Saturday 20 November 2010

Audrey Niffenegger: The Time Traveler's Wife (2004)

A remarkable idea is the focal point of this novel, which I am reading for the first time even though it has been around for ages. There have been thousands of stories about the development of relationships, but here there is a unique twist: one of the people involved is an involuntary time traveller, who suddenly materialises years away from his starting point when stressed.

This brings a whole new level of interest to what might otherwise have just been a run of the mill modern novel. In most relationships, the way they develop is that both parties get to know the other at about the same rate, but for Clare and Henry, this doesn't work. Clare is a child when she first meets Henry, a naked adult man in the garden of her home; he already knows her (and even has a list in a notebook of the dates when they will meet - compiled from a list she gave him years later). When Henry first (from his point of view) meets Clare, she is in her twenties and has known him at various ages for many years; he is almost like an imaginary friend who turns out to be real. So both of them have to find out about someone who already knows them well. This would alone be enough to make the story of the relationship different from almost any in fiction; the closest would be where one of the two people involved is some kind of celebrity whose life is at least on the surface well known to the other (and I can't even think immediately of an example, though I am sure there will be many).

The Time Traveler's Wife is very carefully put together so as not to be too confusing for the reader. I suspect that the writing of the novel involved complicated charts showing the different timelines, with lots of crossing out. Each section has two important cues to help the reader: at the top, the date, and the ages of the Clare and Henry in the section, and then an indication of whose point of view is being used. The story almost always follows Clare's timeline, though certain significant events appear at other points - the last meeting listed in Clare's notebook, before they meet in real time, for example. Since the time travel motif dominates the story, this is needed to make the complex tangled relationship make sense.

It is easy to see why Niffenegger's debut is marketed as general fiction rather than as science fiction - it is about the relationship, not about the mechanics of time travel. But it does share many of the trappings of the genre, not least an interest in what is known as the "grandfather paradox": what happens if the time traveller changes the past in a way which affects his future self (the name coming from the idea of him travelling back and murdering his grandfather, making his birth and the travel and the murder impossible). Henry thinks that the future is fixed, that there is no way to meddle with it; the only time Clare tries to make changes, she backs out before it would become an issue (she writes the date on a drawing that in the future Henry knows is undated; but snips the date off later so that it matches the picture as Henry remembers it). The possibility of changing the future is discussed many times, but never acted upon. This is perhaps the most common sense solution to the grandfather paradox, though it does have tough implications about free will, which is only apparent not actual. Of course, characters in a story do not have free will, but are driven by their author.

I wondered for awhile whether the time travel idea in this novel is meant to have any metaphorical meaning, whether Niffenegger is trying to say something about relationships. Of course, it is true that the participants in a relationship may have different understanding of the relationship, of each other, and of the future from each other. When a novel tells the story of a relationship from the point of view of just one of the participants, as is generally the case, this is something which can get lost, though it can also lead to effective scenes when the difference in their perception becomes clear to both participants, with comic or tragic results. In the end, I decided there is no deeper meaning, that the purpose of the time travel is simply to enable Niffenegger to examine the story of Henry and Clare from a different angle.

Thinking of The Time Traveler's Wife as the story of a relationship means that its quality should rest on the portrayal of the two characters and their interactions. Both Clare and Henry are flawed enough to be interesting, Henry more so than Clare. They come from affluent, middle class but difficult backgrounds, Clare's mother being manic depressive, while Henry's mother was killed in a road accident in front of him when he was six, pushing his father into alcoholism. (This suggests that the time travel is something of a search for somewhere to belong, with Clare being the place he finds, but that is a rather superficial way to look at a relationship, particularly looking at it from Clare's point of view.) To the reader, they are interesting, even if it sometimes feels that the novel is being expounded at a glacially slow rate.

Plot development is the most serious flaw in The Time Traveler's Wife, which is not only slow, but seems slower because the time travelling continually means that the reader is fed hints of what is to come. However, this doesn't really matter, as the main pleasure of the novel is the exploration of the central relationship. That, together with the intriguing idea, lead me to rate it at 8/10.

Edition: Vintage, 2005
Review number: 1411

Thursday 28 October 2010

Tom Holt: Blonde Bombshell (2010)

Tom Holt's latest novel seems to follow in well trodden footsteps. An advanced alien civilization finds itself threatened by the Earth's broadcasts through space, as music (not a concept previously known to them) is addictive to the Ostar. They send an intelligent bomb  to destroy the Earth, only to loose contact; Blonde B ombshell concerns their second attempt,  to find out what the Earth's hidden technology which put paid to the first bomb could possibly be, and carry out the destruction mission. All gung ho, the second bomb arrives, and sends down a probe, putting a copy of its mind in a human body created for the purpose. While it realises that "Mark Two" would not be an acceptable name for human culture, it decides that "Mark Twain" would be - a slight variation on the choice of "Ford Prefect" as the name used by the alien guide researcher in The Hitch Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy (albeit one which is likely to go out of date less quickly).

Holt's writing generally relys on characters who are fish out of water to provide much of the humour, and Blonde Bombshell is no exception. Here, there are both machines trying to pass as human and the Ostar relationship with people: they are shaped like dogs, and keep pets who are like humans, and the inversion is a natural source of jokes. But the jokes are all essentially the same, and this lack of variety palled for me quite quickly. In essence, the problem I had with Blonde Bombshell is that I didn't find it very funny. Some Tom Holt books do strike me this way, including Wish You Were Here. This one is not as bleak, being instead a tired repeat.

I like Holt's work, but not in this case: my rating - 4/10.

Edition: Orbit, 2010
Review number: 1410

Wednesday 20 October 2010

Marie Brennan: Midnight Never Come (2008)

The Elizabethan age was obsessed by Faery, something most famously seen in several Shakespeare plays (A Midsummer Night's Dream, the spirits in the Tempest, the Queen Mab speech from Romeo and Juliet, and the pretend fairies in The  Merry Wives of Windsor being just some of the best known examples), but most developed in Spenser's enormous allegory The Faery  Queen, which parallels Elizabeth with the queen of the Fae herself.

Folklore graduate student Marie Brennan has taken this thought and put together a story  of a connection of a different kind between the two queens, a pact which guarantees the security of the English realm and its fae reflection. But it is not a treaty without cost, and the queen's spymaster Francis Walsinghamn has begun to suspect that tere is an unknown player in the game with direct access to Elizabeth. He chooses one of his agents, William Deven, to investigate, knowing that the young man is already more involved than he realises: Deven has been courting Anne Marston, waiting lady to the Countess of Warwick, and known to Walsingham as a likely agent of this unknown power. And indeed Anne is a  glamour put on by Lune, a lady of the Fae Onyx court below London, to appear human so she can act as a spy for Invidiana, the Onyx Queen (the name meaning "hateful", as opposed to Elizabeth's allegorical name Gloriana, "glorious").

Atmospheric, interesting and with good characters, Midnight Never Come is well worth a read. I don't normally like books based on role playing game scenarios (I probably wouldn't have read it if I'd realised it was before borrowing it from the local library). It's biggest problem for me was the title, which comes from a play by Marlowe and which in context gives away important aspects of the ending. My rating - 7/10.

Edition: Orbit, 2008
Review number:  1409

Saturday 16 October 2010

Henry Porter: The Dying Light (2009)

Henry Porter's fifth novel is intended, so the author tells us in the afterword, to fulfil three purposes. It is obviously a thriller readable as a standalone story, but is additionally intended as a contrast to his previous novel Brandenburg and as something of a political call to arms. It is set in a near future Britain, where high-powered lawyer (and former spy) Kate Lockhart returns to the country after several years working in the States for college friend David Eyam's funeral. Eyam, was a civil servant involved in security at the highest levels, but he resigned and hid himself in a tiny town on the Welsh borders before making a sudden trip to South America to be killed in a terrorist bomb attack. Kate is told that she is Eyam's heir, completely unexpectedly; and when Eyam's lawyer is killed by a sniper driving down an English country lane and she discovers that child pornography has been planted on Eyam's computer to discredit him, she realises that she has inherited not just his possessions but a dangerous secret worth many deaths to those who wish to keep it hidden.

From this point on, The Dying Light is a political thriller with a conspiracy theory at its centre, set in a dystopian Britain in which every move is watched by the authorities. The development of the systems which allow this and the accompanying erosion of civil liberties are Porter's main concern.He mentions the way in that events he was describing as he wrote the novel turned out to be true as he was writing, not a comforting prospect for someone writing a dystopia. Most of Porter's work has made me think him the natural heir to Len Deighton; but the campaigning nature of The Dying Light is more akin to John le Carré's recent novels, such as A Most Wanted Man. The agenda may be different, but a similar sense of outrage comes through. The comparisons to le Carré and Deighton are not just thematic, too. Porter is one of the best thriller writers to emerge in the last decade.

The theme is personal freedom, and the way in which the British public  have allowed their politicians to whittle away at personal rights to an unprecedented degree: the United Kingdom is now the most heavily surveiled nation in the world, so that  our rulers know more about what we do (theoretically) than those of North Korea or China. As with the curtailment of liberty elsewhere in the Western world, the excuse used is the fight against terrorism, which is at first sight a reasonable idea but is less so when the possibility of emergency powers being abused (as has happened on a small scale with local councils using anti-terrorism powers to track down benefit fraud) or when it fails to halt attacks. The inquests into the deaths of those killed in the 7/7 bomb attack on the London underground are happening as I type: clearly the new powers and surveillance, almost all in place in 2005, were unable to save these lives. The bombers were identified on CCTV footage, but only after the attack itself took place. At the same time, the Guardian has reported that counter-terrorism would be kept safe from the government's massive programme of cuts: the UK will still be spending billions on surveillance of its citizens. (Most of the links in this post come from the Guardian not because of its political leanings, but because of its interest in civil liberties beyond that of much of the UK press.)

One legislative move which particularly concerns Porter is the Civil Contingencies Act 2004 (official description / critical assessment).This gives wide ranging powers over a thirty day period to the government in the event of a disaster (natural or otherwise), removing the right to assembly, allowing movement to be restricted to and from "sealed areas" and mobilising the armed services. It didn't originally define the emergencies in which it could be used very stringently, leading to accusations that events dealt with by the emergency services as part of their normal working would be possible triggers for the act; this has since been amended. It still doesn't provide any sanction for misuse (if the "emergency" turns out not to be one). It has been described as making it possible that "at a stroke democracy could be replaced by totalitarianism".

I have gone into detail about this partly because, as Porter points out, it is important and yet ignored by those it affects. I was already aware of the surveillance, but had never heard of the Civil Contingencies Act: this is a novel which made me want to write to my MP.

The relationship with Brandenburg is that the earlier novel is about the fall of the Soviet bloc communism, so is about the gaining of rights, while The Dying Light is about the extinction of rights. To me, the title and theme suggest Dylan Thomas' famous lines (about death):
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light
To give away our rights without protest is to gently acquiesce in the dying of the light of our civilisation.

Edition: Orion Books, 2009
Review number: 1408

Sunday 22 August 2010

Andrzej Sapkowski: The Last Wish (1993)

Translation: Danusia Stok (2007)
Edition: Gollancz, 2008
Review number: 1407

"Geralt is a a hunter", the front cover tells us. Not only is this hardly the most eye-catching tagline in the history of publishing, it really undersells the virtues of Sapkowski's novel. This is not a simple fantasy novel, though this (combined with the advertising for the associated computer game on the back pages) makes it look as though The Last Wish is just a violent fantasy, the story of a bounty hunter. This is particularly ironic, as Geralt himself is continually telling prospective employers that he is not a bounty hunter.

Geralt is in fact a "witcher"; he is a hunter of supernatural monsters, and The Last Witch describes a series of his adventures in this role. The structure of the novel suggests - and I haven't looked this up to check whether it is true or not - that most of it originally appeared as a series of shorter fiction. It is episodic, with a linking thread provided by interludes between the episodes, which are thus presented as flashbacks. This is a fairly common structure in novels stitched together from shorter fiction, and needs the episodes to be quite uniform in style and quality with the linking story having some interest of its own in order to work: Sapkowski does this at least as well as any other example I can think of.

Although The Last Wish appeared in English in 2007, the story was written in the 1980s. Then, the idea of a hunter of this type would probably have evoked Bram Stoker's Van Helsing in Dracula, rather than Buffy the Vampire Slayer or possibly Anita Blake. But The Last Wish is not really like any of the stories involving these characters; it reminded me most of Jack Vance, particularly the Dying Earth stories. Much of the setting, the tone, and the dry humour are similar, particularly in the way in which Geralt's world weariness is portrayed. Laurell K. Hamilton is less interested in humour and more in the relationships - particularly sexual ones - between the characters in her Anita Blake novels; the humour in the Buffy TV series is generally darker or derived from smart banter between the teenagers; and Van Helsing is deadly serious.

This is an excellent fantasy novel, and I will looking out for more by this writer - 8/10.

Wednesday 11 August 2010

Robert J. Sawyer: Wake (2009)

Edition: Gollancz, 2009
Review number: 1406

J.K. Rowling aside, who is the most successful science fiction / fantasy writer of all time? One candidate would be Michael Crichton, who wrote more books turned into famous films than any other writer I can think of: Jurassic Park, Westworld, The Andromeda Strain. He's not an author I like very much, either as a novelist or screenwriter; although his books are really thrillers with SF themes, I tend to find them dull and have never actually managed to get to the end of any of them; the films work rather better, but even so are not my cup of tea. This is a view I appear to share with others in SF fandom; as a writer he was rarely nominated for an award (the only major one being the British Fantasy best novel nomination in 1995) despite his popularity.

The reason I bring up Michael Crichton is that I expected Robert J. Sawyer to be a similar writer. I first came across his work through the TV series of Flashforward, based on one of his novels. I watched the first two episodes, then gave up because (like Heroes) it seemed to be rehashing the same thing every week and neither moving forward at any speed in the overall story arc nor having interesting single episode stories. But the basic idea was interesting, and seemingly tailor made for TV adaptation, especially because the final episode was scheduled be shown on the date that everyone had seen on their vision of the future. While the plot meant that a TV adaptation seemed more appropriate than film, this seemed to me to be a very Michael Crichton style idea. So I didn't really think of reading any of his novels.

I'm not entirely sure why I added Wake to my list of books to read after giving up on Flashforward. I probably saw a favourable mention in a blog somewhere, or a review on SF Site. (A bit of checking reveals that it is because of its nomination for the 2010 Hugo: one of a large number of awards and nominations.) But I am glad that I did. It turns out, you see, that Sawyer is not at all like Michael Crichton as a writer. Wake is more like Neal Stephenson or Charles Stross: someone who knows about computers and has interesting ideas about their future which they discuss through science fiction. (He is one of the most enduring online presences in science fiction, as his home domain name,, suggests.)

After that long digression, I should at least say something about what Wake is about. There are three strands to the story, all of which are about cognitive awakening. The main one is the story of Caitlin, who was born blind and who is offered the chance to regain sight through an operation which connects her visual cortex to a hardware device which she nicknames the "eye-Pod". But as well as learning to see - and this is very interestingly imagined by Sawyer - she also discovers that connecting the device to the Internet means that she can "see" the structure of the Web. And part of what she sees forms the second major strand: in the background, there are what appear to be cellular automata, which begin to seem to be an emergent intelligence from the lost an corrupted packets which never expire (Internet communication is made up of packets with a "time to live" value, decreased by one each time they pass through a router; if this value is corrupted or they pass through routers with buggy software, this could lead to packets which never reach their destination and are never destroyed). The third strand is about a chimpanzee which begins to produce representational art: recognisable portraits of one of the people who look after it. This is not so closely integrated into Caitlin's story, but that may well be left to the second part of the WWW trilogy.  A fourth strand, about a dissident Chinese blogger, has loose ends which will clearly be picked up later.

The theme is clearly the development of consciousness, and is heavily influenced not just by current ideas about how machine intelligence might arise but also by the writings of Helen Keller, on how it felt to begin to be able to connect with other people after living blind and deaf since childhood - unlike Caitlin, she was not born blind but became so following an illness as a baby. Another background influence is the work of Julian Jaynes, who controversially argued that the modern human consciousness did not come into being until very recently (3000 years ago or so), early literature describing individuals who did not act in ways commensurate with fully integrated minds. Caitlin, as a bright teenager interested in such topics because of her blindness, makes a good conduit for Sawyer to introduce the concepts he wants to discuss.

This is one way in which Sawyer achieves one goal of good science fiction writing. In a genre derided for clumsy "info-dumps", finding a naturalistic way to explain the clever ideas and concepts behind your writing is important to many authors. Readers do not want to see endless conversations in which the participants tell each other things they already know, for the benefit of the reader, or to have lengthy explanatory sections or footnotes. Sawyer manages to do this really well here, and the combination of interesting ideas and good writing makes for a fascinating and enjoyable reading experience. As the Hugo nomination shows, this is one of the SF novels of the year, and is deservedly so. My rating: 9/10.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Eoin Colfer: And Another Thing... (2009)

Edition: Michael Joseph, 2009
Review number: 1405

I borrowed this book from the library expecting to hate it. Even though I didn't like the end of the Hitchhiker series as it stood at Douglas Adams' death, I couldn't imagine anyone else continuing it in the way that he might have been able to (if he'd overcome the blocks he experienced in the later part of his writing career). I'd also read Artemis Fowl, which made Colfer's name, and didn't think much of it.

And, when And Another Thing... came out, it was serialised on BBC Radio 4 as an audiobook, and I listened to that and did indeed hate it. Hitchhiker was always hilarious, and the abridged version - 340 pages in 75 minutes which I'd estimate means leaving out 75% of the text - failed to raise a smile. Of course, that could have been the cuts ("let's leave out the jokes to keep the plot comprehensible"), or the way it was read (not Steve Mangan's finest hour and a quarter), or some of the plot decisions (the way Colfer got out of the problems caused by the ending of Mostly Harmless seemed trite and unconvincing to me). Would the book itself be more worth reading? Friends who might have read it turned out not to have done. So, there was only one way to find out...

Initially, my reaction was positive. At greater length, the unravelling of the finality of the ending of Mostly Harmless, while still not very imaginative, worked better and contained some amusing touches. But things do go downhill from there. Some of the issues are with the characters as created by Douglas Adams. I have always found Zaphod Beeblebrox verging on being more irritating than funny, and Colfer makes him a particularly important character here and he becomes an annoying manipulator of the plot: more self-centred than ever. Wowbagger, the immortal being who is insulting every being in the universe in alphabetical order, also turns up and is made a major character: Colfer's attempts to make him more than the brief joke he is for Adams make him at least as unsympathetic and irritating as a dealmaking Zaphod. And finally, Colfer seems to share Adams' interest in Norse myth, and a lot of the book (even more in the radio abridgement) is about Zaphod's dealings with Asgard - all very dull compared to the meeting with Thor at a party in Mostly Harmless.

All this could be forgiven if And Another Thing... had turned out to be as funny as the first few Hitchhiker books were on first reading. In this aspect, I got the impression that Colfer didn't work too hard, settling for the obvious and poor pun rather than thinking hard about exactly what would be funny. (Apparently Douglas Adams used to agonise about individual words for ages, and this shows in the inventive quality of the first three books in particular.) The way that the book-within-the-book of the actual Guide is handled here is partly to blame for the lack of laughs. The "Book" extracts are among the highlights of the original stories, being extremely funny and often explaining how the bizarre situations Arthur and Ford find themselves in arose. Here, they are intrusive, irrelevant and humourless asides (though it is fairly obvious that Colfer thinks them hilarious). Some attempt has been made to make them stand out typographically, something I don't think Adams ever did, and this, like so much else about And Another Thing... is depressingly unimaginative: the entries are printed in italics. So much more could have been done here to indicate their peripheral nature and liven up the presentation of the book.

Colfer is obviously a fan, and this makes him a good choice as a writer of a sequel. But he is not really very funny at all, even when writing his own books. (I've read Artemis Fowl, and it seems like a good idea - a child evil genius - let down by a lack of imagination and lazy writing, though many people seem to think it extremely funny.) In the end, And Another Thing... reads like a not very wonderful piece of fan fiction, of the sort published in vast quantities on the Internet: and I feel sure that there are likely to be better sequels to Hitchhiker available free at My rating - 2/10.

Thursday 8 July 2010

Lindsey Davis: Nemesis (2010)

Edition: Century, 2010
Review number: 1404

After the (to me) unreadable Rebels and Traitors, Davis returns to the Roman crime series which made her name, with the nineteenth Falco novel, Nemesis. But this addition to the series is much darker than most of them: this is not quite the wise-cracking Falco of old.

The darkness starts right at the beginning of the novel, which opens with the deaths of Falco's infant son and his father. The death of new born children has been a part of life throughout history. Take for example Queen Anne, who had the benefit of better medicine and all the care a British Queen could command at the turn of the eighteenth century, but none of whose fifteen children survived to adulthood. And the death of children plays an important part in novels by writers such as Charles Dickens. Yet it is something which is generally skipped over in modern historical fiction. With larger families and more infant mortality, death was a part of life in a way which, at least in the Western world, it is not today. That of course does not mean that parents then did not mourn the death of their children as much as parents today do.

So Nemesis is really about Falco's mourning for both his son and his father, even if in the latter case he doesn't want to show that he is strongly affected. The plot of the story concerns an investigation begun by Falco when he is looking into an unfinished business transaction of his father's. This spirals into a hunt for a family of serial killers, who seem to be protected by someone highly placed in the Roman government, and it becomes a case which pushes Falco onto a morally darker path than he has yet travelled - presumably because of the effects of his bereavement on his emotional state. He becomes a much more ambiguous hero than usual in this series; no  matter how bad his life became (the episode in which he went undercover as a slave in a mine is a prime example), he always previously seemed to be a basically good person. In hard boiled detective terms, the Falco of Nemesis is more Dashiell Hammett's tainted Continental Op than a wisecracking Philip Marlowe.

Pushing a character to do nasty things because of his own emotional pain is all very well, but after eighteen more or less humorous novels in a series it comes as something of a shock to readers. More points for literary quality, then, but fewer for enjoyment of the story. I'd give Nemesis 6/10 as a result - angst is not why I read Falco novels.

Saturday 26 June 2010

Humphrey Lyttelton: The Best of Jazz (1999)

Originally published as Basin Street to Harlem (1978) and Enter the Giants (1984)
Edition: Portico, 2008
Review number: 1403

Jazz has always been something of a closed book to me. One of the reasons for this is that despite interest, I had no idea what was worth listening to, particularly given the minuscule selection available in a small provincial town with no proper record shop. So the subtleties of the jazz idiom, like those of, say, Indian classical music, largely passed me by. (I played in wind bands for most of the eighties, but the closest we got to jazz was Glenn Miller, Frank Sinatra and, once, a Duke Ellington song.) The result is that much of it comes across as simultaneously lacking the harmonic inventiveness of classical music or the excitement and drive of rock music. On the other hand, I've always felt that I ought to appreciate jazz more, and the problem is knowing where to start. The most obvious starting point is compilations, but these are too often lazily organised around the easy to license, as a result becoming as representative as sixties pop compilations which suggest that the pre-fame Beatles track Ain't She Sweet is the band's best recording.

These days, it's easier to search out individual downloads, and it is for this that The Best of Jazz becomes an invaluable guide for the jazz novice. For the book is a series of essays on jazz greats with undeniable authority (for Lyttelton was a fine jazz trumpeter who knew many of the most famous stars of the genre personally). Each essay contains an anecdotal description of the subject's career and importance, and a detailed analysis of a representative track by the artist. Originally conceived as a guide to the early 78 rpm recordings, the format translates uncannily well to modern listening habits. As originally published, the first part, Basin Street to Harlem, describes the early history of jazz up to about 1930, concentrating on the three main centres of New Orleans, Chicago, and New York. The second half, Enter the Giants, looks at the big figures of the thirties, from Louis Armstrong (who is the subject of three essays, and is the only artist to appear in both parts) to Roy Eldridge.

It is of course really difficult to describe music in words: a picture may be worth a thousand words, but a music clip is, well, priceless. This has two consequences for the book. Firstly, a little technical knowledge is needed to follow the descriptions of the performances. A knowledge of the notes of the musical scale and harmonic terms such as "diminished" - as would be obtained by learning basic guitar - is assumed. There are occasional references to piano keyboard layout as a means of explanation. Other terms, including jazz specifics such as "swing" are explained in the text; this is not always done on first appearance: the word "diatonic" appears in the first volume, but is only explained when it appears again in the second.

The second issue is basically that it will immensely aid enjoyment of The Best of Jazz to have access to listen to the analysed performances beforehand; being able to listen, with pause and rewind, while reading the discussions of the performances would be the ideal way to read this book. The songs would almost fit onto a single CD, I think - since some artists have several songs discussed, cutting their representation down to one each would do it. Because of their age, almost all of them over 75 years, it would be cheap to license the recordings. So it would seem to be a good piece of marketing to supply an accompanying CD, maybe as part of a deluxe edition. Searching Amazon suggests that no such CD exists: a missed opportunity.

Throughout Enter the Giants, references are made to a projected third volume, which was obviously planned in some detail. This never seems to have happened (again, I say this on the authority of being unable to find it on Amazon). To continue into postwar jazz would have made The Best of Jazz a useful reference on jazz history (though an index would also help achieve this!). As it is, The Best of Jazz is fascinating - probably even to people who know the genre well - and really good reading for the interested novice with some musical knowledge - 8/10.

Friday 28 May 2010

Kurt Vonnegut: Breakfast of Champions (1973)

Edition: Vintage, 2000 (Buy from Amazon)
Review number: 1402

Even today, Breakfast of Champions is a strange novel, and it would have seemed odder in 1973. It is perhaps even misleading to call it a novel, given the way it is written. Such plot as it has is revealed in the first few pages. It concerns the influence failed science fiction writer Kilgore Trout ends up having on the world. The other main character, Dwayne Hoover, is gradually going mad through the novel, which ends when he and Trout meet. Trout appears in many of Vonnegut's works, including his most famous novel Slaughterhouse Five, and is often the character used to express of the author's ideas - but here Vonnegut also makes himself a character. The plot is not only minimal, it is clearly not the point of the novel.

An immediately noticeable feature of Breakfast of Champions is its format, which is a major part of why it isn't a normal narrative novel. It consists of (mainly) short chapters, each a series of bullet points, rather like an extended Powerpoint presentation. In many of these, Vonnegut ironically describes the writing process for the book, comments on the actions and thoughts of the characters, and what he is trying to do; in others, Kilgore Trout's views and summaries of the science fiction stories are given. As if this isn't unusual enough, Vonnegut has provided a large number of illustrations, few of them particularly to the point; the text will in passing mention the Egyptian pyramids, say, and then continue, "they looked like this", followed by the author's line sketch. The effect, along with the quirky and satirical explanations of references which will be clear to any twentieth century human, is to make it seem that Breakfast of Champions is addressed to an alien race who know nothing of Earth culture. The writing style adopted by Vonnegut for the novel uses very basic and direct English, which reinforces this impression.

So what is the point? Breakfast of Champions is a satirical attack on the culture, ideas, and concerns which shaped America in the seventies; that is clear from the opening pages, which consist of an attack on the American national anthem, described as "gibberish sprinkled with question marks". This may sound like nothing more than a deliberate attempt to offend or shock, and I would agree that the placing of this passage at the very opening of the novel seems to be just that. There must have been many Americans who did not read past page two because of this onslaught. But Vonnegut is making the point that a song abut a flag is not really a sound basis for pride in a nation: without other achievements, the stars and stripes are completely meaningless except to arrant sentimentalists. Throughout the novel, nostalgia, optimism, and even rationalism are attacked.

Vonnegut deals with the major concerns of Breakfast of Champions more conventionally, and to my mind more convincingly elsewhere. The idea that our actions are fixed and meaningless is a major part of Timequake, while here it is conveyed by the continual interjections about the how the author has made the decisions which determine the actions of his characters combined with speculation about whether our actions are similarly controlled by our Creator. Similarly, Galapagos examines the idea that the human capacity for rational thought does not make us happier or the world a better place.

Breakfast of Champions has been compared to Voltaire's Candide, and there are many parallels between the two novels. Both are satirical, attacking prevalent optimistic ideas about the world - in Voltaire's case with the memorable phrase, "All the for the best in the best of all possible worlds", which is the teaching of Candide's tutor's Pangloss. By contrast, Trout thinks that "there was only one way for the Earth to be: the way it was": a pessimistic justification for the same thought, that the world cannot be improved.

In both cases, liberties are taken with narrative: in Candide, terrible things happen to the characters, including death, only for them to appear later apparently unscathed. Both Candide and Trout are quite passive, as the philosophies they hold suggest they should be, Trout relegating himself to a life as a passive observer of the follies of seventies America, from the adult movie theaters of New York, to the signs reminding those entering Philadelphia that its name makes it the city of brotherly love, to the devastation of West Virginia by mining. Both authors use a distinctly ironic style, Vonnecgut more overtly than Voltaire. The biggest difference is that there is no major character in Breakfast of Champions with the naivete of Candide himself, and this ultimately makes Vonnegut's novel far less appealing and amusing.

This is the sort of book which by its idiosyncratic nature and satirical ambitions attempts to walk a narrow path between black comedy and irritating eccentricity for the sake of it. Even though, as a non-American apart from anything else, there is nothing in Breakfast of Champions I would personally consider offensive, I generally found it much more irritating than funny. I like Vonnegut generally, but not this time - 3/10.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

Charlotte MacLeod: It Was an Awful Shame (2002)

Edition: Five Star, 2003
Review number: 1401

Of all genre writing, it may be the case that crime short stories are the most difficult to pull off, despite the pioneering example of Arthur Conan Doyle, whose Sherlock Holmes short stories remain among the best of this type. To fit a convincing description of a crime, several suspects, their motives, means and opportunity, as well as the solution, into a few pages is not easy. To make them funny as well is so difficult that to try seems almost like showing off.

And in this collection, Charlotte MacLeod manages to do this without apparent effort. Not only that, she is often able to convey an enviable sense of place: most of the stories are set in a New England clearly dear to her heart. The stories are also rather old fashioned, and portray an upper class New England that almost certainly became extinct before the Second World War (the original publication dates for the stories are between 1963 and 1989, mainly in the first decade).

The quality of the stories is variable, but there are no really poor ones in the collection. However, the ordering of the stories does leave something to be desired for newcomers to the author (as I was when I picked up this book in the library). MacLeod wrote two long series of novels with recurring characters, and fans will be pleased to know that both make appearances in this collection. The problem is that the first two stories here are from one of these series, and don't really stand alone too well, and this is an off putting start for those readers not familiar with the novels. The stories from the second series work much better, appearing later on and apparently coming near the start of the series' internal chronology. These series characters made me think of Dorothy L. Sayers' short stories, which are not particularly distinguished (and certainly not as good as MacLeod's), but which are collected in such a way that Lord Peter stories draw the fan into reading each of the collections. There, too, a certain knowledge of Lord Peter is assumed, but not perhaps as much as MacLeod does in the first two here. The first story, which provides the title for the collection, also deals with the childish rituals of a fraternity lodge, and so seems particularly removed from real life.

Similarly, the level of humour varies between the stories. Some of the best moments, such as the magnificently silly spoof The Mysterious Affair of the Beaird-Wynnington Dirigible Airship and the Wodehouse-style combination of goat, shotgun, helium balloon, trousers and halibut in Fifty Acres of Prime Seaweed, are not likely to be quickly forgotten by any reader.

The old fashioned air occasionally reminds me of O. Henry or P.G. Wodehouse: very old fashioned, and similarly cosy. In no way could MacLeod's stories be described as gritty reflections of the mean streets of modern America. That is not necessarily a bad thing; there should always be a place for expertly written, light and fun reading, even if it occasionally strays into the twee. My rating: 7/10.

Tuesday 4 May 2010

Alastair Reynolds: Ternminal World (2010)

Edition: Gollancz, 2010
Review number: 1400

Many science fiction novels are in a way more about their setting than anything else: it is something that non-fans tend to dislike about the genre. The best of them, of course, make the setting the core of a wider, rounded, story. Where this core is an artefact, it is referred to in science fiction fandom as a "Big Dumb Object" or BDO, for which the prototype is Larry Niven's Ringworld (see the article in the TV Tropes WIKI for other famous examples). BDOs are usually alien artefacts being investigated by human explorers, and Reynolds has already written some stories of this type, such as Absolution Gap and his debut Revelation Space.

Terminal World is a slightly different kind of BDO story. Spearpoint is a huge, decaying city, towering over its surroundings. Both the city and its environs are divided into shifting Zones, where different levels of technology can work, including one known as the Bane which is so inimical that not even basic forms of life can survive. Both Spearpoint and the Zones are human artefacts, but not ones which the current inhabitants, not even the nano-technology using "angels" of the upper levels of the city, can now understand.

Doctor Quillon, the main character of Terminal World, is a renegade angel, product of an experiment by these people - already drastically changed from their human ancestry - to modify themselves so that they could live in the lower levels of Spearpoint. When it seems that his past is about to catch up with him, Quillon escapes from the city and begins a journey across the strange fractured landscape outside the city. While the doctor is quite a well realised character, this journey, the main part of Terminal World, is more about making it possible for the reader to see more of the Zones and the different cultures which have grown up with each level of permissible technology.

This is a pity, as it means that the plot is pretty rudimentary, just a framework to illustrate the Zones in a way that is less interesting than it could be: I think that the way they affect life in Spearpoint is more interesting than what it is like outside the city. The image of a sophisticated cyborg effectively chaining himself to a boiler room in order to use steam power, while unlikely, is intriguing; while that of the Swarm, a loose federation of airship fliers, is much less so. Some of the plot doesn't quite hold together: for example, the leader of the Swarm has recently developed a means of producing large quantities of medicine which helps humans deal with the physiological effects of the passage from one Zone to another just at the time when a major humanitarian crisis caused by shifting Zones in Spearpoint means that it is urgently needed. A journey of discovery like this is typical of BDO stories, but I would have preferred a plot which remained in the fascinating city; this would perhaps have made Terminal City seem rather like one of China Miéville's novels, but that would not necessarily be a bad thing.

The ideas behind Terminal World are connected with quantum dynamics. In each of the Zones, it appears that the basic structure of matter is slightly different, which means that technologies which rely on, say, electricity may not work in some of them. I don't think the rules are applied quite consistently: how different are the electrical currents in the wire connecting a slight switch and a bulb from the signals in animal nervous systems at a fundamental physical level? So perhaps quantum mechanics - which is suggested by one of the characters in the novel as a possible explanation for the Zones - is not actually behind Reynolds' concept at all, but a red herring.

However, it does fit in with something else: the role of the tectomancers. These are characters with some kind of mental connection to the Zones. They can move the Zone boundaries, and are persecuted and feared as witches or dismissed as legends. One of the more mysterious aspects of quantum mechanics is the role of an observer, whose intervention is required to collaps a statistical description of a phenomenon (the probability that a particle is in a volume of space) to a physical one (the knowledge whether or not the particle is in that volume). Tectomancers seem to be a kind of super-observer, able not just to affect the collapse of the quantum state vector but the rules which define it.

In the end, the combination of one or two good characters, an interesting BDO, and some ideas about quantum mechanics are not enough for Terminal World to be a great science fiction novel. Part of the problem is that none of the characters really understand the Zones, so the reader is not left with much information to work out what they really are, and part is the abandonment of the city for the middle section of the novel. Other questions - such as whether Spearpoint is built on the Earth of the far future, or elsewhere - are left undiscussed, perhaps to provide material for a sequel. Terminal World does make an interesting change from the space opera for which Reynolds is most well known, and is well worth reading by fans of the author. My rating: 6/10.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Iain Banks: Transition (2009)

Edition: Little, Brown, 2009
Review number: 1399

The idea behind Transition is not one particularly new in science fiction: there are millions of alternate Earths, and it is possible to travel between them through the use of a special drug; septus works rather like the sixties perception of the action of psychedelics, letting the mind transfer to a new body in a different world. However, a secret society, the Concern, acts in all the accessible worlds to ensure that history develops in a particular direction. To those it recruits, Concern claims to act to improve the lot of humanity, by eliminating (assassinating) those who will cause large scale suffering if their actions remain unchecked. Not everyone believes in the benevolence of the Concern, and the novel tells the story of one group which sets out to subvert the organisation and its shadowy leadership.

One of the things I like about Iain Banks is that its not that easy to suggest names of other authors who might be considered major influences. His novels tend to remind me of others of his novels. (At least, that applies to the non-Culture novels; the hyped-up space opera of the books for which he uses his middle initial has rather more obvious debts to earlier science fiction.) But here, in his twenty-fourth novel, I was almost immediately and strongly reminded of Michael Moorcock, particularly the Jerry Cornelius and Oswald Bastable novels.

The parallel worlds are what makes me think of Oswald Bastable: a fairly mundane link. (Jerry Cornelius is more similar in style and feeling.) However, Moorcock's worlds are much less similar to each other than Banks', and the people in them less important in comparison to those who are able to travel between the worlds. In the Bastable novels, following the careers of alternate versions of real people from Mick Jagger to Stalin is a large part of the interest, but few such people are mentioned by Banks. The alternate realities are barely more than just a mechanism to end a scene, like a punch line in a sketch show. The main difference between most of the alternates and reality is that the perceived terrorist threat to the Western world comes mainly from radical Christian extremists in the worlds Banks constructs.

The Concern is akin to the Business, from Banks' novel of that name, but seen in a darker light. (Though Kate, the heroine of The Business, eventually rejects them, too.) But, all in all, Transition is not much like the rest of Banks' writing. When reviewing The Steep Approach to Garbadale, I complained that it was too much a rehash of ideas from his other novels, but Transition goes too far the other way, throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

Transition is told using multiple viewpoints (some in the first person, some in the third). Each chapter advances the personal stories of several, but not always the same ones. Only one is constant, Patient 8262, who is apparently hiding from the Concern in a mental hospital. Other viewpoints include a hedge fund manager, a torturer, an assassin, and a member of the Concern's ruling council. It is these central characters which are Transition's major weakness, as none of them are consistently interesting or enjoyable to read about.

Warning is given at the very beginning of the novel that the words on the page should not necessarily be believed. The title page tells us that Transition is "based on a false story", and the first words of the prologue are "Apparently I am what is known as an Unreliable Narrator". These gimmicks perhaps belabour the point rather too heavily, but it certainly sticks in the back of the mind while reading the novel. I personally would have preferred to have been left to work out the narrator's unreliability for myself, and start with the line from the third section of the prologue: "This is how it ends": a much more effective irony.

All the constructive effort of the multiple narrative threads (something of a favourite device for Banks) needs to be rounded off with a satisfying, rounded ending in which they are brought together. This is more or less done, though the details are undermined by the emphasis on the unreliable narrator. (I myself have probably rather over-emphasised it here, but that is because it does seem to be a cause of many of the negative aspects of Transition.)

I never expected to say of an Iain Banks novel that it was boring, but it was something of a struggle to get to the end of Transition. Maybe it will seem better on a second reading, but that is not an experiment I am looking forward to conducting. 4/10.

Thursday 18 March 2010

Carol Shields: Mary Swann (1987)

Original US/Canadian title: Swann, A Mystery
Edition: Fourth Estate, 2000
Review number: 1398

Mary Swann was originally published simply titled Swann, and this UK edition clearly suffers from a degree of bizarre schizophrenia in this respect: Mary Swann on the front cover, Swann in the page headers.

Carol Shields' fifth novel continues to look at the concerns which informed much of her writing, principally the life stories of the kind of ordinary women who would often be dismissed as unimportant. But here Mary Swann is not herself a character in the novel; it is entirely about the way that other people think of her. For Mary Swann was a farmer's wife in deepest rural Ontario, who appeared perfectly ordinary in herself. She was married to a brutish husband who barely permitted her the only intellectual pleasure she had, access to the small collection at the nearest library, and who eventually murdered her. Yet she managed to write poems, on scraps of paper, good enough to be published. And, after she was killed (the most dramatic event in her life), one of the books of her poetry was picked up and read by an academic, who launches Mary's career in the world of English literature.

The novel is about the months preceding the first academic symposium on Mary Swann. The first four sections are written from the points of view of four people important to the study of her work: her discoverer, her (frustrated) biographer, her closest friend, and the man who published the poems in the first place. The final section abandons the standard narrative form, and purports to be the script of a film set at the symposium. In a book which is about how literary reputations are constructed, the introduction to the script explicitly makes the ironic point that all of these people, including Mary herself, are fictional: a deliberate ironic pin bursting the bubble of the reader's suspension of disbelief.

In a way, this has been clear all along. Mary Swann is really too good to be true, if the reader takes a minute to think about it. She embodies everything that the feminist academic community is searching for: a good poet, able to produce her work despite being downtrodden by the patriarchal system and her specific circumstances, a victim to the brutality of men. She wrote without the elitist requirement of a room of her own: no private study in a house in Bloomsbury for her. Mary fits the role too well for her to be believable. But it is clear that part of Shields' intention in Mary Swannn is to poke fun at the academic world, and to examine the way that the reputations, personalities, and even works and lives of the creators of literature are manipulated by those who claim to study them objectively. This means, incidentally, that there is considerable humour here, perhaps more direct than in any of Shields' other novels.

One very positive aspect of Mary Swann is the high quality of the poetry that Shields has written for her, encapsulating the descriptions given to it by the other characters in the novel. It is all too easy to describe a fictional character's literary work as outstanding, but to be unable to deliver quoted examples which live up to this standard. Not only must the quality be good, but the excerpts should also not be in the author's usual style, so that they should be distinct from the rest of the narrative. Shields gives the impression that she has managed to do all of this with ease, making the poetry a pleasure to read.

Carol Shields is also a superb prose stylist in her own right, as can be seen from any of her novels or short stories. Perhaps more so in the short stories, even, because they are often light on plot and concentrate on characterisation. However, here, the final film script section is less polished, probably because of the choice of form. Ending with the poorest part of the novel proves anticlimactic, even though it contains the climax of the plot. But even so, I enjoyed Mary Swann immensely - 8/10.

Wednesday 24 February 2010

J.D. Salinger: Catcher in the Rye (1951)

Edition: Penguin, 1958
Review number: 1397

I was intending to re-read The Catcher in the Rye anyway, but just happened to do so at the time when Salinger's death was announced (which will give you some idea of how long it takes to get from making notes on a book to publishing the review on this blog). Reading it was interesting in light of the comments on the author and his famous novel which followed. Is it still relevant, or has it become a museum piece? Although Holden Caulfield, narrator of the novel, is thought of as an icon of teenage rebellion, what he does seems pretty tame in an era in which there are many schools with gun and knife checkpoints at the entrances.

Catcher in the Rye has one of the best opening paragraphs in twentieth century fiction, which instantly establishes the mood and style of the novel and the character of the narrator. Holden Caulfield is alone on his last day at the expensive boarding school which has expelled him, indecisively moping around while the rest of the school is attending the annual match against one of the school's great sporting rivals. Then, at the end of the first chapter, he does something really unrebellious, something more Goodbye Mr Chips than what the reader would expect from Catcher's reputation: he goes to visit one of his favourite teachers (absent from the game himself due to illness). Acts of destructive vandalism, while stereotypical of teenage rebellion, are not really Holden's style: his is a much more passive revolt.

One thing that Holden can do is see through the kind of rubbish that adults tell children to get them to conform. When his headmaster tells him that life is a game, which you have to play by the rules,  Holden reflects (but doesn't point out: not very rebellious!) that this is all very well if you're playing on the side which has all the star players. Rules tend to work for the privileged, not the underprivileged. However, insights like this are quickly followed by passages which show Holden's childishness: petulance, crudity for the sake of it, showing off: all part of the narrative style. Salinger was much older than his narrator, and this is partly a device to distance himself from Holden (but hasn't stopped many people assuming that Holden speaks with his author's voice). It also reminds the reader that Holden cannot be expected to act as an adult would, but it often made me feel that he was being portrayed as about twelve or thirteen rather than the sixteen he is supposed to be, even though ideas of what behaviour should be expected at different ages have changed over the last sixty years.

So the rebellion is almost as out of date as that of Catcher's near contemporary youth culture icon, Bill Haley & the Comets' Rock Around the Clock - described in Bill Haley's rock and roll hall of fame citation as "an anthem for rebellious Fifties youth". But the novel has other aspects which are still of interest. One of these is its style, which has been hugely influential. It is slangy, confiding, and informal; there are touches like the conclusion to the description of Holden's dead brother, where he addresses the reader directly as though they are a friend with whom he is having a conversation: "You'd have liked him." This makes the reader feel particularly close to Holden, and is probably one of the reasons why the novel has much of the impact that it does have. The combination of style and attitude must have been devastating in the fifties, particularly for the younger reader.

A piece in the Guardian suggested that Holden's rebellion is not against adult society (which is described as a "lazy" interpretation of the novel) but against the sexualisation of culture. The former is a battle won up to a point - it now seems that teenagers are encouraged to rebel in a way that is manipulated by consumer marketing: rebel if you want, as long as you conform to buying our products. Fighting sexualisation is a battle distinctly lost, by any comparison of now with fifty years in the past, which makes Holden seem a more romantic figure, as lost causes always are. However, I don't agree, because the evidence in Catcher that Holden is against sexualisation is at most sparse (his argument in chapter six with his boarding school roommate Strindlater after the older boy's return from a date with a girl Holden knows, principally - which occurs at a point when Holden is fast approaching his third expulsion from a school), while in almost every chapter Holden is seen attempting to talk to a girl or a woman in the manner of someone inexperienced with the opposite sex. His actions on arriving in New York suggest that he knows that he should be interested in girls but doesn't yet quite know the point of them. (That it is a different woman in each chapter gives the novel something of an episodic character).  So Holden's attitude to sex is actually another piece of his seeming immaturity. So sexuality is important to the novel, and if anything it is suggesting that segregated schooling stunts the growth of the personality, which is almost the opposite of fighting the sexualisation of culture: this suggests that this interpretation of Catcher is perversely against what the text of the novel itself.

This is the third or fourth time I've read Catcher in the Rye. I've always perhaps been too old for it, and was never really a teenage rebel. I'm also of an age where my ideas of teenage rebellion are fashioned by punk, not the musings of a posh American schoolboy who would be older than my parents if he were a real person. So the novel has never really spoken to me. One comment I saw in the coverage of Salinger's attempts to prevent what would have effectively been a sequel from being published last year (from someone who was a fan) suggested that the difficulty of imagining Holden ten years older was one of the author's reasons for retreating from the world. Leaving aside the implicit suggestion this makes that Salinger would never be able to come up with another character, it is certainly true that it is hard to see Holden Caulfield a married with children forty year old - or the grumpy baby boomer pensioner he would have to be today. His teenager status is an inseparable part of his character; the difficulty of thinking what he would be like at other ages suggests a certain two dimensionality which would explain why he appeals or fails to appeal depending on how much the reader shares or identifies with that particular character aspect.

I should perhaps note that this is the only copy of Catcher in the Rye I have read, and, like all the earlier British editions, it is expurgated, which must reduce the impact and make it seem tamer by contemporary standards than it would do otherwise.

But even so, I would rate Salinger's famous novel like this. Style: very good. Narrator: childish and obnoxious, for the most part. Relevance: peddling out of date rebellion. Personal appeal: low. My overall rating: 5/10.

Friday 12 February 2010

Neal Stephenson: Anathem (2008)

Edition: Atlantic Books, 2009
Review number: 1396

What is Anathem about? It is about theories of consciousness. It is about quantum mechanics, particularly the many worlds interpretation. It is about the importance of pure science, how theoretical research can have practical benefits. It is about the philosophy of the relationship between the material world and thought. It is about how philosophy can be enjoyable; it is full of discussions which are essentially infodumps modelled closely on the Socratic dialogues of Plato (three of these are mathematical enough that the full discussion has been relegated to an appendix). And yet it is not pretentious in the way that science fiction about philosophy can be, in the way that (say) Olaf Stapledon's Last and First Men often is. Anathem has a message, something to do with the philosophy of science, but precisely what that message is is not entirely clear, at least on one reading.

There is a lot of science fiction and fantasy which is principally about world  building: developing a fictional background in order to expound a particular idea. These worlds range from Tolkien's Middle Earth at the fantasy end to  Larry Niven's Ringworld or Robert L. Forward's Dragon's Egg at the hard science fiction end. And there is a lot of ver original world building in Anathem. The society on Arbre - clearly, from the note on the first page an alien planet despite the use of words such as "human" in the text - has a subculture: the "Avout". They live separated from society in what is a "math": a cross between Princeton's Institute of Advanced Study and a (secularised) closed order of monks, an academic ivory tower to the highest degree. Within these walls, a discipline is maintained so that the outside world does not disrupt the avout from their studies: they only mix with the outside once every year, decade, century, or milennium, depending on how far into the math they have enclosed themselves. The discipline does not just control talking to people from outside (or nearer to the outside, in the case of the inner divisions of the math), but the availability of written material too, and the avout do their best to ignore signs of the outside world such as tall buildings sited near the math, or the flights of aircraft overhead. I'm not convinced that the whole culture is viable economically, but it is at least unusual as a setting for a science fiction novel.

Novels which put in a lot of effort on the background - and the three writers I have mentioned are cases in point - tend to be rather sketchy on characterisation. But in Anathem Stephenson scores reasonably highly on this aspect of the fiction writer's art as well. The narrator, Erasmus or Raz, is a young Fraa (the avout are Fraas if male, Suurs if female). The plot is about how he grows up in response to some amazing events (the typical science fiction/fantasy plot, but you can't have originality in everything). He and his friends are believable, and different from one another, and this makes it easier for those readers not so interested in the philosophiy which is such an important part of the novel.

I found the ending rather disappointing; the day to day life of the avout was to me the most interesting part of the novel, even though it contained much less action. The events which disrupt this life, even though they prompt the revelation of ancient secrets and show the reader how and why the avout culture originated, are not themselves very original. Certainly, they are fairly commonplace in the science fiction genre, and they on't really make a satisfactory completion to the plot.

One thing which is common throughout Stephenson's writing career is that intelligence is good in his novels. Anathem is particularly unsubtle in this respect, but in this world of Big Brother, of American politicians who have never heard of half the countries in the world, of bankers who think that hedge funds would never fail to produce huge profits, this is a message which deserves to be heard.

Though Stephenson is an author I like a lot, and though there is much to enjoy in Anathem, I came away disappointed - 6/10.

Thursday 4 February 2010

Winifred Watson: Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day (1938)

Edition: Persephone, 2008
Review number: 1396

This wonderful novel nearly disappeared without trace; the introduction to Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day explains how, after being a big success when first published, it was forgotten until eventually a reader requested a reprint. Persephone publishes books on the suggestion of readers, mainly to promote forgotten female writers. This sort of enterprise, it seems to me, relies quite heavily on second hand book stores: browsing, which has never been convincingly implemented in online sellers to my mind, makes it possible to be attracted to items which have never been heard of before, or to see something that sparks a glimmer of recognition ("that was one of my mother's favourite books", for example). While it is still true that just about every book which - like Miss Pettigrew - sold a reasonable number of copies in the last 150 years or so will be represented by a physical copy in some second hand bookshop in the UK, more of these wonderful places are disappearing in response to the online competition every month; even towns like Cambridge don't have as many as they did only five years ago.

Miss Pettigrew is a somewhat unsuccessful nursery governess, whose first name (Guinevere) is the only romantic thing about her. On the day in question she is sent for a new job by an agency, but when she arrives, she finds not a harassed mother with small children but a beautiful, worldly young lady, a dancer and actress who is clearly not the sort of person Miss Pettigrew is used to working for, nor the sort of person her upbringing suggests she should associate with or like. And there are no children in sight, though it quickly becomes clear that Delysia La Fosse (a stage name, obviously) is seeing at least three men.

Miss Pettigrew quickly accumulates new experiences: standing up to people, having an alcoholic drink, going to a cocktail party, visiting a night club, and so on. Not at all the life she is used to and mostly things that a conventional nursery governess should have had neither the opportunity or the desire to do. But she doesn't feel out of place, and is accepted, and enjoys herself immensely, while her position a outsider gives her an ability to see what is going on under the surface and then act - in a very nursery governess sort of way - to bring about the changes she judges best for those around her.

In short, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day is a version of the Cinderella story. It is funny and enchanting. It might be considered rather on the light side; if it came out today, it would probably be considered "chick lit". This particular edition adds  an interesting introduction and some delightful, stylish and appropriate illustrations (though I don't like the way the one used on the cover has been coloured - it looks rather garish to me). All in all a most enjoyable experience - 9/10.

Friday 29 January 2010

Leslie Charteris: The Saint in Pursuit (1970)

Edition: Coronet, 1989
Review number: 1395

Many of the later Saint stories are adaptations of episodes from the TV series (both The Saint with Roger Moore and Return of the Saint with Ian Ogilvy), but The Saint in Pursuit is I think unique in that it originated as a comic strip printed in American newspapers.

The story is a fairly standard Nazi Gold caper set in the late fifties (when the strip first appeared). A young woman, whose father was in the US Army and disappeared towards the end of the war, receives a letter from a lawyer sending her to Lisbon. This alerts US military intelligence, which still has some questions it wants to have answered about her father's disappearance. He worked as an investigator, and he may have disappeared because of this work, which involved tracing large sums of money - and they want to know why. They in turn contact Simon Templar, who did some work for them during the war (as detailed in the Saint novels from The Saint in Miami to The Saint on Guard). The Saint is hardly going to turn down this treasure hunt assignment...

Without stretching the format, or even giving Charteris any need to think very hard, this is an enjoyable Saint book, and one which delights the collector in me, as its acquisition leaves me with just three to complete the set. My rating - 8/10.

Sunday 17 January 2010

Iain M. Banks: Matter (2008)

Edition: Orbit, 2009
Review number: 1394

Like several of its predecessors, Iain Banks' latest Culture novel begins on a comparatively primitive world which is not part of that galactic civilisation. There, traitorous plotters have murdered the warlord of the burgeoning empire of the Sarl, proclaimed the death of his eldest surviving son, and set their leader as regent for the younger son. The elder brother, Ferbin, is the central character of the novel, which is about his journey to seek refuge with the Culture, before attempting to gain his revenge. He chooses the Culture because his sister earlier joined them, in a move viewed by their father as the equivalent of a dynastic marriage, whereas in fact she has become an agent of Special Circumstances. an organisation which features in most of the other Culture novels. As described here, they are "practitioners of that ultimately dark art of always well meaning, sometimes risky and just occasionally catastrophic interference in the affairs of other civilisations": the ideal people for Ferbin to interest in the fate of the Sarl.

What is it about this scenario, that of an advanced race observing (and interfering in) the political manoeuvrings of a comparatively barbarous one, holds such an appeal for Banks? It is of course an enduring science fiction plot device, clichéd enough to appear in several episodes of the original Star Trek, hardly ground breaking even in its own day. One benefit used by Banks here and elsewhere in the Culture novels is that it enales the writer to combine ideas from the science fiction and fantasy genres (as Anne McCaffrey does in the Pern novels too, in a less literary manner). A more important general reason for its use in science fiction is that it enables ironic parallels to be drawn between the story and the way that superpowers have interfered in the affairs of other nations, from the development of European colonial empires to the present day war against terror.

The hidden interference with the Sarl and other races gives the plot of Matter several levels. The plotting of the Sarl nobility is influenced and motivated by plotting by the races which are meant to mentor the various nations on their world, while the more still more technological advanced civilisations like the culture look on from afar, with their interference limited by treaty and custom. The interwoven conspiracies make for entertaining reading, while their parallels with the activities of the real nations on Earth give a slightly uncomfortable edge to this entertainment.

 In this edition, the Appendix - a list of names and glossary - is between the last chapter and the Epilogue. So a reader who stops at the apparent last page of the narrative will most some of the tying up of loose ends. There is also another extra, a reprinted magazine interview with the author, which is worth reading for fans.

Matter is not as brutal as many of Banks' novels. It has fairly clear cut "good" and "bad" guys: the sympathies of the reader are clearly engaged by Ferbin and the Culture. This makes it one of the most conventional novels Banks has written, whether science fiction or not. Even so, there is room for plenty of invention. So not Banks' deepest novel, but I felt it was one of the most enjoyable entries in the Culture series: 8/10.

Wednesday 6 January 2010

Dorothy L. Sayers: Murder Must Advertise (1933)

Edition: Gollancz, 1971
Review number: 1393

There are several Dorothy Sayers novels which have an unusual background: bell ringing in The Nine Tailors, the Bohemian London intelligentsia in Strong Poison, and so on. This idea is not that uncommon in crime fiction since her day, but she makes her backgrounds more closely integrated with the puzzle than is often the case. Murder Must Advertise is the best of these in many ways. Like Gaudy Night (Oxford womens' college), it uses a setting extremely familiar to the author, that of the adverstising agency, similar (one assumes, but for the likelihood of violent death) to the one in which she worked. It even has a character, a copy writer named Miss Meteyard, who is clearly something of a self-portrait.  Advertising has obviously changed since the 1930s, so this makes Murder Must Advertise something of a historical record, particularly with episodes such as discussions about how to encourage more women to take up smoking which would be viewed rather differently today.

The novel begins when a new copywriter arrives at Pym's agency, to fill the place of a man who died falling down the stairs. The new man signs himself Death Bredon, and the reader is likely to realise very quickly that these are the middle names of Lord Peter Wimsey, undercover to unravel a death more suspicious than it first appears.

One aspect of the novel doesn't really work at all. As part of the investigation, Lord Peter needs to charm a wild young woman, a rich society party-goer who is involved with a set connected to drug smuggling. He does this - rather bizarrely - by dressing up as Harlequin and playing silly but mysterious games to tantalise her. This includes physical feats unlikely to be carried out by a twenty year old (unless a circus acrobat), let alone Lord Peter, who is described as being about twice that age. The contrast between these sections and the rest is rather jarring, and doesn't encourage belief in Lord Peter as a character. I also felt that it was unlikely that Lord Peter, who is supposed to be so well known to the public, was not recognised in what seems to have been a playing of a role with no real disguise of his features - he is nearly discovered at one point because he is still wearing tailored clothes which would be far beyond the means of the man he is supposed to be.

On the other hand, one literary trick does work, even though it must at the time of publication have seemed out of place in a crime genre novel. At several crucial points in the novel, Sayers places paragraphs which consist solely of advertising slogans (for the made up products of Pym's clients). Apart from punctuating the narrative, they provide a particular kind of background, due to the all pervasive nature of advertising in the twentieth century. A successful advert needs to catch the mood of the moment, and feed off it, or else it won't be able to capture the imagination of the consumer - they are in a way the essence of popular culture. This means that the style of adverts is instantly evocative of the time of their creation, and makes these paragraphs in Murder Must Advertise redolent of the early thirties.

Flawed, but still one of the best classic crime novels - 8/10.