the invisible characters. They are not likely to be imaginary, only present of the minds of the two old people, because the lecturer appears and the fantasy would have to be consistently shared by both of them. The implication is that any meaning the play has is to do with the audience's perception of these people, or possibly about their nature as characters in the play.

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

Edition: Hodder & Stoughton, 1996 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 958

The second of Robb's Eve Dallas novels is typical of the series; an enjoyable, light murder investigation in the New York of the future, with the developing relationship between Lieutenant Dallas and billionaire Roarke in the background.

The first victim in this case is a prominent lawyer, well known and liked in the NYPD, and a close social acquaintance of Eve's boss. The personal elemts in the background of the investigation coincide with massive media interest in any case with which Eve is involved, because of her relationship with Roarke. One reporter is particularly obnoxious, and Eve's reaction to this forms the basis of her special closeness to his rival, Nadine Furst, which becomes quite an important component of novels later in the series.

Friday 5 October 2001

Eugène Ionesco: Rhinoceros (1959)

Translation: Derek Prowse, 1960
Edition: Penguin, 1962
Review number: 956

Ionesco's most famous play may have a surreal idea at its centre (that people are turning into rhinoceroses), but he uses this to say something about human nature while at the same time creating a drama which is by turns funny, surprising, and fascinating.

In the first act, the main characters, Berenger and his friend Jean, are terrorised by the first rhinoceroses, running around the streets of the town causing lots of damage. It is only in the next scene, set in Berenger's office, that we discover that people are turning into the animals, as one of his colleagues destroys the building's staircase. Then everyone around Berenger starts to change - Jean, his colleagues and eventually the girl from his office that he had a crush on at a point when they believe they are the only remaining human beings. Finally, Berenger, alone, wonders why he can't change, begins to feel that his lack of a horn on his forehead makes him ugly, but ends with defiance against the idea of changing.

Though the play is designed to make the audience think it has an ideological point, like one of Sartre's existentialist plays, for example, it doesn't really, in my opinion. The rhinoceroses can be interpreted, say, as people who have accepted a new totalitarian regime, but this identification can only be made vaguely, and it seems to be more that Ionesco is writing an absurdist version of this kind of drama, so that the animals do not need to have a meaning.

Saki: The Square Egg (1924)

Edition: Penguin, 1982
Review number: 955

The second collection of Saki's writing published in the decade after his death is very short; it contains just five or six pieces. The majority are more journalism than storytelling, on subjects such as the way that the Western Front affected the behaviour of birds or on British politics. The pieces about the front - the one just mentioned and The Square Egg itself, about a con man preying on soldiers just behind the lines - are most memorable, but the collection is generally not as interesting as Saki's others. This is because the writing has dated more rapidly, as it requires knowledge of events now obscure, a fault shared with his other brief political satire, Alice in Westminster.

Thursday 4 October 2001

Stephen Lawhead: Merlin (1988)

Edition: Lion, 1988
Review number: 954

The second of the novels in Lawhead's Arthurian series is written from the point of view of Merlin, who is made a descendant of the Atlanteans who settled in Britain in the first novel about Merlin's father Taliesyn. The plot will be familiar - the traditional build-up to the accession o Arthur as king: the madness of Merlin, Vortigern inviting the Saxons to come to Britain as mercenaries, Ambrosius and Uther, the conception and hidden childhood of Arthur.

With any Arthurian novel, as opposed to a simple retelling of the myth, the question which immediately arises is how the author has made the story his or her own. In Lawhead's case, this has two aspects. The first is the quality of his writing, perhaps more obvious here than in any of his other novels. This is particularly the case in the retelling of the tale of Manawydan from the Mabinogion, and in the (first person) description of Merlin's recovery from madness, following a break in the narrative during his actual raving.

The second is the Christian subtext. The story of Arthur, with its conflicts between the Christian Celts and pagan Saxons, lends itself to this, and so to make it an important part of the story is not new to Lawhead (though it has rather gone out of fashion in recent retellings, which have tended to emphasise aspects likely to appeal to students of the New Age). Expressing a Christian apologetic in fiction is difficult to do well, however, as is usually the case with any agenda imposed upon a story. Here, though, it works as well as with any writer since C.S. Lewis, and this is because the story comes first and the spiritual aspects seem to arise naturally from the author's own faith rather than been forced into the narrative out of a sense of duty.

Robin Hobb: Ship of Destiny (2000)

Edition: Voyager, 2000
Review number: 953

In the final volume in her extremely lengthy Liveship Traders trilogy, Hobb knits the complex threads of her narrative back together in a skilful and exciting way, even if some questions remain unanswered (notably that of why the success of pirates in attacking slave ships should coincide with agitation among the sea serpents, which are the events that motivate the entire trilogy).

Like the second book, The Mad Ship, Ship of Destiny contains few surprises; the major new element is the discovery of the origins of pirate leader Kennit. Most of the story concerns the four sided war between the satrapy of Jamailla, its virtually independent colony at Bingtown which is the home port of the live ships, the slavers of Chalced and the pirates. Much of the action takes place at sea, and it is clear that a major motivation of the novel is a desire to replicate something of the atmosphere of the novels about the eighteenth century British navy by writers like C.S. Forester and Patrick O'Brien in a fantasy context. Ship of Destiny succeeds best in reaching this aim, but it still for me falls somewhat short. The descriptions don't make me feel that Hobb has the feel for the details that Forester and O'Brien had.

As a trilogy, The Liveship Traders is less successful than Hobb's first, the Farseer series. It is less brutal, and has fewer surprises, and its second novel is a let down. Ship of Destiny provides an interesting ending, and there is much to enjoy here, but Hobb has proved already that she can do better.

Wednesday 3 October 2001

Lucius Apuleius: The Golden Ass

Translation: Robert Graves, 1947 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Penguin, 1950
Review number: 952

Lucius Apuleius' tale of a man transformed into an ass and his adventures in that shape has long been popular as an amusing, slightly bawdy story. Parts of it appear in the Decameron and it is, I suspect, one of the inspirations behind the story of Bottom in A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Lucius is a young nobleman who travels to the Greek town of Hypata, well known for its witches. There, a mistaken application of a salve turns him into an ass, a shape which, he is told, will remain his until he eats some roses. Most of the novel is about his adventures in this form, retaining human intellect and tastes, until he is eventually rescued by the grace of the goddess Isis. (The word "golden" in the title, by the way, refers not to any event in the story, but to the value of the tale itself.)

The question which arises on reading The Golden Ass is how it survived the Middle Ages. It frequently celebrates the ancient pagan religion, especially the mysteries of Isis of which Apuleius himself was a devotee; the author was thought to be a magician, actually standing trial for witchcraft, and the book to be a literal autobiography. Though the devotion to Isis was interpreted as a picture of devotion to the Virgin Mary, this was anachronistic and bears no relation to cults in the Christianity of Apuleius' time, which he may even directly attack (one of the wicked characters who mistreats Lucius as an ass is a hypocrite who disguises her evildoing in a cult of the "Only God"). The bawdy scenes and joking would also not be something of which the church would approve officially, yet they are obviously the key to the work's survival; they make it a fun book for a monk to enjoy copying out, rather than something which would be a tedious duty.

Tuesday 2 October 2001

Henry Green: Party Going (1939)

Edition: Harvill Press, 1996
Review number: 951

The setup for Party Going resembles that of a classic murder mystery. A group of rich young socialites is heading for the south of France for a party, but fog means that there are no trains from a station which seems to be Charing Cross. They take refuge in the station hotel and are there as isolated as they would be at the kind of remote location beloved of crime writers, despite the huge mass of people barricaded outside.

Of course, Party Going is not a murder mystery. It is a drama about the relationships between the young people (accompanied by their servants and, rather bizarrely to modern readers, in some cases by their nannies). These relationships centre around the host of the party, Max Adey, whose ideas about hospitality are based partly on the Aga Khan, whose son was a friend of Henry Yorke in real life.

Reading Party Going, I was bizarrely reminded of Zuleika Dobson, though Green's novel lacks the fantasy elements which play so large a part in Beerbohm's. The reason for this is really that both novels portray much the same kind of upper class existence, frivolous and hardly connected to the real world. Though most of the foundations of this lifestyle were swept away by the First World War, it survived until after the second, and the eventual virtual decline of service as a career.

Party Going is given a sense of depth by the unexplained symbols created at intervals and then ignored - they include the death of a station pigeon, falling at the feet of one of the characters at the beginning of the novel, or the paintings in one of the hotel rooms including a depiction of Nero fiddling while Rome burns. The enduring image from the book is the feeling that the privileged few in the hotel are under siege from the vast crowd of ordinary people in the station outside. It is a powerful picture of the end of the old fashioned upper classes.

Sir Walter Scott: The Bride of Lammermoor (1819)

Edition: Caxton, 1900 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 950

Scott was once the most famous writer of his generation, and his novels were still quite widely read until relatively recently. Today, though, most of them have pretty much lapsed into obscurity. The Bride of Lammermoor, for example, is probably better known today through the opera Donizetti based on it.

The Bride of Lammermoor is basically a melodramatic variation on Romeo and Juliet. As the son of a Jacobite, Edgar, Master of Ravenswood, has lost his estates to Whig lawyer Sir William Ashton. He lives in poverty in an romantic ruined castle, Wolf's Crag, and falls in love with Lucy, William Ashton's daughter. Ashton himself is reasonably willing to permit the match, as he has no personal animus against Ravenswood and as he moreover forsees an imminent improvement in the political fortunes of the Tories. His wife has other plans for Lucy, though, and so she remains implacably opposed to the match.

While there is much in the novel which has dated, The Bride of Lammermoor still remains exciting in part. The opera simlifies the novel, leaving out many of the minor characters, and this is something which is going to improve it. The servant characters are mainly used by Scott as opportunities for atmosphere or humour, and to a modern reader they seem two dimensional and their use heavy handed. This is particularly the case with Ravenswood's servant Caleb Balderston, who spends the entire novel making extraordinary efforts to conceal the very obvious diminution in the family fortunes.