Thursday 31 January 2002

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Two Towers (1954)

Edition: Unwin, 1978
Review number: 1057

The second volume of the Lord of the Rings trilogy contains two of the most imaginative ideas that Tolkien ever had, one in each of its two very different parts. The reason for the two parts is to narrate the stories of the various members of the fellowship of the Ring, once that split up at the end of the first novel.

The first section features the main body of the fellowship, and it concerns the siege of Saruman's tower Orthanc at Isengard. Here, Tolkien introduces the ents, the creatures which make this section a favourite for many of his fans. They are the herders of the forests of trees which once covered much of Middle Earth, and Tolkien conveys a sense of gentle and yet elemental power in his descriptions of the ents, together with the pathos the sorrow of their laments for the lost entwives.

Fans often annoyed Tolkien by reading hidden meanings into his writing that he hadn't intended. (Judging from some of the people interviewed in documentaries produced to coincide with the launch of the film of Fellowship of the Ring, many fans have only a tenuous connection to reality, and some of them seen to have hardly understood a word of the books.) One aspect which is clearly there and which was acknowledged by the author, was the celebration of the rural life of England, and disapproval of the suburbanisation and industrialisation of Britain. The way that Saruman has transformed Isengard, with its pits of fire, is clearly a reference to the development of some sort of industrial process, and its destruction at the hands of the ents is at least in part an indication of how Tolkien wanted to see the countryside overcome the towns that had spread so rapidly since the Industrial Revolution. Saruman's fall can be seen as Tolkien's view of the technologist: not starting actively evil, but seduced by technology, and eventually becoming subject to the enemy.

To return to the novel, the second part tells the story of the journey of Frodo and Sam (and the ring) to the gates of Mordor, land of the evil Sauron, where the ring needs to be destroyed to cripple his power. In this section, Tolkien's interesting idea is the use he makes of Gollum/Sméagol, the creature from whom Bilbo took the ring, who had been corrupted by its power over many centuries. Gollum helps the hobbits unwillingly, guiding them to Mordor by a way which will keep them from the eyes of the forces of Sauron. He evokes, from them and from the reader, a mixture of revulsion and pity, and introduces a note of moral ambiguity which brings into question the real motives of the others. This is something which is often rather lacking in the fantasy genre, though it has become more of a feature with more recent writers. (A criticism often levelled at Tolkien is that his characters are stereotypes from the boys' stories of the early part of the twentieth century. Gollum here is a rare exception - in The Hobbit he is more like a minor villain from this genre.)

The Two Towers contains some interesting ideas, but it has severe failings as well. Tolkien starts to fall into an "epic" style which is more difficult to read and alienating - dialogue in particular is poorer. (Convoluted sentences and archaisms are the main symptoms.) It would still be possible for fantasy authors to learn from Tolkien; he is still better than his most slavish imitators.

Wednesday 30 January 2002

Francis Beaumont & John Fletcher: The Knight of the Burning Pestle (1607)

Edition: Robert Holden, 1926 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1056

To a modern reader or theatre audience member, The Knight of the Burning Pestle irresistibly suggests another seventeenth century story, the far better known Don Quixote. When it was reprinted and revived in 1633, it was given a preface refuting the idea that it was derivative, by pointing out that its original performance occurred before the first appearance of Cervantes' novel in England. (This denial is a measure of just how popular Don Quixote was already by the 1630s.)

The structure of The Knight of the Burning Pestle is a double play within the play. A group of players is about to perform The London Merchant, a romantic comedy satirising that class, when two members of the audience object. A grocer and his wife are not used to play-going, but they fear that their trade isn't going to be taken seriously; and they insist that the grocer's apprentice, Ralph, be permitted to take a part which shows grocers in a better light. This is done, Ralph taking the part of a modern knight errant, an apprentice fired by tales of chivalry to take up a device appropriate to his origins, a shield showing a burning pestle (as in pestle and mortar). His adventures, and the constant interference of his not too bright master and mistress, play havoc with the drama that is meant to be on stage.

The Knight of the Burning Pestle is very funny, and ends up (of course) satirising the aspirations of the merchant class a great deal more strongly than would have been the case with The London Merchant alone. That's probably the reason that it failed when first produced, before an audience a little too similar to that which it parodies, but success on revival (and its bizarre title) has left it one of the best known Jacobean comedies.

Tuesday 29 January 2002

George Turner: Vaneglory

Edition: Faber & Faber, 1981 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1055

Set mainly a few years later than Beloved Son, Vaneglory is about another discovery from the past which threatens the new world order that has developed in the recovery from apocalypse. The exception to the recovery is the British Isles, which were destroyed by being covered in radioactive dust, and where the first part of the novel is set on the eve of this catastrophe. A small group escapes on the last possible flight to Australia, including several members of the "Company" - a society built up through the ages of immortals (who appear as natural human mutations). On their arrival, a shooting occurs, and those who do not escape are stored in cold sleep at the biological research laboratory at Gangoil. (This is because the director of the institute is killed so that no one knows the reason for the deaths.)

Vaneglory would be more interesting as a novel if the ground it covers were not so much the same as that of Beloved Son. Both are about the fragility of the seemingly utopian new world order in the face of temptations of new knowledge, in the one case telepathy and in the other immortality. (Immortality suggests the title, from Dunbar's Lament for the Makeris, a poem whose most famous line is Timor mortis conturbat me - the fear of death disturbs me.) Both are about the psychological reality behind the facade and how ordinary decent people can be driven into committing atrocities. It is too similar to be as good as its predecessor, but would certainly be worth reading as a novel if on its own.

Norman Spinrad: Bug Jack Barron (1969)

Edition: Toxic, 1999 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1054

This edition of Spinrad's classic novel proudly plasters Donald A. Wollheim's denunciation of it across the front cover - "depraved, cynical, utterly repulsive and thoroughly degenerate". It caused quite a fuss when originally published at the end of the sixties - its initial serial appearance in New Worlds almost led to the end of the magazine when the big chains of British newsagents refused to stock it, and questions were raised in Parliament as a result - and even now it is quite easy to see why this was the case.

Jack Barron is at the centre of the top rated US TV show, where ordinary people phone in to "bug Jack Barron", for him to then take up their cases with whoever can do something to sort out their problem, whether businesses or government. He is surprised when one current issue - a bill offering a monopoly to a private company which uses cryogenics to preserve people until treatments bringing immortality can be developed - seems to be causing more embarrassment to those he calls than his probing should merit, and he becomes embroiled in political manoeuvrings and corruption as he continues to investigate.

There may have been shocks in the details - Spinrad's America has legalised cannabis, for example - but it is the brutal cynicism of Bug Jack Barron which was almost certainly the main problem. The political history of the West in the twentieth century can be seen as one of diminishing trust in authority figures, due to a combination of corruption and incompetence; Bug Jack Barron anticipates the concerns of a post-Watergate society. Nobody really believes in what they do, except for Barron's idealistic wife; politics is about scrabbling for power not about inner belief. The novel is more or less contemporary with 2001, both internally and externally, but is in fact much closer to the reality we live in now than Kubrick and Clarke's utopian vision.

Spinrad is wrong about some things, of course. The principal thing that he failed to see is the triviality of modern popular culture. The sort of shows that are the closest equivalents to Bug Jack Barron are not about his kind of big issues, but about the lives of ordinary people. He is a combination of Jerry Springer and Jeremy Paxman, but the former is far more popular than the latter. Even on details, however, he can seem extraordinarily prophetic - he has Reagan down as a future President, for example.

Bug Jack Barron is written in a stream of consciousness style principally derived from William Burroughs. This makes it quite difficult to read in places, but it is certainly well worth the effort it requires.

Saturday 26 January 2002

David Eddings: The Sapphire Rose (1991)

Edition: Grafton, 1992
Review number: 1053

The concluding part of the Elenium trilogy has three stories which are related only by events in the earlier novels and by the protagonists involved. The first is the return to Elenia with the recovered sapphire, Bhelliom, to cure the poisoned queen; the second is the opposition to the attempt of the corrupt Annias to gain the Archprelacy and become the head of the Elene church; and the third is the journey to confront the evil god Azash in his temple. It is in the third that Eddings' debt to The Lord of the Rings is most apparent, and it is the second that is the most interesting. The Sapphire Rose is competent, enjoyable fantasy, and it ties up the loose ends of the trilogy satisfyingly.

Friday 25 January 2002

Leslie Charteris: The Saint and the Hapsburg Necklace (1976)

Edition: Coronet, 1978 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1052

The ending of the first Saint TV series, the one starring Roger Moore, and the subsequent beginning of the second, starring Ian Ogilvy, brought some more changes to the much longer running series of books. This really began when Charteris realised, with the tie-ins to the first series, that he could put his name to Saint stories written by others; this particular novel is in fact written by Christopher Short.

In a departure from the norm for the series, The Hapsburg Necklace is a return to an earlier period in the life of the hero (and so it is not, despite appearances, a tie-in with The Return of the Saint). Set in Austria after the Anschluss but before the outbreak of war, it is more or less contemporary with Prelude for War. It is a silly story, about an attempt by an Austrian aristocrat, the last of the hereditary keepers of the Hapsburg necklace (a fabulous piece from the crown jewels of the former empire) to retrieve the gems from their hiding place in the ancestral castle, now being used as the SS headquarters for Austria.

This going back into the past will inevitably (for fans of the series) lead to a comparison with the earlier work with which it is supposedly contemporary. This novel is found wanting; it reads like a minor seventies thriller set in the past - which is what it is. Even the character of Simon Templar is greatly simplified, making him much more a two dimensional action hero.

Kurt Vonnegut: Bagombo Snuff Box (1999)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 1999
Review number: 1051

Even relative to the generally cavalier attitude to stories of many short story writers at the time, Vonnegut must have been exceptional in his carelessness. In fact, he lost track of where some of his stories had been published, and the ones collected here were tracked down by Peter Reed. Some of the stories published here have been quite extensively rewritten, apparently, and all of them have been lost for over thirty years.

Vonnegut is generally considered a science fiction author, yet only a couple of the twenty four stories in the collection could be classified in this genre. (Fans of his from the genre will probably be rather disappointed by Bagombo Snuff Box as a result.) Most of them are set in midwest America, and the theme that a lot of them have is pretence - particularly maintaining or creating a facade of superiority. People return to their home towns after years away, and try to pass themselves off as more successful than they are. Many are amusing, and all are written in the simple yet effective style typical of Vonnegut's work. He seems to have abandoned short story writing following the collapse of many of the American magazines which published them in the early sixties with less regret than other writers, and the sameness of these stories is perhaps indicative that they were not to be the field in which he would produce his best writing. Bagombo Snuff Box is interesting, but not great.

Thursday 24 January 2002

Holly Lisle: Fire in the Mist (1992)

Edition: Baen, 2001 (available for download from
Review number: 1050

When shepherdess Faia returns to her home to find that the whole village has been wiped out by plague, she uses one of the spells taught her by her mother to turn it into a pool of lava as part of her response to her grief. This turns out to be a hugely powerful spell, and commands the attention of mages (female) and sages (male) from the town which houses the university in which magicians are trained. An untrained, strong talent is very dangerous, both to its owner and to those around them, so Faia is more or less forced to accompany them back to the Oxbridge style setting of Ariss. Unable to fit in with the generally aristocratic pupils, Faia is stunned when the age old war between the sexes - carefully segregated in the misty city - threatens to break out again.

Even in her early novels like this one, Lisle's concern to promote the role of women in the fantasy genre is apparent. (It is never allowed to affect the interest of her story, however.) Fire in the Mist is an excellent light fantasy novel, with more to it than most, an apprenticeship for the later and more challenging Secret Texts trilogy.

Wednesday 23 January 2002

David Eddings: The Ruby Knight (1990)

Edition: Grafton, 1990
Review number: 1049

The second volume of the Elenium trilogy carries the story forward from the discovery that the touch of the magic jewel named Bhelliom is the only thing which can save poisoned and dying Queen Ehlana of Elenia. It basically describes a quest to find the sapphire, which has been lost for hundreds of years. This is led by Sparhawk, champion of the throne of Elenia, and the novel is named for him and the ruby he carries as a token of his position.

While Eddings avoids the usual mid-trilogy trap of the fantasy genre (his series are carefully enough plotted that new developments appear throughout to maintain the interest), he does end up writing a poorer novel than those around it. For a start, there are unlikely coincidences: in The Diamond Throne, Sparhawk and his tutor in magic witness several people leaving a house in which they have participated in evil rites to gain power; now, they meet up with some of them as hindrances en route to their goal. As well as this, as Eddings describes the journey made by a small group of travellers, a stock situation in his fantasy novels (and in the genre as a whole), he falls back on some of the too often repeated stock elements of his writing, particularly the annoying arch humour.

The Ruby Knight may be the weakest link in Eddings' best series, but is remains an enjoyable and exciting piece of fantasy.

Tuesday 22 January 2002

Sharyn McCrumb: Zombies of the Gene Pool (1992)

Edition: Ballantine, 1992 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1048

From the title alone it is quite clear that this is going to be a sequel to the hilarious Bimbos of the Death Sun. Once again, James Mega gets involved in SF fandom, when he and his partner Marion discover that one of the English professors at the university where they both teach is actually one of the Lanthanides, a group of fifties fans who turned out to include several now famous authors. (He wrote under a pseudonym, which is why this is not obvious.) Before they were published, they lived on a farm in rural Tennessee and there they buried a time capsule, containing manuscripts of their stories and several pieces of SF memorabilia. Soon afterwards, the valley containing the farm was flooded to become a reservoir, but now it is to be drained temporarily for maintenance on the dam. This provides the opportunity for a reunion to dig up the capsule with a great deal of publicity and hold a publishers' auction for the rights to the stories.

However, the capsule is not the only thing which is dug up, as revelations of group member secrets lead to a murder. The tone of Zombies is more sober than its predecessor's, something which is at least in part due to the greater age of most of its characters. (This doesn't stop there being some funny moments, such as when John W. Campbell Jnr's letter in the capsule is read out.) It is informed by the same knowledge of SF fandom as the earlier novel something which doesn't seem to me to be as "obscure" as some of the quoted reviewers believed (typical examples are discussions of Fredric Brown stories and of artist Richard Dadd). Even if not obscure, it is fascinating viewed just as a picture of a subculture. In no way does it demand an interest in fandom, however; it can easily be appreciated simply as a mystery novel.

David Eddings: The Diamond Throne (1989)

Edition: Grafton, 1990 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1047

The Elenium, Eddings' third series, is his best fantasy writing to date. Its hero, the grim Sir Sparhawk, helps keep him from the sentimentality and archness which mars much of his later writing, and it contains some powerful ideas and a well-realised background.

The story of this first part is concerned with church politics (medieval European style) in the kingdom of Elenia. Ambitious and corrupt Primate Annias has persuaded the weak king Aldreas to banish Sparhawk, hereditary champion of the throne and his opponent; The Diamond Throne opens when Sparhawk returns after Aldreas' death and the accession of his daughter Ehlana. But by the time he arrives in the Elenian capital Cimmura Ehlana has fallen ill with the same sickness as her father, and Sparhawk's colleagues in the Pandion order of church knights are sustaining her life by enclosing her in a magical field which makes her throne appear to be encased in diamond. (This is one of Eddings' most interesting images.) So Sparhawk sets out on a quest to find a cure for the illness while at the same time trying to foil some of Annias' schemes.

The best part in the novel (even if it is stolen from Hamlet) is when Sparhawk has Annias at his mercy but is unable to kill him because he is in agonised prayer. In general, though, the strength of the novel is its concentration on the political side of things rather than a quest with a small number of individuals which tends to become hackneyed even if it is Eddings' trademark.

Saturday 19 January 2002

Hendrik Willem van Loon: van Loon's Lives (1943)

Edition: Harrap & Co, 1943
Review number: 1046

The idea for this book is a charming one in writing aimed at older children (with an interest in history). In a small village in the Netherlands in the thirties, two men are able to invite historical people to dinner once a week; van Loon's Lives is the story of these dinner parties. Each chapter is one of these parties, with a different group of guests; some work well, but others are nightmarish. Each visit is accompanied by a set of lively little biographies of the guests, lacking in the objectivity that academic historians would insist on, but much more enjoyable than most of their summaries would be.

The book was produced (in the United States) after the occupation of the Netherlands, and is at least in part meant to be a reminder of what people were fighting for, a celebration of the Western liberal tradition. It is noticeable that in a collection of historical characters which is quite Euro-centric, there are particularly few Germans, only musicians Beethoven and the Bach family in fact. The shadow of Hitler's rise and what it might mean in the Netherlands and for the whole of Europe is referred to frequently. Although van Loon may have partly wanted to serve a patriotic purpose with his stories in a United States not yet at war, he did not allow this to take over his work.

This kind of story has been sadly out of fashion for most of the last generation, but to those who are interested in history, the dinner parties will still be entertaining.

Friday 18 January 2002

Michael Jecks: The Boy-Bishop's Glovemaker (2000)

Edition: Headline, 2000
Review number: 1045

I found this novel from Jecks' Simon Puttock series more difficult to get into than most of them; it doesn't seem to flow quite so easily. The setting is rather different, being the city of Exeter rather than the wilds of medieval Dartmoor, and this may have something to do with it.

The novel is a Christmas mystery, revolving around one of the quainter customs of the time. In what may well have been a descendant of the Roman Saturnalia festival, it was the practice in many cathedrals to elect one of the boy choristers as a pseudo bishop for the day just after Christmas; this (the Feast of the Innocents) was traditionally a day of riotous and boisterous misbehaviour. In Exeter, this celebration also included a gift of gloves by the cathedral to nominees of the bishop (the real bishop), and Baldwin and his friend Simon Puttock are both to be honoured. However, when they (fairly reluctantly) arrive in Exeter they are asked to help in the investigations into a murder in the cathedral close, and begin to see connections with other recent killings in the town, including that of the glover commissioned to make the ornate bejewelled gloves for the presentation.

Perhaps I was just not really in the mood for this kind of mystery. I don't think that The Boy-Bishop's Glovemaker is poorer than the rest of the series and I did at least become interested in the puzzle by the middle of the novel. One to try reading again in a couple of years.

Thursday 17 January 2002

Luigi Pirandello: Right You Are! (If You Think So) (1918)

Translation: Frederick May, 1962
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 1044

This particular play takes a different view of Pirandello's general theme of play-acting from most of them. Instead of being about the actors themselves, it is about a group of people trying to work out what the truth is about others. Someone new has recently moved into town, and has established his mother in law in a flat away from the family home, something regarded as faintly scandalous - what could possibly be the reason for excluding her from the household? Town busybodies set out to find out the truth, only to discover that the mother in law tells one story, while her son in law tells another incompatible with it; and because of a natural disaster in their native city, it is impossible to find out which is true.

Pirandello manages to make us feel curiousity about the issue, while at the same time making us feel ashamed to be as insensitively inquisitive as the characters on stage. The play is funny even on the page, and would be hilarious on stage. Right You Are! (If You Think So) may not be his most profound drama, but is certainly entertaining.

Luigi Pirandello: The Rules of the Game (1919)

Translation: Robert Rietty, 1959
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 1043

The Rules of the Game revolves around three characters: Silia, her lover Guido, and her seemingly complaisant husband Leone. The arrival of a group of drunk young men at Silia's flat when she is entertaining Guido and the insults they offer her thinking she is a prostitue provide the catalyst for the play when Leone (who was not there at the time) insists on playing the role of the outraged husband and challenging the leader of the young men to a duel.

The Rules of the Game comes before Pirandello's big success with Six Characters in Search of an Author and isn't as focused on the philosophical question of part playing as some of his later plays. It has some of the elements of farce, and should be extremely funny on stage, and it is thus successful on its own terms.

Wednesday 16 January 2002

Luigi Pirandello: Henry IV (1922)

Translation: Frederick May, 1962
Edition: Penguin, 1969
Review number: 1042

Six Characters in Search of an Author, Pirandello's breakthrough play, remains his best known, despite efforts (such as in the introduction to this collection) to declare Henry IV his masterpiece. It certainly encapsulates his interest as a dramatist (basically, in the different ways in which a part can be played) very cleverly, as well as being an effective drama in its own right.

In the first scene we see the first take on the idea of playing a part. Here, four men arrive, one of them new; they are to play the part of attendants to Holy Roman Emperor Henry IV. Unfortunately, the new one has assumed that the ruler is Henry IV of France, and so has read up and assumed the part of a French lord five centuries later. The four of them turn out to be attendants not, as initially seems, in a play about the Emperor, but to a rich Count who lapsed into madness following an injury received during a pageant in which he was playing Henry IV. That is another form of play-acting, and his delusion is a sort of unconscious playing of a part. (And the most famous scene from Henry's life involved him playing out a remorse and humility he most certainly didn't feel when he was forced to beg the Pope's forgiveness and was kept waiting barefoot in the snow at Canossa for days.) Of course, there is also the irony always part of Pirandello's work that all these characters are parts played by actors.

Even by itself, Henry IV is a pretty comprehensive review of the different ways in which people can play a part, and this is presumably the reason why people want it to be considered Pirandello's masterpiece rather than the more limited Six Characters. But the other play continues to be better known, partly because it has such an intriguing title, partly because the history behind Henry IV is to many people obscure, and partly because to an English language audience there is an obvious possibility of confusion with the Shakespeare plays of the same name.

Ann Granger: Risking it All (2001)

Edition: Headline, 2001
Review number: 1041

In this Fran Varady novel, it is not (for once) the fault of her curiosity that she is caught up in a murder mystery. She is suddenly contacted by a private detective, who has traced her for Fran's mother. She had left Fran's father when Fran was seven and is now dying in a hospice. When Fran visits her, she is told that she has a sister, illegally adopted as a baby by a couple whose own child had died. Fran is asked to trace her too (the illegality has made Fran's mother wary of asking the investigator). But then Fran finds the body of the detective, killed in his own car only yards away from the garage in which she is temporarily living.

The Fran Varady series is by this point well established, and Risking it All has the standard features: sympathetic portrayal of a side of London not normally viewed positively by the genre; well drawn young people, again not typical of the genre; a parallel investigation by distrusted police. It is a most enjoyable series, and Risking it All fits into it like a glove.

Tuesday 15 January 2002

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Fellowship of the Ring (1954)

Edition: Unwin, 1978
Review number: 1040

Barring the lyrics of pop songs, the "one ring to rule them all" poem from this novel, the first part (as everyone surely knows) of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, could well claim to be the best known piece of verse written in the twentieth century. Its atmosphere is more dark and brooding than this particular novel, though it fits the trilogy as a whole very well.

In The Fellowship of the Ring, Bilbo Baggins, the hero of The Hobbit, retires and leaves the Shire, passing on his home there and his possessions including the magic ring to his nephew Frodo. The wizard Gandalf re-appears some years later, his research having made him realise that this is in fact the "one ring", made by the evil Sauron to bring him dominion over Middle Earth and particularly the elves who had made the original rings of power. As Sauron has sent his sinister servants, the nine Nazgul or Ring-wraiths, into the world to seek his lost ring, Frodo is in grave danger; and so he embarks on the quest to throw the ring into the volcanic fires of Mount Doom where it was forged, the only place hot enough to destroy it and deny its power to Sauron forever.

As this trilogy has become one of the most popular series of all time, and is regarded by many as the origin of the modern fantasy genre (much of which consists, even now, of imitations), there are some obvious questions to be asked. What makes The Lord of the Rings different from its predecessors and successors? Why was this the fantasy work which caught the world's imagination?

Part of Tolkien's originality is shown by the fact that it is hard to decide just who his predecessors are. Novels which would today be considered to lie in the fantasy genre had been produced for several decades at least on both sides of the Atlantic, some of them also by strangely obsessive authors like William Morris and E.R. Eddison. American fantasy tended to be more straightforward action (like Edgar Rice Burroughs), its more whimsical side really having yet to develop; English fantasy, on the other hand, was either very obscure (Eddison) or closely imitative of late medieval romance (Morris). Tolkien wanted to produce a national mythology for the English, and his basic story elements come from more primitive sagas than Morris' sources and from fragments of existing English folklore. He also wrote in much more modern English than either Morris or Eddison, both of whom used a pseudo-medieval style. (This is probably because Tolkien's previous Middle Earth novel had been written for children, and his style is thus rather more like George MacDonald's The Princess and the Goblin.) Tolkien is not seeking to imitate his sources, but to derive his material from them, and this makes his work (The Silmarillion excepted) a great deal more accessible. His sense of the epic does overcome him some of the time, but this isn't particularly apparent in The Fellowship of the Ring.

Tolkien also brought in a major innovation in the genre with the unexpected hero. Instead of the central character being someone to aspire to be like, his hobbits are to be identified with. Even if not a terribly earth-shattering development, this is one of Tolkien's major legacies to the genre, and can be seen in novels as otherwise diverse as Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant series, Alan Dean Foster's Spellsinger, David Eddings' Belgariad and Piers Anthony's Xanth series. (In fact, this, the medieval background and the use of magic are about the only elements that the so-called imitators of Tolkien generally have in common.)

Those who are really imitators of Tolkien rather than writers interested in the creation of an alien culture tend to miss some of the virtues of his storytelling. For example, Tolkien was well aware just how difficult and dangerous long distance travel could be in the medieval period. While in many fantasy works small groups like the fellowship of the Ring set off halfway across the world with hardly a second thought, in this novel, the journey itself is one of the off-putting elements of the quest, and on the way they meet hazards which are not in fact relevant to their quest but which are just part of travelling - the episode of the Old Forest, for example, where a short cut nearly proves fatal. (This and the episode of Tom Bombadil which follows it are among the best moments in the novel.) This kind of detail can be easily written by Tolkien because he is placing his story in a world which was created independently of his story, a process which involves far more thought than imitation.

Because it doesn't fall into the portentousness of the later novels in the trilogy, The Fellowship of the Ring is the best part of The Lord of the Rings. It now seems old fashioned in places (there are one or two phrases which are on the edge of racist when you consider that Middle Earth is supposed to be a portrayal of a real prehistoric Europe) and suffers from the limitations of the author's imagination (in particular, his complete inability to envisage women as playing any real part in world affairs; only Galadriel has any substance, and she is beautiful and elegant but sexless). It is still better than most of the imitators.

E.L. Doctorow: Lives of the Poets (1984)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 1985 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1039

This collection, one novella and six short stories, is connected because all its contents are written in the first person and read as though they are selections from autobiographies. (The plural is because they are mutually contradictory, even though they share details and anecdotes.)

The title story is the novella, and is a memoir of the New York literary scene, all about the marital difficulties of middle aged couples in the late seventies. The narrator of the story is one of the few who fave remained faithful to their partners though this seems to be more because of his absorption in his hypochondria than for any moral scruples.

Of the other stories, The Waterworks deserves mention because it was later adapted into an episode in the novel of the same name. It is the most individual member of this collection, being the only one with a setting in a past not within living memory. It also seems less real than the other stories, as Doctorow tries out a rather different voice.

The general standard is nevertheless high, as might be expected from Doctorow. He doesn't have so much to say in the short story form, with the result that the collection is a little purposeless; but each story is exquisitely crafted.

Saturday 12 January 2002

Jack Vance: Fantasms and Magics (1950-61)

Edition: Grafton, 1978
Review number: 1038

What these stories, one novella and several shorter tales, have in common is an interest in the use of fantasy ideas in settings more commonly seen in science fiction. One is a Dying Earth story, appearing in that collection as well. The others have wide ranging settings, even if Guyal of Sfere is not the only story set towards the end of Earth's history. Vance's style, where things are not quite what they seem to be in a baroque world, is another constant; it is at its best in The New Prime.

The longer story, The Miracle Workers, is about the relationship between magic and science. The descendants of starship captains stranded centuries ago, the lords of the planet Pangborn utilise magic as a matter of course, while the surviving technology of their ancestors is the almost completely incomprehensible object of superstition.

The stories in Fantasms and Magics live up to Vance's inventive and well written standard and it would, as a collection, make a good introduction to his bizarre universes.

George Turner: Beloved Son (1978)

Edition: Sphere, 1979 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1037

George Turner is still probably the best known Australian science fiction author, and this, his début science fiction novel, is one of the most original novels of the 1970s. It manages to combine several traditional elements from the genre in an unusual way to create a novel which is greater than the sum of its parts.

The novel begins as the first interstellar space mission returns from Barnard's Star, having been absent for a generation. The crew, released from suspended animation, discover a world greatly different from their own. The Catastrophe, an apocalypse of biological rather than nuclear origin, has devastated civilisation, but with the surviving knowledge a very different world order has arisen. The forgotten expedition promises a bounty of recoverable lost technology, and hints that biological weapons laboratories may survive hidden away on Earth, repositories of the research that came so close to destroying the human race. This potential disruption of the newly achieved status quo is the subject of Beloved Son.

The novel combines this interesting idea with an exciting plot and excellent characterisation; the description of the new world order is perhaps not as full as it might be, possibly because we largely see it through the eyes of the returning spacemen who find it hard to believe it can work and whose arrival instigates rapid change and the abandonment of the ethical framework which has made it possible for the culture to arise. Beloved Son should have been more widely recognised than it was; it and its sequels provide much food for thought.

Jean Anouilh: Antigone (1942)

Translation: Lewis Golantiere, 1951 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Methuen, 1957
Review number: 1036

Anouilh has taken over the plot of the play directly from Sophocles, while changing the characterisation of Antigone and her uncle Creon to make a point very clear (though presumably not to the German authorities) when originally produced in occupied Paris. His play is not about Antigone's choice but about the futility of resistance and the moral bankruptcy of both resistance and collaboration (the Germans being symbolised by Creon).

The story is basically that Creon has taken over as ruler of Thebes after the self-mutilation and exile of Oedipus; the former king's children grow up under his protection. The two sons, Polynices and Eteocles, eventually kill each other when the former leads a rebellious attack on the city. Creon therefore orders a hero's funeral for Eteocles, but Polynices is left in the open to rot, the death penalty being prescribed for anyone who tries to carry out the burial rites for him. Of his sisters, Ismene is unhappy but not willing to do anything, but Antigone is caught trying to bury the body. Creon tries to spare her, asking her to collaborate with him in covering up her crime, but she refuses and eventually her execution is ordered.

Where Anouilh principally differs from Sophocles is in the motivation of the characters. Antigone begins to defend her actions by claiming that piety is her motivation, but this is quickly demolished - she is known to find religious observance ridiculous, so how can her claim be anything but hypocrisy? Creon claims, in his turn, that he wants the best for Thebes, but he view the best as the preservation of the staus quo, especially when he can claim that he is driven by necessity to such acts as the desecration of Polynices' corpse.

There is an air of unreality about this play, partly because it has been modernised (so that Polynices was a wild young man who liked fast cars, for example), but mainly because Anouilh has changed the function of the chorus. In a Greek play, they tend to expand on the action, reacting in a way that helps explain what is going on or bring out the point the playwright wants to make. Here, Anouilh uses a single man, who is much more separated from the action, acting as a narrator, and constantly pointing out the artificial nature of the theatrical drama. The effect is alienating, and the intention is clearly to make the audience think about the message of the play rather than the events in the drama itself, to distance themselves from their immediate emotional reaction.

In many ways, the meaning of Antigone is bound up with the circumstances for which it was written, more so than is the case for most drama. (Indeed, this is so clearly the case that it must have been quite daring to put on, critical as it is of both occupiers and resistance.) It still has something to say, though, and that is basically that there is something banal about our motives even for important actions; not a cheerful message, but one to provoke some self-examination.

Friday 11 January 2002

Bryan Magee: Confessions of a Philosopher (1997)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1997
Review number: 1035

Brian Magee has spent much of his adult life presenting "highbrow" TV programmes, mainly attempting to popularise philosophy. This book is partly autobiography, and partly short accounts of the ideas of some of the philosophers who have been important in his life.

Having been disturbed by philosophical problems (such as whether the world we see is real) to an unusual extent as a child, Magee studied philosophy. However, he was disillusioned by postgraduate study at Oxford, then in the grip of linguistic analysis, which he felt was both sterile and, because not concerned with what he considered the real problems, not really philosophy. Eventually moving into TV, he used the fact that it paid well to work only half the time, spending the rest of his life studying philosophy, attending concerts and seeing plays. In the course of time, he came to know two of the outstanding philosophers of the twentieth century, Bertrand Russell and Karl Popper.

The major portion of the book consists of explanations of the main philosophical problems as Magee sees them (those raised by Kant, basically), and descriptions of the ideas of several philosophers, both those who have attacked these problems (particularly Schopenhauer, for whom he has a great admiration) and those who turned important schools of twentieth century philosophy away from them into the dead ends of logical positivism and linguistic analysis. These explanations, generally well integrated with the biographical material, are clear and easy to read, and have the real virtue of pointing the reader to the original sources (while warning of some of the most difficult to read - Hegel, Fichte in particular).

Confessions of a Philosopher has certainly made me want to go away and read more philosophy and think about these problems; and that is something that I think would make Magee feel he has succeeded.

Philip K. Dick: Ubik (1970)

Edition: Panther, 1973
Review number: 1034

In many of his novels, the power of Dick's writing and the vitality of his ideas are diffused somewhat because of the lack of a unifying theme. Ubik, however, is one of his best and most concentrated works, as he skilfully moulds together seemingly disparate elements.

In a world where telepathic talents are commonplace, Runciter and Associates is one of a number of corporations which make money by countering them; certain people, usually children of telepathic parents, have developed a dampening effect, and their services are hired by those who don't want their private thoughts detected or their actions predicted.

This unusual idea is only really used as the setup for the novel, by providing the motivation for a kind of corporate warfare between the telepaths and the inhibitors; the major event of the novel is a bomb attack on a group of Runciter employees. This offhand use of an original idea which for many writers would be the central theme of an entire novel is typical of Dick.

The second idea, which turns out to be more central, (and unites the novel because of its dominance) is communication with the dead. Those who are not too far deteriorated and whose relatives have sufficient money can be stored, not, as some are today, in the hope of later resuscitation, but because a means has been found by which the living can communicate with them, to hear the wisdom of their ancestors (in a science fiction equivalent of the spiritual beliefs of many animist cultures).

This is brought together with a third idea, which is a kind of philosophical panic situation: how can human beings live in a universe which has ceased to be rational or consistent, where it is (more specifically) possible for the technological items around them to regress spontaneously to their equivalents from years in the past? For example, a modern electronic lift will turn into a cage lift with an operator. Dick's interest is partly derived from novels like Lem's The Futurological Congress (where different versions of reality are accessed by taking different hallucinogenics), but is more frightening than its sources because it is connected by him to one of his two major obsessions as a writer, the idea that the universe is controlled by a capricious transcendental entity. (In case you're wondering, his other major theme is how to differentiate human and non-human, as in Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?.)

In Ubik, this is treated in a way which shows Dick to have been a forerunner of the inventors of virtual reality. Indeed, it pinpoints an issue which I have not, even now, seen raised anywhere else: what might be the psychological effects of a seemingly realistic yet disturbingly inconsistent virtual environment? The idea of a VR simulation which could send someone insane through overstimulating their pleasure centres is quite commonplace, but Dick;s writing here makes me feel that it would be possible to achieve the same end in different ways, including the philosophical angst of Ubik.

Dick doesn't carry his idea as far as this, being more interested in the related issue of how we know what reality is - adding yet another to the list of important and interesting ideas which are part of this fairly short novel.

Thursday 10 January 2002

Michael Moorcock & Jim Cawthorn: The Distant Suns (1969/1975)

Edition: Orion, 1996
Review number: 1033

The Distant Suns is a strong contender for the title of Moorcock's worst novel. Almost totally different in style from his other writing, it is an unimaginative story about a space mission to Alpha Centauri, outdated in style and bearing a marked resemblance to American pulp fiction of twenty or more years earlier. It is so different that it is impossible to read it without wondering just how much input Moorcock had to the collaboration, even though it appears now in an omnibus of his novels and is copyrighted to him exclusively.

The only connection between The Distant Suns and the rest of Moorcock's output are the names of the main characters. The crew of the spaceship The Last Hope are Jerry Cornelius, his wife Cathy and scientist Frank Marek; even so, they are no more than washed out two dimensional versions of their usual selves. (This is not just the fault of the writing; major sources of tension are removed when the three of them are not siblings.) Jerry is the protagonist, but is just a Flash Gordon style action hero. While Moorcock allowed others to write Jerry Cornelius adventures, most of the writers who did so stuck to the style and stylishness which were such important parts of the original stories.

Josephine Tey: The Singing Sands (1952)

Edition: Pan, 1959
Review number: 1031

In this Alan Grant detective story, the last to be published in Tey's lifetime, the Inspector is forced to take a reluctant holiday for health reasons. He goes to stay with his cousin and her family, aiming to spend a relaxing time trout fishing in Scotland. However, he discovers a body on the Scottish sleeper train, and though it appears that Charles Martin died an accidental death while drunk, there is something which intrigues him - odd things like a French citizen doodling a poem in English on the margin of his newspaper.

The Singing Sands - a line from this poem - is not the most striking nor the most ingenious of Tey's novels, but remains an interesting detective novel by any standard.

J.R.R. Tolkien: The Hobbit (1937)

Hobbit coverSubtitle: There and Back Again
Edition: Unwin, 1966
Review number: 1032

From the years of obsessive work defining the geography, peoples and history of Middle Earth, Tolkien created a story for his children. It has become one of the most popular and best loved novels of the twentieth century, alongside the sequel, the Lord of the Rings trilogy. Far more accessible than the trilogy (and massively more than The Silmarillion, his other major completed Middle Earth novel), The Hobbit is an excellent introduction to Tolkien even for an adult, and is the one book of his where those things which irritate his detractors are almost entirely absent.

The story is quite well described by Tolkien's rather dismissive subtitle. A hobbit is a creature invented by Tolkien (almost everything else in Middle Earth is derived from sources in folklore), who is basically a type of Englishman the author particularly admired. (I say "man" advisedly; women play small part in Tolkien's writing, and The Hobbit does not have a single female character, except possibly some of the spiders.) While revelling in the comforts of his home, the hobbit Bilbo Baggins proves brave and resourceful when chosen by the wizard Gandalf to accompany thirteen dwarves on a quest to recover the treasure hoarded by the dragon Smaug in the caves under the Lonely Mountain far to the east, a one-time dwarvish stronghold.

Without The Hobbit, it would be easy to accuse Tolkien of lacking a sense of humour. While I do feel that he took his creation of Middle Earth too seriously, this novel is amusing. Even the interpolated poetry, usually rather poor and one of Tolkien's direst legacies to the genre, is not just humourous but self-deprecating - Tolkien was far better at writing verse which seems to be doggerel made up on the spot than at imitating oral tradition epics.

The enormous, obsessively documented background of Middle Earth makes the The Hobbit read like an episode in a larger history. Of course, with the discovery of the ring it is this, and much of the history is made explicit in The Lord of the Rings. The Hobbit gains atmosphere from having it, but also by leaving it unexplained. Although a children's book at heart, it is to me Tolkien's most successful novel.

Wednesday 9 January 2002

Mary Stewart: The Prince and the Pilgrim (1995)

Edition: Coronet, 1996
Review number: 1030

When I first read this novel, quite soon after it was published, I thought it was the poorest that Stewart had written. On re-reading it, I have modified my opinion, and new feel that it is not actually too bad, even if not among her best.

The story is an adaptation from the tale of Alisander le Orphelin and Alice la Beale Pilgrim from the Morte d'Arthur, shorn of the late-medieval knight errantry so that it can be fitted into the sixth century setting of Stewart's Arthurian novels. Alisander is the great-nephew of King March of Cornwall (better known as Mark), whose father was killed when Alisander was a baby because of the king's jealousy of the popularity of his heir; the baby and his mother were able to escape. (This is why Alisander is "le Orphelin"; the orphan, or in modern usage, fatherless.)

The parallel story of Alice "the beautiful pilgrim" is of the daughter of a man who has vowed to make a pilgrimage to Jerusalem every third year - no easy promise at the time - and who takes his young daughter. Stewart has enlivened the minimal details in Malory by involving them with one of the racier stories from the history of the Franks.

Having already covered the major events of the Arthurian myth in her earlier books (with the exception of the Grail story, which she has excluded explicitly), Stewart has chosen to adapt one of its minor episodes in this novel. It doesn't have the psychological depth of the main stories, and therefore isn't as deep a foundation for character. By writing a romance rather than a thriller - most of Stewart's novels lying somewhere on the border of these two genres - The Prince and the Pilgrim is less exciting too.

Jean Anouilh: Becket (1961)

Translation: Lucienne Hill, 1961 (Buy from Amazon)
Edition: Eyre Methuen, 1963
Review number: 1029

The relationship between Henry II and Backet is a fascinating one, particularly with the way that it changed once Becket was ordained and became Archbishop of Canterbury. Though more accessible, Anouilh's version of the story is probably less well known in English than Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It consists of a series of scenes from the lives of the two men, which are bookended by Henry, naked before the cathedral altar performing penance for Becket's death.

Anouilh isn't particularly interested in historical accuracy, and there are a number of errors, such as Henry referring to his father as a king. More seriously, since it plays an important part in the play, is making Becket's background Saxon rather than Norman. (One of the themes which interests Anouilh is the relationship between conquerors and conquered.)

Henry is presented more sympathetically than Becket, who is made clever but cold, obsessed with the idea of honour (not his own, but first the King's and then God's, and meaning not something chivalric but the preservation and extension of their rights). Henry, on the other hand, is passionate and entranced by the man who has shown him that there is more to life than the interests of his bestial barons: food and drink, fighting and sex. The combination of their characters - which does bear some relation to the medieval sources even if these were unlikely to think in such terms - was inevitably to prove explosive once Becket transferred his loyalty to the church.

This change of heart, the big mystery about Becket's life story, is still really left unexplained by Anouilh, though he clearly connects it to the oaths sworn on ordination. It is Henry who is the memorable and convincing character of the two even if Becket is the nominal centre of the play.

Tuesday 8 January 2002

Robert Louis Stevenson: The Black Arrow

Edition: Eveleigh, Nash & Grayson, 1951 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1027

This medieval romance is one of Stevenson's minor adventure stories. Its main character is naive young noble Richard Shenton, who discovers that his guardian is in fact an evil man who murdered Richard's father and who looks to become wealthy by continually swapping sides in the Wars of the Roses. (The point of the guardianship is this. When a noble heir was orphaned, his revenues until he came of age were in the hands of his liege lord, or such guardian as he appointed; moreover, the guardian was also frequently granted the tax payable on coming of age or marriage. These rights were the subject of lucrative trade in medieval England, and were one of the crown's major sources of income.)

To a modern reader, the main obstacle in The Black Arrow and the major reason it is less well known than, say, Treasure Island, is the flowery pseudo-medieval language used in the dialogue. This is something that has gradually been toned down in historical novels during the twentieth century, until now they are usually written with characters who speak more or less colloquial modern English. This is due to a change in philosophy; it is now considered better to accessibly reproduce what it felt like to be alive at the time the novel is set than to attempt to literally recreate it, and a modern reader will react differently to the kind of language used here from the way their medieval counterpart would have done to hearing it spoken. (And, of course, there was more regional and class based differentiation between individuals when people travelled less widely; this would be extremely difficult to duplicate, even for an expert in dialect development. Writers like Scott, Morris, Stevenson and so on didn't attempt to do this, and gave their characters dialogue based on a romanticised version of the formal speeches in medieval poetry - at least as inauthentic as modern usage.)

One of the merits of Stevenson's writing is the imperfection of his heroes. They tend to be - as Shelton is here - naive, not too bright, but with a strong moral sense; this makes them more interesting than the characters of many of the other writers of what might be termed proto-thrillers. Interestingly, when first published in serial form, The Black Arrow was more successful than Treasure Island had been; this ordering has since been reversed to leave the earlier novel as one of the classics of English popular fiction with The Black Arrow as just another novel by the same writer.

M. John Harrison: The Course of the Heart (1992)

Edition: Gollancz, 1992 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1028

Three undergraduates, under the guidance of one of the tutors, perform an occult ritual in a Cambridge field. In later years, even though none of them can quite remember what happened or what they actually did, the experience continues to haunt them. They spend their lives trying to escape it, trying to have lives which do not centre around this disturbing event.

Harrison portrays the world of the occult as sleazy and sordid, where unpleasant immoralities need to be committed to try to bring about uncertain results. It is made very obscure to the reader; Harrison does not reveal any more to the readers than the characters are able to remember. All we can know are the effects that it has had on the three former students - the visions and obsessions which stalk them - and how they try to deal with them. Even the existence of the supernatural (in the novel's fictional world) is left somewhat in doubt (shared hallucinations being the only evidence).

Perhaps more than Harrison's other novels, The Course of the Heart is reminiscent of other writers; there are echoes here of Lawrence Durrell and Iris Murdoch (particularly of The Sea, The Sea). The Course of the Heart is an excellent and thought provoking novel, stripping the world of the occult of the glamour which it is so frequently given.

Saturday 5 January 2002

Michael Angold: Byzantium: The Bridge From Antiquity to the Middle Ages (2001)

Edition: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001
Review number: 1026

While Angold, as Professor of Byzantine History at Edinburgh University, clearly knows the subject, his popular style book about the Eastern Roman Empire neither matches its subtitle nor the description on the inside cover. While in the west the discontinuity provided by the barbarian conquests is at least an explanation of the change from a classical to a medieval culture (and even there the picture is really much more complex), the political continuity at Constantinople presents a fascinating study - how did things change, what resisted or promoted change, and how different was life in the Byzantine Empire from that in western Europe?

What we have here is a competent, fairly easy to follow history of the Byzantine Empire from the time of Constantine the Great to the resolution of the Iconoclast controversy, a period of about six centuries, with an epilogue describing Norman Sicily (as a cultural melange of Western, Byzantine and Islamic influences). It is almost entirely political and cultural, and is an old fashioned narrative history. As such, it throws virtually no light on the relationship between classical and medieval that its title suggests is the theme of the book; nor does it cover the end of the Empire as the inside front cover suggests. My feeling is that the history of the economic relationship between east and west, particularly changes in trade routes in the Mediterranean, would say more about the change between the two periods, while a sociological study of the eastern and western cultures would help illuminated just what medieval means in the Byzantine context. To do this for a general readership would be quite a feat, but I feel that Angold has missed his opportunity.

Leslie Charteris: The Saint and the Fiction Makers (1969)

Edition: Coronet, 1972 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1025

The third Saint book to be made up from scenarios from the TV series contains just a single story, lengthened to a full novel. It is not entirely typical, containing the kind of ironic self reference more associated with The Avengers than the more straightforward action of most Saint stories.

Both novel and TV show open with a depiction of a non-Saint adventure; in the original version, this had greater impact, because it looked as though the wrong piece of film was being shown. In fact, Simon Templar is present at the première of the latest in a series of films in which Charles Lake battles against the evil S.W.O.R.D. (Secret World Order for Revenge and Destruction). He has accompanied the dumb blonde starlet who is the film's love interest, but at the end of the film is more interested by a conversation with the publisher of the original novels on which the movie is based.

When the two of them are attacked, Simon immediately accepts the proposition that has been made to him, which is to protect reclusive author Amos Klein. Travelling to a secret address, the Saint discovers the writer to be a pretty woman, but is kidnapped alongside her by a megalomaniac who has recreated her description of S.W.O.R.D. headquarters in every detail and now wants to have Simon, whom he assumes to be Klein, plan an attack on a security company's supposedly impregnable gold vaults.

The Saint and the Fiction Makers is, of course, far fetched; but it is exciting and, in its commentary on the fashions of its own genre, humourous.

Friday 4 January 2002

Alan Furst: Kingdom of Shadows (2000)

Edition: Gollancz, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1024

Furst returns once more to Paris at about the beginning of the war, his principal character being a Hungarian nobleman, on the fringes of his country's diplomatic legation to France and the person who carries out the complex political schemes of his Machiavellian uncle as Hitler begins to menace first Austria then Czechoslovakia, threatening much disruption throughout central Europe.

As events move towards the actual outbreak of war, these actions become more desperate and dangerous, and in the end Kingdom of Shadows relies more on action than it does on the background which is so important a feature of Furst's other novels. The most notable feature of the picture of Paris presented in this particular novel is its emphasis on the cosmopolitan nature of the city; virtually no character has a purely French background. The emotional tenor of the novel is provided by the reader's awarenes of what is about to happen - war in a few weeks, Paris occupied in months, no more a safe haven. All the desperate efforts of the central characters are to be for nothing.

Kingdom of Shadows is not quite as good as The World at Night, but is one of Furst's best.

Wednesday 2 January 2002

Nora Roberts: Homeport (1998)

Edition: Piatkus, 1999 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1023

The Jones family are an old established New England family, whose energies go into the Jones Art Institute foundation. They must be among the most dysfunctional families in literature, the novel's main character Miranda Jones spending a lot of time hoping she isn't turning into her cold and critical mother. When asked - ordered is perhaps more the word - to Florence to carry out a project in the laboratories her mother runs there, Miranda is terrified by the prospect of failure. She duly authenticates a bronze as fifteenth century (her speciality), only to be devastated when other testers declare it to be a recent fake.

At about the same time, another disaster strikes when a bronze David is stolen from the Institute gallery in the ancestral town of the family, Jones Point (where their house, Homeport, is). This, however, turns out to be a blessing in disguise when the thief returns - the David is also a fake that Miranda has authenticated. Miranda and the handsome burglar, Ryan Boldari, to whom she is strongly attracted, realise that someone has been swapping fakes for newly authenticated pieces - someone inside the Institute, on the right side of their security. The two of them resolve to prove what is going on, and so vindicate Miranda's reputation.

The background is fairly good, if not as convincing as that of Iain Pears' Jonathan Argyll novels - the policeman investigating the theft seems never to have heard of the idea of stealing to order, which is unlikely, to say the least. The tone of the novel is rather like Elizabeth Peters, though taking itself rather more seriously as a thriller. In Boldari, Roberts has created another hero very similar to Roarke, from the Eve Dallas novels she has written as J.D. Robb. Something else that Homeport shares with this series is poor quality proof reading.

The ingredients in this art world thriller may be hackneyed, but Roberts puts them together to create an enjoyable read.