Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Michelle de Kretser: The Hamilton Case (2003)

Edition:Vintage, 2004
Review number: 1471

The genre of post-colonial literary fiction has become one of the mainstays of the Booker Prize, with wins for several over the years. When starting to read The Hamilton Case, I thought that it was strange that this novel, set in Ceylon in the generation leading up to independence, had been overlooked by the judges  - and I am not the only one, as Hilary Mantel (herself now of course a double winner of the prize) suggests that it should have made it to the short list in her endorsement on the back cover.

Sam Obeysekere is a Ceylonese from a wealthy background, descendant of a family which has worked with the rulers of the island for centuries (hence the schoolyard taunt, "Obey by name, obey by nature). His father's profligate generosity destroys most of Sam's inheritance, but not before a (local) public school and then Oxford University education let him become a prominent lawyer, who then achieves fame by solving the murder case of the title, leading to the arrest of an Englishman for the killing. This all takes place against the background of nationalist unrest (parallel to, but less well known to me than, Ghandi's campaign in India), in which Sam's brother-in-law (and long term hated rival) Jaya plays a prominent role.

Much of the novel is told from Sam's point of view, but not all of it. I prefer the parts of the novel which are told by Sam, with observations which appear in the third party narrative such as "He gave no signs of understanding that his life had been a series of substitutions" being irritating brickbats from a writer who has shown herself able to use Sam's one-sided account to portray the relationship between Sam and Jaya with subtlety and humour.

The later parts of the novel become a different story, of madness and ghosts, but this is nothing like as powerful as the first half. I found myself no longer being engaged by a novel which initially seemed to be one of the best (excluding things I had read before) I was going to read in a while. Some of the short chapters remain atmospheric, but the real meat of this book is exhausted by page 121, the end of the second section and the Hamilton murder case itself.

Perhaps this change is partly deliberate: there have been many people who have lived lives of early promise and a brief flowering which then go nowhere - at least in some terms. But it is odd: to catalogue the life of a Sri Lankan who would have been closely associated with the British colonial regime in the period after independence could have been an interesting story. There is little of this to be gleaned from what Kretser chooses to write about, which is basically Sam's inability to relate to those close to him - his parents, his sister, his wife, and his son.

Perhaps Hilary Mantel only read the first half of the book; perhaps there is more to the second half than I saw - as I find Mantel unreadable myself, I am unlikely to appreciate the same things in fiction that she does. The best rating I can give The Hamilton Case is 6/10, despite the brilliance of the beginning.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Lord R. Benson: iPlot (2012)

Edition: Marador, 2012
Review number: 1470

A simple but arresting idea sets off this thriller: a couple pick up the wrong iPad after an airport security check when travelling to Australia, and find that it is fill of files about terrorism, including copies of hate mail sent to the Australian Prime Minister Carla Moore. The documents are fairly swiftly erased, the iPad having a feature that makes it possible for the owner to delete documents on a lost device. When Carla Moore falls ill suddenly, they suspect that there might be a link between the event and this iPad, but, having nothing concrete to show the police, they need to investigate for themselves.

iPlot starts slowly, and I found the basic idea of the swapped iPads difficult to believe: surely it can't be the case that there is no security to stop unauthorised users accessing the content on an iPad without entering a password? I'd be surprised if there were no apps to add biometric authentication capabilities such as iris scanning to iPad authentication. I am not an iPad user, but the answer to both questions appears to be yes, from a quick search on google, though it seems to be possible to bypass iPad authentication; this is a list of biometric authentication apps. So the idea that it would be possible to pick another person's iPad and only realise it is not your own when you see it doesn't contain the film you planned to watch on your flight - especially as the iPad concerned contains seriously sensitive data. My doubts made it hard to accept the verisimilitude of the story from the beginning.

There were other flaws which did not help. There are some rather clunky passages of prose, including the second chapter, which consists of lengthy and dull extracts from the documents on the laptop, including information about the death of Alexander Litvinenko, which is likely to be fairly familiar to anyone who has followed the news over the last few years, at least in the UK. This material could have been better introduced, and there is no need for so much of it, just a few bits and pieces to establish the type of content which is stored in the iPad. Anyone who has watched shows like Spooks or Homeland will already have a pretty good idea of what these documents will be like, so it will feel like familiar territory which could be skipped to many readers. There is something of a tendency to over-explain the background throughout, especially as many of the topics involved (the iPads, the terrorist plotting, the science) are likely to be of interest and fairly well known to potential readers, who I suspect will be - I hesitate slightly to say - geeks like me, who will be drawn in by the iPad idea.

The characters are poorly drawn; they all seem to have the same personality, pretty much, and even their physical descriptions are similar in many cases - this is a world of good looking, intelligent, and basically nice people.

But there are good sides to iPlot too. The story builds to its climax well, and eventually the most cynical reader will be drawn in. In terms of the plotting, I would have liked to have seen more use made of the iPads after they set the plot in motion, but the finale of iPlot was good anyway. I liked the technological and scientific aspects of the novel, even if they were over-explained, but I wanted to enjoy iPlot as a whole more than I did. My rating - 6/10.

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Michael Johnston: Rembrandt Sings (2012)

Edition: akanos, 2012
Review number: 1469

Art historian Bill Maguire tells the reader his life story in Johnston's new novel. At least, he narrates a version of his life: he is clearly a constant reviser of material from his journals, and undercuts much of what he says with sardonic footnotes. His story is bound up with that of a rather older man, a painter named Joe Rembrandt, and most of Maguire's story is taken up with Joe's recital of his own life story, told to the young Bill while in the last stages of terminal illness. And in turn, Rembrandt's story is bound up with (fictional) painter Alexander Golden, whose daughter he married. Or perhaps not: it is clear fairly quickly that not only is Bill Maguire an unreliable storyteller, so is Joe Rembrandt, even if he does share an insight into Golden's paintings which Maguire uses to establish his academic reputation.

What unites these characters is a love for (and knowledge of) fine art. Even their involvement in dubious activities - including forgery and possibly, murder, as the front cover puts it - is fuelled by and part of their love for painting. Johnston captures the power of their obsession well, which is particularly useful, as it is of vital importance to the plot, as well as making the characters sympathetic: a forgery (and even a murder) for the love of art is easier to accept than the same crime carried out just to make money.

Rembrandt Sings is not intended to be an action thriller, and is more concerned with the motivation of the forger than anything else. The ending has a nice thriller-style twist to it; if reading the novel, do not skip forward as you would ruin a treat. Having said that, it is also a novel I wished had been longer, a rare object. There is nothing much recorded from Bill's live between the early twenties when his academic career was beginning and the position of senior and respected art historian, a likely candidate for the next head of the Tate gallery, who is looking back to his early days in the art world. Perhaps nothing out of the ordinary would have happened, just a standard academic career path, but more information would have been interesting.

Painting is not really my thing (colour blindness means that I tend to have problems perceiving pictures in the same way as people with normal vision), but I do enjoy fiction about art. I was in fact just starting Michael Gruber's Forgery of Venus as I finished Rembrandt Sings, another novel about art forgery, with a rather different slant on the subject. And I love Iain Pears' Jonathan Argyll series, which seem to have finished, unfortunately; they are more traditionally crime stories, and have less convincing forgers than Joe Rembrandt (which is not surprising, as it is  not the point of the books). I don't think that, even though music is the art form dearest to me, I would find a musical faker as interesting as the characters in this book, no matter how well done.

Altogether, I found this an interesting and impressive picture of the forger, with a clever twist, though lacking in pace for most of the time. My rating: 7/10.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Walter Tevis: Mockingbird (1980)

Edition: Gollancz, 2007
Review number:1468

The best known novels by Walter Tevis are famous as films: The Hustler, The Man Who Fell to Earth, and The Color of Money - a trio which certainly demonstrates versatility. As a genre writer, he is also known for Mockingbird, here reprinted as one of Gollancz's "SF Masterworks" series.

One of TS Eliot's most famous lines, known to many who have no idea who wrote it (one online quotation search engine bizarrely attributes it to actor Vin Diesel) is "This is how the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper". It is almost a one sentence summary of Mockingbird, and is quoted at one point towards the end of the novel. Perhaps "human civilization" would be more apt than "world", but otherwise the mood and fit of the line is pretty much perfect.

The setting of Mockingbird is at the end, then, of the human history. With all tasks handled by robots, humans have sunk into a listless, drugged apathy, almost entirely of their own (or their ancestors') making. The main characters include one of the last, most advanced, robots to be made, named Spofforth, and one of the youngest remaining humans, named Bentley, who eventually realises the meaning of the demolition of his school once he and the rest of his year group leave: there are no more children.

The third major character is a woman named Mary Lou, who has been living an outsider's life in New York Zoo, inhabited otherwise only by the robots who manage it and who pretend to be children visiting - and which may well also be many of the exhibits. She has been surviving by eating sandwiches made available by a bug in the management system: a robot is provided with them to fill a vending machine, but always has five more than fit, and no instructions for what to do with them, so is effectively immobilised until May Lou takes them from it. She has managed somehow to escape from the system and is therefore free from the drugs taken by every other human. The robots have seen that humans are happier in general without high intelligence or dramatic events, so the drugs make their takers less excitable and less clever.

Once this is established, a strange thing happens, the most important event in the story, and one which almost knocks the whole novel off its mournful path. Spofforth denounces Bentley as a criminal - a true accusation, for Bentley, having worked out how to read from a book, teachers Mary Lou, and this is a crime because reading can distract from the bland happiness which humans are supposed to experience. Bentley is sent to prison, and Spofforth moves himself and Mary Lou into an abandoned apartment, following a rather atavistic prompting of a hidden part of his mind, which was not constructed but is based on a recording of the mind of a human being.

With the end of reading, of education, there is so much that people just don't know any more. Like a prehistoric inland dweller who has never seen the ocean, Bentley comments: "I did not know sea water was undrinkable. No one had ever told me." This, on top of the general apathy brought by the drugs, is really what is bringing the end; things break down, and no one knows how to fix them or how to get a robot to fix them, and no one cares to do either, anyway. Temporary measures, such as the one which added contraceptives to the drugs to curb population increase, are set in place, but then no one remembers to rescind them afterwards.

The title of the novel comes from a caption in a silent film watched by Bentley, who is put to recording the words of such films as no one can read the captions any more: "Only the mockingbird sings at the edge of the forest". Apparently, the Northern Mockingbird does indeed live and sing at the edge of forests during their breeding season, but Tevis' intention is to say something about his theme, but I found it hard to choose between several different interpretations of the phrase. The lives which are led by Bentley, Spofforth, and Mary Lou could be said to be a mockery of those who are living normal lives in the forest, and the mockingbird a symbolic outsider; the odd relationship between Spofforth and Mary Lou, while she is pregnant, is a mockery of twentieth century city life (as well as referencing the breeding season of the bird); or it could refer to Tevis' role as a commentator on the negative sides of the human drive to increase comfort and settle for the banal in experience as safer than living on the edge.

This is the kind of novel I would point to as a counter to those who think nothing with a science fiction genre label on it can be literary, or discuss real issues. Dealing with apathy, depression, and suicide as it does, Mockingbird is hardly cheerful reading, but is definitely recommended. My rating: 9/10.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Gregory Benford: Timescape (1980)

Edition: Millennium, 2000
Review number: 1467

Gregory Benford is an author whose writing I like, but I have never got round to reading much of his work. Timescape is a classic science fiction, not quite about time travel but considering how history might be affected by the possibility of sending messages to the past. Half of the novel is set in San Diego in 1963, and half in Cambridge in 1998, with chapters more or less alternating between the two settings. (The dates were clearly chosen to that the novel appeared halfway between the two.)

In 1998, the world is experiencing a massive environmental catastrophe caused by mutations in oceanic plankton induced by the indiscriminate use of certain chemicals in agriculture. Physicists in Cambridge are investigating tachyons, sub-atomic particles which travel faster than the speed of light, and it occurs to one of them that it would be possible to send some kind of message to the past by sending a beam of tachyons to the point in space where the Earth once was, and interfering with physics experiments being carried out at the time when the Earth was at that position (direct detection of the tachyons being impossible, as technology wouldn't be in a position to pick them up at that point). The early sixties were chosen as a target because experiments which can be affected by beams of tachyons were beginning to be studied then.

Some people divide the science fiction genre into "hard" and "soft" writing. Hard SF is concerned with science: it views the genre almost as a way to carry out an informal discussion of more less speculative ideas, usually in physics, in a fictional setting. Soft SF is more often interested in the social aspects of science and technology, centring on culture. It is perhaps something of an outmoded way to view the genre, which seems to be more simply speculative in nature (i.e. centred around "what if" ideas) than anything else, where science fiction elements (such as space travel) are not simply props to a story which doesn't depend on them except as part of the background.

If the distinction has any meaning, then Gregory Benford has usually been regarded as a hard science fiction writer, partly because he is also a physics professor, and partly because he is also concerned to get the science in his stories as compatible with known fact (and interesting fact-based speculation) as possible. Most of the physics in Timescape is  based on what was known, or what at least seemed plausible in 1980, including what is quite likely to be the earliest mention of dark matter in a science fiction novel. The exception to this is the tachyons, which physicists still generally doubt could possibly exist. How they could behave if they did exist has been the subject of a certain amount of speculation, and Benford builds in part on this. And of course, tachyons are needed for the central plot device in Timescape of sending the message back in time, even if this violation of causality is one of the main reasons that their existence is considered unlikely. Benford has a rather convoluted but clever and interesting mechanism to get out of this trap, which I will not give away.

At the same time, Benford is able to write well enough to avoid the major criticism often levelled at hard SF writers, that they neglect important aspects of the story such as characterisation because of their overwhelming interest in the scientific idea. In Timescape, the reader does care about the characters in both timelines, and the background is believable - possibly in part because the setting is the physics research community which Benford is a member of in real life. It all works well, and the end product is a fascinating novel - at least, I think it would be to anyone interested in the physics. My rating - 9/10.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Michael Moorcock: The Twilight Man (1966)

Also available under the title The Shores of Death
Edition: Sphere Books, 1970
Review number: 1466

Like The Blood Red Game (which I bought in the same second hand bookshop as The Twilight Man in May), this is a reworking of an earlier piece of writing, in this case a serial which was written to fill space in New Worlds during the earliest months of Moorcock's editorship of that later famous science fiction magazine.

Clovis Marca is a former leader of Earth's government, leading a humanity which is now doomed to extinction after an alien visitation has left everyone infertile. As the book begins, Marca returns from a year in space, his way of dealing with the catastrophe. The desperate decadence of the society he finds on his return is a clear precursor of my favourite Moorcock series, The Dancers at the End of Time.  The Twilight Man is a staging post between it and the Arthur C. Clarke novel, The City and the Stars, which appears to have influenced Moorcock greatly, though I do not actually know that he read this particular novel (as I discuss in its review). Doomed decadence is one of Moorcock's recurring themes, as well - part of what he wants to say to his readers through his writing.

While much more Moorcockian (so to speak) than The Blood Red Game, The Twilight Man is still not fully individual in its style: clearly still the work of a writer finding his way, even five years after the publication of the first Elric novel, The Stealer of Souls. Perhaps because it is more like the author's later work, The Twilight Man is less interesting to read than The Blood Red Game: it is slightly too much like the fan's guess as to what early Moorcock would be like to engage.

Reasonably enjoyable in itself, I would give The Twilight Man 6/10.

Saturday, 6 October 2012

Anthony Horowitz: The House of Silk (2011)

Edition: Orion Books, 2011
Review number: 1465

The character of Sherlock Holmes has been part of a huge literary industry, possibly the largest collection of what would now be known as fan-fiction ever produced. But The House of Silk remains an unprecedented event, being the first Sherlock Holmes novel actually authorised by the estate of Arthur Conan Doyle. The writer chosen to produce this work is Anthony Horowitz. His prior literary output consists of thrillers for teens, the Diamond Brothers and the Alex Rider series. Rather more relevant, I suspect, is his role as the creator and writer of the acclaimed historical crime TV series Foyle's War.

As an authorised continuation of Conan Doyle's writing, it is to be expected that The House of Silk is more like the 'canon' than much of the Sherlock Holmes literature produced by other writers, and this is indeed the case. It does use some of the common devices of Holmes fan-fiction, in particular the idea that narrator Dr Watson had cases that he wished to write about but which were to sensitive to publish, and which were then stored after his death for a number of years. It does not play around with the canon as some Holmes novel do, including some of my favourites, Laurie R. King's Mary Russell series.

The many Conan Doyle-like touches include an American connection, with the story opening with Holmes employed to track down a man who has been terrorising his client, believed to be a gangster from Boston, Mass., where Holmes client had been instrumental in the capture of the gang he belonged to. This story bears a resemblance to the Scowrer plot in The Valley of Fear, also involving the early employees of the Pinkerton detective agency working against a violent gang.

Slightly oddly, given the potential of a series of authorised Sherlock Holmes novels, The House of Silk seems to be designed as a one-off, judging by the preface and afterword (in which John Watson explains the reasons for not publishing this story at the time it happened). Maybe Horowitz didn't enjoy writing this, maybe the Conan Doyle estate only wanted a one off - there's plenty of time for more, though, before the final US copyright runs out on a Sherlock Holmes novel (assuming no changes in the relevant law before then).

The incidentals of the tale - the atmospheric depiction of Victorian London and its exotica, the energetic sleuthing of Holmes and Watson, and so on - are very much done in the Conan Doyle manner, but I found the puzzle very simple indeed. I found it a bit hard to work out whether this is authentic recreation of canon, or something which is Horowitz's own, because I know the Holmes stories fairly well so am not surprised by the twists in them, and I am a much more sophisticated and experienced reader of detective fiction than I was when I first encountered Sherlock Holmes in a comic strip version of The Sign of Four in the pages of Look and Learn in the mid-1970s. Thinking about it, I feel that the mysteries in Conan Doyle are mostly more difficult for the reader to solve. This is my only real caveat; in every other way, The House of Silk is a pretty good addition to the Sherlock Holmes industry, even if in 2012 it would be hard to write a novel with the impact of the original series that was true to the originals as this is. My rating: 7/10.

Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Julian Barnes: The Sense of an Ending (2011)

Edition: Jonathan Cape, 2011
Review number: 1464

When The Sense of an Ending won the Man Booker Prize last year, I remember seeing a suggestion that this was more a belated recognition of Barnes' career than an award which was deserved by this specific novel. Length aside, I don't think that this is the case, as the The Sense of an Ending is an immensely enjoyable yet deeply felt novel which reminds me of the early works which I like best out of Barnes' output.

The Sense of an Ending tells of a school friendship, following by a gradual growing apart while the friends are at different universities and an end with the suicide of one of the young men. Then, in the second part, the survivor has the past brought back to life decades later when he is unexpectedly left a legacy, which includes the diary of the dead man. And so the narrator. now in his sixties, looks back on the events of his teens and his early twenties.

So this is a novel about friendship, memory, and death. But although it addresses these potentially weighty themes, it is often funny, especially in the first section, which is set at the school. A lot of this section prepares the way for the rest of the book, as when, for example, the boys are made to discuss the nature of history by their teacher, an anecdote which is also used to suggest that the narrator of the novel is not entirely reliable: he ends up deciding that history is the story told by the survivors, rather than, as is usually suggested, by the victors. The Sense of an Ending is about "closure", hence the title, but it also has a satisfying and somewhat unexpected ending itself.

The problem with The Sense of an Ending is how short it is, especially by modern standards. I can think of several acknowledged masterpieces - oddly, mainly French - which are no longer but 150 pages is very short in these days of word processors. However, the important thing to realise is that this story seems to fit the length (which is more a tribute to Barnes' craftsmanship than something innate to the plot ideas). There are no wasted words, and no feeling that there are elements which should be in the book but are missing - even though there is a gap of forty years between Parts One and Two. A longer version of the novel would clearly be possible, but would lack the focus which Barnes is able to bring to his chosen subject by his concentrated treatment of it.

Barnes is a writer who I've read and enjoyed sporadically over the years, and this is in my opinion one of his best - 9/10.

Sunday, 16 September 2012

Esi Edugyan: Half Blood Blues (2011)

Edition: Serpent's Tail, 2011
Review number: 1463

The treatment of Jews by the Nazis during the Second World War is well known (even if a small minority of people claim that the Holocaust did not happen), but the knowledge that similar efforts were made to destroy other groups (such as gypsies and homosexuals) is less widespread. This novel is the story of three black men, jazz musicians, in Germany and then France as the war broke out and France was occupied. Jazz music was banned as degenerate by the Nazis, which makes them even worse in the eyes of the German state and its functionaries, One of the musicians, trumpeter Hiero, is actually German by nationality, so is even more unwelcome in the land of his birth. He is unable to get travel papers as easily as the others, who are Americans, and they end up making a recording named Half Blood Blues in a tiny studio in Paris, which, when discovered after the war, is acclaimed as a classic, along with Hiero being regarded as a jazz great tragically lost when he is arrested and taken to the concentration camps shortly after the session.

Half Blood Blues was nominated for the 2011 Man Booker Prize, but failed to win. Neither is a surprise to me. The novel has some truly brilliant writing, but my interest flagged in the middle. The background of wartime Europe is less interesting than the sections about jazz, and what it feels like to be a jazz musician is far more enthralling than the plot.

Although jazz has never been music which really spoke to me - I keep on trying, to see if I can pick up what others love about it so much - I have done a fair amount of musical improvisation. I can't claim to be very gifted at it, but on occasion it has just clicked, and when this happens while playing with others also "in the groove", it produces a euphoric feeling which is like no other I have ever felt and which I can never forget even though I rarely play now and never perform any more. In her descriptions of the session when the main characters jam with Louis Armstrong and in the Half Blood Blues session itself, Edugyan comes close to expressing that feeling in prose, and then goes on to nail the draining numbness and despair which comes to those who (unlike me) have been able to touch a vein of inspiration frequently enough to become professionals when they are unable to perform as well as they want: a feeling probably at the source of at least some of the drug habits which have plagued many famous jazz musicians.

It is the wartime aspects of the novel - the terrible choices which must be made, the lost companions, the betrayals - which work less well. However gifted Edugyan is at bring the experience of music making alive for the reader, she does not appear to be a thriller writer. The slackness of this side of the novel is why the middle parts drag.

While tempted to give a higher rating to this novel for the brilliance of its evocation of performance, I don't really think that Half Blood Blues can be rated higher than 6/10 overall.

Tuesday, 28 August 2012

Alastair Reynolds: Blue Remembered Earth (2012)

Edition: Gollancz, 2012
Review number: 1462

The setting of Blue Remembered Earth is a post-scarcity world, where an environmental collapse has been followed by the rise of African states as superpowers, a renaissance which is originally solar then fusion powered. The Akinya family has played a leading part in this, and its members are now famous and wealthy. The plot is set in motion by the death of their matriarch Eunice in her space station retreat. The main characters are her grandchildren, the idealistic Geoffrey and Sunday, who have rejected the Akinya corporate legacy, and the mercenary Hector and Lucas. A secure deposit box belonging to Eunice sends the first two on a quest to discover her true legacy, the first step in a treasure hunt across the solar system where each clue points to the location of the next, and Hector and Lucas are not far behind them.

This rather childish-seeming plot is not what the book is really about - and Reynolds can certainly do better at this aspect of novel construction. Reynolds is a master at world-building, and Blue Remembered Earth is basically a tour of the man-made wonders of the solar system of the future. The novel is a gallery to show off some of his ideas, some of which could easily be the foundation for whole novels of their own: from the "ethics shunt" installed in Lucas' brain to prevent morality getting in the way of business, to the Evolvarium, an area of Mars in which machines are left to evolve and compete, like a physical version of the genetic algorithms run in many of today's computer simulations.

While most of Alastair Reynolds novels remind me of writers like Iain M. Banks, Blue Remembered Earth is much more like older genre figures, in particular Arthur C. Clarke. Instead of writing a wide ranging space opera, here Reynolds sticks to the solar system, which is full of its own wonderful objects, including an updated version of Clarke's famous lunar monolith - Reynolds' version is on the Martian moon Phobos, and is fantastically carved by human tourists. There is an element of guided tour about the novel as a result, which will not be to all tastes. Like Clarke's 2001, the story builds up to a climactic revelation. The big question for a potential reader is going to be whether this ending really is a climax, or just a disappointing let-down. This is of course also the case for any story in any medium which is constructed as a sequence of "reveals" (to use a film-making term); The Whisperer, which I recently read, is an example of a thriller set up in this way, which I don't feel has a sufficiently good climax to work. Here, at least from the point of view of the characters, the ending is better, but to this reader, some aspects (particularly the reasons for the secrecy and the treasure hunt) don't quite gel properly.

Which brings me to the title of the novel. It is derived from A.E. Houseman's A Shropshire Lad, of which the relevant lines seem to be "What are those blue remembered hills...? That is the land of fat content ... The happy highways where I went and cannot come again." It is hard to see how Houseman's poetic evocation of nostalgia relates to a novel which has such an optimistic view of the future of the human race, even if some tribulation has to be endured before that future arrives. The key is, I think, that this is the first of a new series: it is the blue remembered earth described in this novel which will be the object of nostalgia later on, suggesting that the series will become darker as it progresses.

My rating: 6/10; not appealing to me as much as Reynolds' earlier work.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Liz Jensen: My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time (2006)

Edition: Bloomsbury, 2007
Review number: 1461

If the title did not warn the reader, the first sentence's appropriation of the famous opening to Rebecca would make it clear that My Dirty Little Book of Stolen Time is not going to be entirely serious. It is a personal history, told by Charlotte, a prostitute from late nineteenth century Copenhagen. When times are hard, she manages to inveigle her way into a respectable house as a maid, only to be accidentally catapulted into twenty-first century London bye the HG Wells-style time machine hidden in the basement.

My Dirty Little Book is broad comedy, sometimes even cruel (Charlotte's treatment of the dim overweight woman who accompanies her is a case in point). But it is still very funny. In fact, I was reading it alongside a P.G. Wodehouse I hadn't read before (The Girl in Blue), and Liz Jensen held her own even in this company. Few indeed will be those readers who follow Charlotte's exhortation in a time of adversity to return the book in disgust to the shop or library from which it was obtained.

I have tagged this review as science fiction because of the time travel element, though one of the reviews quoted on the cover describes it as "less science fiction than fairy tale", which is in many ways true. I don't have a tag for fairy tale currently, but I actually think that science fiction is the right genre in which to place this book (subsidiary to humour, which is obviously its main point). My feeling is that Tom Holt and Terry Pratchett are readily filed under science fiction or fantasy, because the genre themes and ideas are important elements in the structure of their books, provide much of the humour, and are the subjects of parody. Not only that, but the detailed nature of the genre elements is frequently given in some detail and is important to the story: dragons in The Colour of Magic (to pick one example) are not just fairy story beasts with no explanation, but projections of a human belief in dragons and a parody of Anne McCaffrey's Pernese dragons. And I think that all these criteria hold for Liz Jensen's book as well. Time travel is essential to the plot and the humour; there are moments of genre parody, particularly of H.G. Wells; the time machine itself is analysed further (there is even some discussion of the famous grandfather paradox). In fact, the nature of the fuel which propels the time machine is the closest that My Dirty Little Book comes to having a serious point, consisting as it does of three liquids embodying the struggle of history (blood, sweat, and tears), mixed with that more comical essential lubricant, strong alcoholic spirits.

The plot of My Dirty Little Book is farcical and not particularly important, except as the means by which the humour is generated. This mainly takes the form of Charlotte's observations of the worlds of both time periods. She is a most lively storyteller, occasionally a little too keen to address the reader directly, perhaps, but certainly an individual and entertaining voice. The amoral narration and humorous twists and turns of Charlotte's exploits made me think of Harry Flashman, not a bad model for this sort of comic novel.

My rating: 8/10.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Donato Carrisi: The Whisperer (2009)

Translation: Shaun Whiteside, 2010
Edition: Abacus, 2011
Review number: 1460

Three stories come together at the beginning of The Whisperer. An investigator specialising in finding missing children rescues a boy and a girl form a paedophile, before she is immediately reassigned to work with a serial killer investigation. Although this is not Mila's area of expertise, the reason is apparent from the second strand of the story, in which five severed left arms are found buried in a wood, then a six. The first five clearly belong to five girls reported missing, but no sixth girl is known to have disappeared. The last body has another difference from the others: medical evidence suggests that she might still be alive. The clock is ticking though, as even with the proper care, she only has another ten days outside a hospital. The third thread is a description of a desperate drive by a man with an appalling secret hidden in his car, which ends and joins the serial killer thread when he is stopped by the police.

The story itself consistently seems far-fetched, but is still quite compelling to read. Serial killers who enjoy setting cryptic puzzles for the police are bread and butter for crime thriller writers, as sinister monks haunted the catacombs in eighteenth century gothic romances. The paedophile preying on children is the terror of our age, no matter how rare he might be. Using the medical deadline given to the missing girl imposes dramatic tension on the story, albeit one which feels artificial - the child has been kidnapped: are the searchers going to waste their time on Facebook without this extra incentive? All these things add up to a hackneyed plot, if one which is quite well constructed, with twists and turns in every chapter.

I found the style of The Whisperer uninspiring, descending into lazy journalistic clichés such as "It all kicked off when...".  It is hard to tell whether this is the fault of Carrisi himself, or of the translator Shaun Whiteside. In the early chapters, I found myself considering not bothering to continue several times, because I found the writing so off-putting. Eventually, though, I was drawn in, and did keep going, even though one of the twists in the story involves something I always feel is a cheat in an apparently realistic detective story: the use of a medium.

Nothing like as good as the hype - too clichéd, too poorly written, and too over the top to be seriously read as a thriller. (Maybe it's a spoof, and I just didn't notice.) My rating: 4/10.

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Michael Moorcock: The Blood Red Game (1974)

Edition: Mayflower Science Fiction, 1974
Review number: 1459

The contents of this novel are actually from the very beginning of Moorcock's career, appearing as a pair of stories in a science fiction magazine in 1962, at around the same time as the first Elric novel, which was much more of a signpost to the type of writing he was going to go on to become known for. This packaging of the stories together which appeared in the mid-seventies must have seemed rather out of step with the cool New Wave work he was writing at the time; The Blood Red Game is, by contrast, clearly derivative from pulpy SF writers like E.E. "Doc" Smith and AE Van Vogt, especially the latter. (I should perhaps mention that, according to Fantastic Fiction, the two stories also appeared as - extremely short - separate novels in 1966.)

The first story, originally entitled The Sundered Worlds, has a hero, Renark, who has the psychic ability to sense the universe as a whole. He realises that it is beginning to contract, threatening the total destruction of humanity, a slightly strange premise that is apparently forgetting that it would take billions of years to contract the universe, even if the contraction occurred at almost the speed of light. No explanation is given of why it poses such an urgent problem, or even any indication that the contraction is very fast. The sundered worlds of the title are a small group of planets which travel between dimensions, and Renark thinks that they will hold the key to saving the galaxy. So he, with a small group of friends, travels to the sundered worlds the next time they pass through our universe, even though no human has ever returned from similar trips.

The second story, sharing its title with this book, follows immediately on from the end of The Sundered Worlds, so much so that I suspect some re-writing was done to cover the join for publication as one. The story now sees humanity facing a different external crisis, being forced to participate in a series of incomprehensible psychic games against alien species, for the amusement of more powerful beings.

In themselves, the two stories are fairly mediocre. To the Moorcock fan, they do have interesting ideas which relate to important concepts behind his later work, including an undeveloped form of the multiverse, with clashes between universes playing a part as they do in several later stories. I can see that they would have been of sufficient interest to a magazine editor in 1962 to publish, but I don't think that anyone would have bothered to re-package them as a novel without Moorcock's name associated with them - if, say, they had been the only published stories by someone who went on to become an advertising executive or a banker, instead of a world famous and hugely influential science fiction editor and author. As things turned out, it is still interesting to read them in the context of Moorcock's other work.

My rating - 4/10.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Julian Rathbone: Kings of Albion (2000)

Edition: Abacus, 2001
Review number: 1458

L.P. Hartley's line "The past is a foreign country" is often quoted, but it can be hard to realise just how different things were in former times. Kings of Albion is a novel which literalises the quotation to great effect. The plot is about an expedition sent out by the threatened Indian kingdom of Vijayanagara, to see if they can learn something from the far away English, who are rumoured even that far away to be the most warlike race on Earth. And the rumour turns out to be accurate, for they arrive at their destination in 1460, at the bloodiest period of the Wars of the Roses.

This device makes it possible for Rathbone to make us see how different England was 550 years ago, as the cultured Indian delegation react in horrified fascination to the things they see. Apart from being clever, Kings of Albion is also funny, with anachronism being used in a creative and humorous fashion: it is not out of place for the party to survive being caught between two gangs of youths from rival factions in Verona, but it seems so to the modern reader, because this is an episode from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. This sort of pre-echo is used to evoke films, plays, books, and twentieth century physics without technically breaking the historical mode of the novel.

Vijayanagara is a kingdom about which fairly little is known; according to Rathbone's preface, this is why he chose it, on the advice of an expert in Indian history. It enables Rathbone to construct a culture which produces a delegation with a philosophical outlook more like a person of today than a medieval Englishman, which heightens the shared reactions that we as readers have with the characters in the delegation.

Some modern devout Christians could still be offended by the religious themes of Kings of Albion, which concern on the one hand links between Hinduism and the origins of the medieval cult of the Virgin Mary, and some of the practices of the fifteenth century church on the other. But on the whole, most people should enjoy this evocation of medieval England which is reminiscent of the spirit of George MacDonald Fraser.

My rating: 9/10.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Robert V.S. Redick: The Red Wolf Conspiracy (2008)

Edition: Gollancz, 2009
Review number: 1457

This excellent fantasy novel tells of the voyage of the great ship Chathrand on a mission apparently to seal a peace between two empires which have been involved in a cold war for decades. But there are plots woven by several of those involved in the journey, from the Emperor himself downwards, and the story is mainly about the workings of the plans of the different factions aboard the ship. There are several major characters who take turns, chapter by chapter, to provide the narrative viewpoint (a common device in the fantasy genre); all of them are innocents in the machinations of others. One group aboard, the Ixchel, seem to be remnants of the sort of idea that sparks the writing of a novel: suppose Gulliver's Liliputians were taken from their home to be zoo exhibits, escaped, and spent the next few centuries trying to avenge the kidnapping - what would they be like?

The fantasy world in which the story is set is a richly realised one with technology approximately equivalent to the real eighteenth century (though it would have been impossible to build a ship the size of the Chathrand then - and the ship is old, built with knowledge lost by the time of the story's beginning). This means that The Red Wolf Conspiracy draws heavily on the many sea stories set during the Napoleonic Wars, particularly those less fenced in by the boundaries of the officers' quarters.

Exciting, fascinating; I am pleased that this is in fact the first of a series, because that promises much pleasure to come.

My rating: 8/10.

Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Gwyneth Jones: Spirit, or The Princess of Bois Dormant (2008)

Edition: Gollancz, 2009

Review number: 1456

There are a few writers who seem to be able to create a world which is instantly memorable, colourful and atmospheric, and it is a valuable skill to have in the science fiction and fantasy genres. Michael Moorcock and China Miéville can do it, and now Gwyneth Jones shows herself to be another member of the club.

The story opens as the central character,  a girl named Bibi, survives the massacre of the community into which she was born, by accepting the offer made by Lady Nef, wife of the attacking general, to become her servant, as an alternative to life as a concubine of the general. The novel then follows Bibi's career, as she becomes involved in the political scheming which surrounds Lady Nef and her husband, with tragic consequences. The severity of the difficulties encountered by Bibi can be seen from the comparison to The Count of Monte Cristo made in the SFX review quoted on the back cover. The middle section is basically a reworking of Dumas' novel in a science fiction setting, and is grim but fascinating.

It rather amazes me that I have not read anything by Gwyneth Jones before, if she has been writing fantasy of this quality for decades. This novel, and several of her earlier ones, have been nominated for the Arthur C. Clarke award. She has never been shortlisted for the Hugo or Nebula, awards for which I try to read the shortlisted novels each year; with writing this good, perhaps I should add the Clarke award to the list.

The atmosphere of Spirit continually reminded me of Miéville's Perdido Street Station. Both share a fantasy style but are in fact science fiction (though not hard SF) underneath - space ships and aliens, not dragons and goblins. Spirit is set in a post-technological world in which Clarke's famous dictum that advanced science is indistinguishable from magic has come true, and society's structure has at the same time moved back to a feudalistic form. The mixture of fantasy and science fiction is compelling, as it is in Miéville's work. It is also, like Perdido Street Station, a novel which is well written, dense, and yet still pacey and exciting.

Another writer I was reminded of by Spirit was Cordwainer Smith, whose influence is fairly clear in the depiction of the advent of the Princess of the sub-title in the last third of the novel. His quirky richness is especially apparent in the section set on the planet Mallorm. The plasticity of the setting, with the vague boundary between reality and virtual reality, and the menace which lies behind the outwardly absurd could have been found on Norstrilia or among the Underpeople.

In terms of criticism of Spirit, I am not sure that there is much of a point in the twenty-first century in such a clear homage to Dumas' famous novel. It's not that a novel really has to have a point at all, but The Count of Monte Cristo just seems like such a strange model to pick today. Vengeance in the modern world is the anonymous vendetta of the suicide bombers, not the more sophisticated, long drawn out, personal, and highly political destruction of the enemy. Spirit looks back to a time when there was more to revenge than just killing at random. Whether or not that is a good thing, it is certainly satisfying to read when the avenger is as sympathetic a character as Bibi.

My rating - 9/10.

Monday, 21 May 2012

H.D.F. Kitto: The Greeks (1951)

The Greeks has long been touted as the best basic introduction to the culture of ancient Greece, where the foundations for much of the way we think and live today were laid but which still can seem strangely alien from a viewpoint two and a half millennia years later. Now over sixty years old, is it still worth reading?

Clearly, the book itself has not changed in any way (especially as mine is quite an elderly copy). It remains an excellent basic description of ancient Greece, concentrating on the aspects of the culture which are especially influential. Kitto is occasionally self-indulgent, getting carried away by his love of the literature, as when he translates large portions of the first book of the Iliad which are not directly relevant to the aims of the book (though it does illuminate aspects of the culture almost in the way that a lengthy Bible quote would shed light on Western culture, or a section from the Koran would on Arab thought). My background (growing up with a parent who had not just studied classics, but who wrote books about Greece and Rome alongside translations of ancient texts) does not make me an ideal test for the use of The Greeks as an introduction, but from what I can see it does seem to do the job it sets out to do.

One thing which has certainly changed is the correctness of the assumptions Kitto makes about how much of Greek culture is already known to the general reader. Kitto assumes a certain amount of knowledge in his readers, and in the 1950s he would have been able to assume more than would be the case today; after all, most British schools still taught at least Latin in those days, and hardly any do so today. This has two consequences: the number of people who have any idea that the book might be interesting to them is smaller, and the likelihood is that they will find it far harder to understand. On the other hand, web sites like Wikipedia will fulfil many of the needs which The Greeks was intended to, so it is not as useful as it once was.

Edition: Pelican, 1958
Review number: 1456

Friday, 4 May 2012

Michael Collins: The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton (2006)

Campus novels are not uncommon; novels about writers even less so. But Michael Collins has here produced an excellent novel, by incorporating a striking crime thriller theme into this self-consciously literary setting.

The title character is a literature professor at Bannockburn College, a once-famous writer whose punk-like attitude helped bring about a decline in his career to the point where a meeting with an old friend who is still a best-selling author drives him to a suicide attempt. While he remains near death, a postgraduate student from the English department discovers a lost novel in his home, published decades ago by a now defunct vanity press and apparently so thoroughly forgotten that it no longer appears on Pendleton's CV. Intrigued, Abi begins to read it, and is impressed by what turns out to be a first person narrative daringly written from the point of view of a child killer. She eventually manages to get Scream published, and it becomes a best-seller as well as restoring Pendleton's literary reputation. But then a few people begin to realise that the crime depicted bears a close resemblance to a real cold case from local area.

Considered as a crime thriller, The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton moves at a glacially slow pace. It will, however, retain the interest of a genre fan because of the idea behind the plot. The extra space is used to include elements from literary fiction, particularly to develop the characterisation of Abi. The themes of the novel seem to be the way that bad choices come back to haunt us, and the relationship between fiction and reality - does Pendleton's depiction of the crime in Scream make him the criminal, someone who spoke to the criminal, or someone with a imagination unfortunately too close to that of the killer?

A touch of patience from thriller fans will be well rewarded. There are some fantasic scenes, such as the interrogation of another author and academic by the police, where he deconstructs the questions as though they are texts relating to an academic study of the philosophy of crime genre fiction.

All the main characters in The Secret Life are failures of one sort or another, at least in their own eyes, and are generally not at all reconciled to being so. There is the perennial student, the once fêted writer who cannot maintain his early promise, the writer who pursued commercial success and despises himself for it, the policeman unsatisfied by his second marriage, not to mention the people originally suspected of the murder, none of whom have done anything with their lives. They are not particularly likeable, either, which is something which usually makes it harder for me to enjoy a book; but this time, it did not, because of the interest of the idea and the complexity of the characters (who do at least have sympathetic traits as well).

The title is one of the poorest parts of The Secret Life of E. Robert Pendleton, being long, awkward, and unmemorable, as well as saying little about the themes of the novel. It has also been published as Death of a Writer, which is misleading and not very good either. A couple of minutes' thought suggested A Murder in Fiction, but I think that with only a modicum of effort, this too could be bettered.

My rating - 8/10.

Edition: Phoenix, 2007
Review number: 1455

Friday, 27 April 2012

Maeve Gilmore: Titus Awakes: The Lost Book of Gormenghast (2011)

The Gormenghast trilogy, by far Mervyn Peake's best known work as a writer, has many fans, including myself. And fans always want more, so we were intrigued when the publication of Titus Awakes was announced last year. Maeve Gilmore was Peake's widow (and, like her husband, an artist), who edited the fascinating but uneven compilation of Peake's less well known work, Peake's Progress. One of the items included there was the sketchy plan which eventually became Titus Awakes: a list of single words which form the themes of each of the chapters. There was also a draft of the first chapter, which I don't think was included (my copy of Peake's Progress being packed in a cardboard box in the garage, I can't easily check). Ironically, this completion of a lost novel was itself lost on Gilmmore's death in the eighties, only to be found in 2011.

The end of Titus Alone found Titus wandering in the vicinity of his ancestral home, Gormenghast Castle, before deciding to leave again. Titus Awakes begins at this point, with a brief scene between the Countess, Titus' mother, and Doctor Prunesquallor, also a character in the earlier books and fellow inhabitant of the castle. After these couple of pages, the rest of the chapter follows Titus closely, as he descends from the mountain on which the castle is built and sets off again. This is the end of the material that Peake wrote, and Gilmore then continues in the same vein.

The story consists of a series of bizarre adventures, much like those in Titus Alone, until the young man ends up in Sark, a plan which Peake divulged to his wife. Once this happens, the story has much more life; Maeve Gilmore was pretty clearly more comfortable writing about a real place familiar to her. Parts are clearly based on the writer's own life (and acknowledged as such in the introduction). This includes a sombre episode in which Titus, working temporarily at a mental hospital, meets Mervyn Peake as a patient visited by his wife Maeve Gilmore. Though all three do leave the hospital - Peake being misdiagnosed - its unending grey hopelessness is portrayed in what is probably the best written and certainly the most striking section of the novel.

The intention of the story, as in Titus Alone, is to use some of the external details of the situations in which Titus finds himself as allegorical mirrors of his growth as an individual. This means that the narrative is again heavily focused on the protagonist. I find this something of a problem with both books, as to me, and, I suspect, to many other readers, the most interesting aspect of Titus Groan and Gormenghast is the castle and the strange, ritualised lives of the grotesques who live there. While Titus psychologically needs to escape, and never quite manages to do so, the young man at the end is not as interesting as he is as the Earl of Groan, centre of the castle's culture, and the people he meets, no matter how strange, are never as interesting as the inhabitants of the castle. It must be said, too, that Peake's imagination for the bizarre is better than Gilmore's, making Titus Alone a more interesting read than Titus Awakes.

Titus Awakes is no masterpiece, no stunning new addition to the Peake canon. Few readers will have been expecting it to be, especially if Titus Alone seems less than stellar to them already. What it does offer is a glimpse at the intentions which Peake had for the later adventures of his best known character, and a measure of resolution to a story which was lacking it. My overall rating - 6/10, mainly because it is most like my least favourite novel in the original trilogy.

Edition: Vintage Books, 2011
Review number: 1454

Monday, 19 March 2012

George MacDonald Fraser: The Light's On at Signpost (2002)

Best known to me as the author of the fantastic Flashman novels, George MacDonald Fraser turns out from this volume of memoirs to have also been involved in the scriptwriting for a number of well known films of the 1970s, and to have had a lot of strongly held opinions,  both of which he was able to write about in an interesting if sometimes irritating manner.

The wildly diverse material in this book is helpfully divided into appropriately titled alternating sections, either Shooting Script or Angry Old Man, with Interludes - comment difficult to fit into either category - interspersed every so often. This means that the reader with little tolerance for political ranting but an interest in the cinema can read self-admittedly star struck reminiscences of films from The Three Musketeers to Superman and Octopussy; and the Daily Mail-reading UK Independence Party supporter can confirm their prejudices without bothering with the cultural memories. (Even if you agree with everything he says, however, I think that the tone of the latter sections would become wearing after a while.) Reading them both, though, has a jarring effect due to the contrast in tone between vitriolic rage at the state of Britain at the start of the twenty-first century, and affectionate enjoyment of the opportunities to work with a long list of stars. The Light's On at Signpost presents a schizophrenic reading experience, and is hard to enjoy.

Fraser lived at this time on the Isle of Man, and the book's title is a Manx expression. Derived from the practice of turning on a light at the top of a signpost when a rider in the TT motorcycle road race is nearing the end of the final lap, it is used to indicate how near death Fraser felt (though  in the end he lived for another six years, producing two more novels and another volume of non-fiction). The book basically contains the things that he wanted to say before he would no longer be able to, and it has for this reason something of the feel of a series of blog posts. At the end, Fraser describes the book as a "mixed bag", and that is a pretty exact description of what it is. It was interesting to read once, but I certainly won't be picking it up again now that I have.

I'd rate the film sections at 7/10, and the angry old man sections at 3/10, which averages to a rating of 5/10 for The Light's On at Signpost as a whole.

Edition: HarperCollins, 2003 (Available to purchase from Amazon here)
Review number: 1453

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Nick Hornby: The Complete Polysyllabic Spree (2006)

Nick Hornby writes an approximately monthly column for American literary magazine The Believer, entitled Stuff I've Been Reading. The Complete Polysyllabic Spree collects the first three years or so of this column (September 2003 to June 2006), and, even though it is quite a short book, the contents were originally published by the magazine in two smaller volumes; a third has since appeared, according to Wikipedia, so the title is no longer accurate. Not precisely a book review column, Stuff I've Been Reading is basically a short essay about books, themed around whatever Nick Hornby has happened to read (or, in many cases, what he has bought intending to read but hasn't). Its piecemeal nature makes it not as compelling to read in one go as his book on music, 31 Songs, but being Hornby, it is extremely funny and often thought provoking.

I did get tired of the running joke which gives the book its title. Hornby claims that The Believer is run by a cult-like group of individuals in white robes, and names this group the Polysyllabic Spree (a reference, in case you don't know, to the rock group The Polyphonic Spree). The point is that The Believer has a review policy that reviewers should not be overly critical: the point of the journal is to encourage a love of books, not to allow reviewers to make points at the expense of writers. (This is of course paradoxical, making a point at the expense of other literary magazines...)

One of the interesting things to me about The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is just how little my reading and Nick Hornby's reading overlap. I've read a lot, and he's read a lot, but of the hundred or more books discussed here, we have both read fewer than a dozen. Our tastes differ. He has an interest in recent history and political commentary which I don't, while I read a lot of science fiction, a genre which he freely admits is alien to him - he describes reading Iain Banks' Excession, in an attempt to break new ground, but gives up after only a few pages, finding it virtually incomprehensible. (It's probably not an ideal choice as a science fiction starter, being set in an idiosyncratic milieu already well established from the earlier Culture novels, and being written in a way which assumes familiarity which the genre in the reader. Thinking about what he should have read: that's a blog post in itself.) His descriptions have prompted me to look out for three books: Never Mind, by Edward St Aubyn (not itself mentioned, but the first of a series which is), Francis Wheen's When Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World, and John Carey's What Good Are the Arts?

The biggest problem with The Complete Polysyllabic Spree is that the material in the book was not intended to be read consecutively. It certainly gives the impression that no editing was done to make them fit better into the book format. This means that the overall impression is not as favourable as it would be to reading the columns one at a time, with a month or more separating them, which means that my final rating is 6/10.

Edition: Penguin, 2007
Review number: 1452

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Carol Goodman: Arcadia Falls (2010)

Note: There is a serious spoiler in the final paragraph of this review.

There is almost a subgenre of fiction set in remote New England boarding schools and colleges. Like thirties house parties in English stately homes, a staple setting for vintage crime fiction (as well as P.G. Wodehouse, of course), they provide a sealed community of privileged individuals which acts to intensify relationships, promote jealousy and passion, and makes more or less normal people behave in strange and bizarre fashions - as happens, for instance, in Donna Tartt's Secret History, referenced in a review quoted on the cover of this edition of Arcadia Falls.

The specific location for this story is school focusing on art, formerly an artistic colony. It is told from the point of view of a recently widowed (and, as a result, newly poor) single mother Megan Rosenthal, who gratefully takes up a post teaching English literature at Arcadia Falls, which is accompanied by the offer of a place at the school to her daughter Sally, only to find that within a few weeks of her arrival and the start of the school year a student goes missing before her body is found at the foot of cliffs in the (extensive) school grounds. At the same time, Megan becomes fascinated by the relationship between the two women who effectively founded and then ran the school for decades with a somewhat peculiar vision (which includes participation in pagan rituals to mark the seasons by the pupils).

A "finding oneself" theme is very important in Arcadia Falls, exemplified by a children's story, The Changeling Girl, written by one of the school's founders which is told, retold, reflected and commented on throughout the novel in ironic fashion, as characters both act it out and talk about it - adopted children discovering or seeking the identities of their parents, for example, as well as Megan trying to build a new life for herself and Sally after the death of her husband. Another theme is the way that the decisions made in one generation affect the next, with several mothers giving up careers to raise children, or giving up a baby for adoption, with repercussions for both the parents and the children. Sometimes the treatment is a little mawkish, but generally these themes serve to unify the disparate elements of the story and even provide something of a moral, if the reader feels that such a thing is necessary.

Though the setting with its Gothic touches and the themes of Arcadia Falls are hardly original, it is a well written and entertaining novel on the boundary between literary fiction, crime fiction, and fantasy, the last being more suggested than the other two genres. It is the depiction of character and the touches of atmosphere which make the story worth reading. It reminded me of the novels of Mary Stewart, particularly the later ones. However, the sentimentality of the ending was a big problem for me, so in the end I would rate it at 6/10.

Edition: Piatkus, 2011
Review number: 1451

Friday, 17 February 2012

John le Carré: Our Kind of Traitor (2010)

Since 2000, John le Carré's novels have been rather downbeat, even by the standards of a writer not known for cheerfulness (The Constant Gardener, Absolute Friends, The Mission Song, and A Most Wanted Man). Our Kind of Traitor is much more of a pleasant read, with a rather arch tone shared with some of his earlier novels, The Russia House and The Tailor of Panama in particular coming to mind. The former also shares with this novel a plot in which innocent people are used as intermediaries in secret negotiations. Thus, the story is simple: Russian money launderer Dima wishes to give up the secrets he holds after the betrayal and murder of one of his closest friends by a Russian Mafia boss for whom they both worked, and chooses the British Secret Service as the recipient (asking for a place for his daughter at Roedean school in return).

Dima's chosen instrument for making contact with the British is Oxford English fellow Perry, who is holidaying on Antigua with his girlfriend Gina at the same time as the Russian, with whom he also shares an interest in tennis, which provides a convenient reason to meet up and become friendly. Most of the first part of the novel is taken up by Perry and Gina's debriefing, describing the initial tennis match and the introduction of Dima's proposal to the two of them. Both the description of these sessions and the questioning itself are arch in tone, occasionally to the point of becoming irritating rather than light and amusing. It sometimes reads as though Le Carré is parodying his earlier writing in this vein (in the novels mentioned above).

Myself, I feel that John le Carré peaked a long time ago.  His books from the last decade are still worth reading, but something of the spark has gone out of them, even though he still has something to say, finding new topics after the end of the Cold War. The change of tone makes Our Kind of Traitor more fun to read than, say, The Mission Song, but perhaps too its subject matter is less significant than Le Carré's righteous anger at the way that the poorer nations of the world continue to be exploited by the richer. For the best Le Carré experience, go back to Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. My rating: 6/10.

Edition: Viking, 2010
Review number: 1450

Thursday, 9 February 2012

Keri Arthur: Destiny Kills (2008)

Having just read a novel which was the second in a series, I thought I had done the same again when I began to read Destiny Kills. The opening chapters seem to follow on straight from an earlier story, and that back-story is very complete and alluded to in such a way that it makes this seem like it continues something fully written out. But it turns out to be the start of the series - though of course it is possible that there is an earlier, unpublished story.

The opening is also remarkable for its use of a rare conceit: a narrator with amnesia. It is a striking device, which is very useful to the author as the narrator naturally needs lots of things explained to her that she would otherwise be expected to know, and this makes it easy to introduce ideas to the reader in a fashion which seems natural. There are two serious problems, however, which explain why it is rarely used: real world amnesia is not all that common, especially of the all-enveloping type which is used here, so readers find it inherently implausible (have you ever met someone who, when sober, is unable to remember their identity?); and it is a too striking device, which will all too easily overwhelm everything else in the story. Indeed, only a single other instance of its use occurs to me: the brilliant Traitor's Purse by Margery Allingham, from 1941, where the idea is sustained for much longer (and more ingeniously made part of the plot and characterisation) than it is here.

Being an amnesiac on a deserted beach with a dead body is a difficult position to be in. And it is not long before Destiny McCree (for that turns out to be the narrator's name) is on the run from the police, joining a professional thief who is the brother of the dead man, summoned telepathically by him. The moment of amnesia passes, and Destiny remembers that she is a shape-shifting sea dragon, who had fled (with the dead man, an air dragon) from a group of amoral scientists who have held her captive for a decade to study her. As in another recently reviewed novel, this leads to a chase across the United States, this one from Oregon to Maine.

While the amnesia is not used as much or as interestingly as it could have been, Destiny Kills is an enjoyable thriller-with-magic. The romance between Destiny and thief/air dragon Trae is well handled too. Compared to many fantasy novels around at the moment, the story is quite soft-centred: more Anne McCaffrey than Richard Morgan. But it's well written, and enjoyable to read, without having any pretensions to profundity - 7/10.

Edition: Piatkus, 2011
Review number: 1449

Saturday, 4 February 2012

Kate Griffin: The Midnight Mayor (2010)

I read this, the second in a series, without having read the first, so in describing this book, I may give away aspects of the first without intending to.

Sorcerer Matthew Swift is dead, but he remains alive through the symbiotic relationship he has with the blue light angels, spirits of electrical current, who now also inhabit his body. He restlessly walks the streets of London at night, until one evening at the beginning of The Midnight Mayor when he answers a payphone which rings as he passes it and is magically attacked down the wire. Before long, he discovers that London is under attack from the "death of cities", and he has been chosen to defend it, taking on the office of Midnight Mayor.

I found that The Midnight Mayor grew on me as I read through it. It seemed at first to be just another of the currently fashionable urban fantasy novels, but in the end Swift's dual character is well enough portrayed, and his solution as to how he can stop the death of cities is interesting enough, to raise the story out of the crowd. Kate Griffin began as a writer for children, and some of the details of The Midnight Mayor are somewhat reminiscent of parts of China Miéville's brilliant Un Lun Dun; examples include the heavy metal spectres and the appearance of the death of cities.

London is of course a city full of ancient myths and legends, but the interesting aspect of Griffin's take on it is the idea that magic is based on what has significance for the sorcerer, which makes it possible to build up a whole new, up to date urban mythology, where seers prophesy using the entrails of ragged plastic bags, and the words of spells are not Latin or Hebrew but come from legal and official documents such as parking tickets and ASBOs (the latter not providing terribly effective magic, naturally). Any object which is in some way part of London's culture can become part of the magic, whether graffiti tags or the information on Underground notice boards. This immediately makes Matthew Swift's world stand out from so many other works of urban fiction, as the modern urban setting is vital to its internal mythology.

The main reason why The Midnight Mayor grew on me was that it is well constructed (the way the magic works being just one example of how clearly thought through the world building is), carefully building to a climax which proves well worth the wait, if perhaps a little predictable in some of its details.

Edition: Orbit, 2010
Review number: 1439

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Mark Alpert: Final Theory (2008)

The quoted reviews of this novel almost all compare it to The Da Vinci Code, and that is probably as good a place as any for me to start mine. Alpert is clearly a far better writer than Dan Brown, which may seem like faint praise, but the idea behind Final Theory is so closely related to The Da Vinci Code that it needs to be said.

Alpert studied physics, and now works for Scientific American, and the secret which is at the heart of Final Theory is a physical theory rather than a religious idea. Towards the end of his life, Einstein spent a lot of time searching for a unified theory which would bring together the physical forces and provide an explanation for the results of quantum theory, something which he was uneasy with despite his involvement in its early stages. He never succeeded in doing this. Alpert has combined this idea with Einstein's belief in pacifism, and the secret in Final Theory is a unified theory which Einstein did find, only to conceal it because of his concerns at the military uses to which it could be put. However, Einstein ensured that the secret theory would survive, by telling parts of it to each of his three assistants, so that if the world became peaceable, the theory could be reconstructed and revealed.

Many years later, one of the assistants posts his portion of the theory online before killing himself, and then Einstein's worst fears begin to be realised as several groups including the American government start a hunt for the keepers of the rest of the secret. The central character of Final Theory, David Swift, is, like Alpert himself, a science journalist who was once a physics graduate student. He is summoned to the hospital bed of his former professor, who was one of the three assistants, to be told a series of apparently meaningless numbers, which is designated "the key" by the dying man. This was the secret for which he had been attacked in his apartment and which leads the FBI taskforce which to take over the investigation from the NYPD, and then to illegally detain David. When the detention centre David is taken to is attacked by a Russian mercenary, David goes on the run, trying to find the secret - not necessarily the best thing to do in the circumstances, I suspect, but this gives a direction to his flight.

The big problem with Final Theory, as have been gathered from this summary, is that even for a thriller the plot is extremely implausible. It hinges around the willingness of large numbers of government employees to act illegally on a minimal suspicion that David might know something about the secret, and that the secret will be something which can be used to create a devastating weapon (and if it were possible, the development process involved would be decades long);  but this is bread and butter to a conspiracy theory novelist. The problems arise more from David's escape and the ensuing chase across the United States, during which he and other amateurs consistently outwit or have superior skills to those of trained police and mercenary soldiers. Thrillers do not have to be plausible in these respects, but the action sequences in Final Theory do not distract the reader enough to stop holes in the plot being noticeable.

Unsurprisingly given Alpert's background, the physics used as the background is interesting and works well. His idea about how Einstein could plausibly have found a unified theory despite his rejection of quantum mechanical uncertainty is quite convincing, though  those readers who have never read popular explanations of relativity and quantum mechanics might find unexplained terms including "timelike closed curve" intimidating - and these people probably make up most of the intended readership for Final Theory. The periodic pauses in the action during which the physics is discussed is probably the reason why the holes in the plot are quite as evident as they are.

Entertaining for the most part, but generally unconvincing and unlikely to hold up for thriller fans not already interested in the science. My rating - 3/10.

Edition: Pocket Books, 2009
Review number: 1438

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Jonathan Sumption: The Hundred Years War III - Divided Houses (2009)

The third volume of Sumption's brilliant history of the Hundred Years War has finally appeared, almost twenty years after the first. It covers thirty years, 1369-1399, a period which saw a weariness from the war arising in both France and England, and neither side being wholly successful in their endeavours (France doing rather better in this respect, undoing many of the concessions which were made to Edward III following victories in the earlier part of the century). The low key nature of the fighting is one of the reasons for this impression of weariness; the French leaders had decided that the lesson to be had from battles like Crecy and Poitiers was that defeats could best be avoided by refusing to fight large scale engagements.

It was also a period when experienced kings of England and France were replaced by teenagers (Charles VI and Richard II) or became incapable of governing (Edward III and Charles VI), leading up to Henry Bolingbroke's deposition of Richard II at the end of the book. The only really dynamic aspect is that the war spread to other nations, involving Scotland, Portugal, Flanders, Castile and the Papacy, during this period.

The great virtues of Divided Houses are of course shared with the first two volumes. The detailed knowledge of sources both well known and obscure continues, with the best known for this time being Froissart's entertaining chronicles, which were also a source used by Shakespeare for his history plays. This is combined with accessible writing which is not noticeably partisan, unlike most of the more populist histories of the period I have seen, in English or French - the school books which dealt with the Middle Ages in the school I went to described the whole war in terms of the fortunes of the English, for example. The second volume, Trial By Fire, did get a bit bogged down in the tedious details of the small scale but viciously destructive fighting of the "routiers", mercenary captains who doubled as bandits: the activities of almost any single one are representative of the group as a whole. Here, the nature of the war in these decades means that the focus is more on the courtly politics in Paris and London (with side glances to the important centres of the other states involved), and this makes it more interesting to read.

The Hundred Years War was a pivotal period in the history of Western Europe, being highly influential in the development of the early modern states of England and France in particular. In this thirty year period, the change which is most noticeable is the way that the military fitted into the rest of society, a change important enough to receive a special overview chapter interrupting the main narrative thread. On the one hand there were technological changes following the introduction of gunpowder to warfare which would lead to the evolution of new strategy and tactics (eventually making both the castle and armoured knight obsolete in their fourteenth century form and function). The other development was the rise of the man at arms, who became a part of a class of professional soldiers as opposed to the former knights fighting from feudal obligation and often had quite humble origins (to the extent that it was not infrequent for nobles to refuse to be commanded by even the most famous, men like Chandos and Knollys).

Apart from the broad sweep of the development of medieval warfare, the main theme I saw in Divided Houses was just how difficult war was for medieval states, even though it was an exceptionally aggressive militaristic society, where warfare was glorified as the main occupation of most gently born men. Problems with finance, communications, logistics, and (often) poor generalship all made military success that much harder to achieve. When individuals trained in fighting from almost as soon as they could walk perform so badly, it is fairly clear that something is wrong with the training; my guess is that the emphasis was more on individual prowess in skills such as horse riding and hand to hand combat and honourable conduct than on more menial aspects of warfare such as strategy and logistics (itself admittedly made really difficult by the lack of transport infrastructure). And yet, if you can't get close enough to the enemy to engage them, the personal skills are pretty much useless.

Divided Houses details such débâcles as assembling an army to cross the Channel, only to fail to bring together enough ships to transport them before the period the soldiers were contracted for ran out. Armies were dispatched to meet an enemy force which was somewhere else - often a problem caused by the weeks it could take for accurate news of the current situation to travel between France and England. Campaign lengths were drastically underestimated, with the result that many soldiers had no pay after the first installment; a recipe for rebellion and pillage of local communities (sometimes even supposedly friendly ones). It was hardly surprising that it became harder and harder for the English kings in particular to persuade Parliament to grant the special taxes needed to fund a campaign. (It was easier in France, because most of the fighting happened there, which was a huge persuasive force in itself.) Of course, military incompetence is not restricted to any one period, and some wars (the First World War, or the Crimean War, for example) are notorious for it. So maybe the nobles of the fourteenth century were not surprisingly bad at warfare...

Another excellent volume in what must be among the largest medieval history projects ever undertaken. Another two or three volumes to go - but hopefully not another twenty years! My rating: 9/10.

Edition: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011
Review number: 1437