Monday, 29 December 2014

A Delicate Truth - John le Carre

John le Carre gets better with age.  A Delicate Truth was published in 2013 when he was 82.  It is his 23rd novel and for my money one of his best.  What keeps him going, I suspect, is disgust with the state,  It used to be the conflicting states of East and West but now it is the controlling, deceitful and above all secretive state of Britain (and, to an extent, our American owners) that gets his goat.  And boy, is le Carre's goat well and truly got.

Three years before the novel's 'present' - that is to say, back in the dying dog days of New Labour - a long serving Foreign Office civil servant is persuaded to go and observe a clandestine op in Gibraltar.  The mission is definitely off the books; even the SAS are acting as a pro tem mercenaries.  'Paul', as he is then known, is acting as the Minister's red telephone.  Officially it's a success.  The dubious international target is captured and taken off to one of America's secret interrogation centres.  But, this being le Carre, that's all spin.  In fact the op was a disaster.  Still, spin covers all that.  The minister leaves parliament for a cushy job in the private sector, the government changes and nobody is any the wiser.

Except. ... the rising star minister was given a rising star private secretary.  The private secretary was excluded from all knowledge of Operation Wildlife and, for his own protection, secretly recorded the discussions.

Now, three years later, everything unravels.

The key point, though, is that the government might have changed but the way it operates hasn't.  The book is full of wonderful vituperation from le Carre, himself of course a former insider, about the spreading web of secrecy, the ever-increasing number of bankers, arms dealers, international arms merchants etc who are granted special access to the corridors of power.  In an ideal world the intelligence services serve the nation, not the government of the day, and the civil service acts as a buffer between ministers and the corrupting world of private finance.  Neither of these things are true in contemporary Whitehall and le Carre has a boundless well of insidious double dealing at his disposal.

A great novel from one of Britain's best.  A classic of the genre.

Monday, 22 December 2014

The Aerodrome - Rex Warner

The most striking thing about Warner's dystopian classic is the date of its composition.  The Shape of Things to Come and Brave New World were both written in the Thirties and allegorised the rising threat of Fascism,  Animal Farm and 1984 are both postwar Forties and reflect the perceived Soviet threat.  But The Aerodrome came out in 1941, when the war was well under way and Germany and Russia were still allied.  What threat is Warner dealing with here?

It seems to me he is dealing with a much earlier threat, one which never came to anything.  In the immediate aftermath of World War I, when Britain had faced airborne invasion for the first time, when millions had died for no apparent gain and millions more were dying from Spanish flu, spread by the returning survivors of war - back then it must have seemed that revolution was a real possibility and the most likely revolutionaries were the newly skilled servicemen, especially those masters of the newest war technology, airmen.

That is certainly what they are up to on the unnamed aerodrome outside Warner's unnamed country village.  The airmen are unaccountable - the Flying Officer shoots the Rector, by accident, at the fair and succeeds him as Rector in time for the funeral.  Then the Air Vice-Marshal, who attends the funeral, takes a shine to young Roy, who has only just found out he isn't really the Rector's son, and persuades him to join the Air Force.  The Air Vice-Marshal has a plan; it seems to involve taking over; but we never find out what it is because---

And underneath all this is the question who is actually the child of whom?  It's not just Roy.  No relationship in this neck of the woods seem to be what it really ought to be.  It doesn't help that only three characters are referred to by name - Roy, Bess and Dr Faulkner.  Everyone else is the Rector's Wife, the Squire's Sister, etc.

It's all very enigmatic, almost deliberately obscure.  Take, for example, the subtitle, 'A Love Story'.  Oh no it isn't.  Yet it is constantly entertaining and beautifully written.  Chapter Twelve, in which the Air Vice-Marshal addresses his new recruits, is a masterpiece of dystopia in its own right.  This Vintage edition also has the bonus of an excellent introduction by Michael Moorcock.  Well worth checking out.

Friday, 19 December 2014

Gold - Blaise Cendrars

The subtitle says it all: The Marvellous History of General John Augustus Sutter.  Sutter was a Swiss ne'er-do-well who abandoned his wife and children, pitched up in California in the days when San Fransisco was basically a landing stage, and made himself the richest man on the planet, all in the space of a decade.

Then - the twist no one could ever have seen coming - gold was discovered on his land, and it ruined him.

Cendrars was a modernist, himself half-Swiss.  He seems to have spent fifteen years boiling this epic story down to a bare 120 pages.  The result, published in 1924, is startling and seductive.  He declaims what seem to be facts but are probably not.  There is no characterisation, no real development.  Yet this detachment somehow contrives to make the great man's stupendous downfall all the more poignant.

A striking original, well worth discovering.

Saturday, 13 December 2014

The Unsettled Dust - Robert Aickman

The third of the Faber Finds collection I bought earlier this year and which have informed my reading (and a good slice of my writing) ever since.  There is a fourth, traditionally published by Faber on the back of the Finds success, which I will be treating myself to as a reward for surviving Christmas.

Overall, I found The Unsettled Dust  most satisfying of the three collections.  "The Cicerones" is well known, following a TV adaptation a couple of years ago which did much to stimulate a new interest in Aickman, certainly in my case.  "The Unsettled Dust", "The House of the Russians" and "The Stains" are equally disturbing in a similar way - the unexplained, peripheral horror; an almost feral nastiness always waiting to pounce.

What will I do when I've read the fourth and final collection?  I shall have to seek out the stories that missed the cut.

A Farewell to Arms - Ernest Hemingway

Published in 1927, A Farewell to Arms was the novel that made Hemingway.  The first-person narration makes it seem autobiographical, but it's not.  Hemingway was not in these battles and he didn't lose the real nurse in the way described here.  There are autobiographical elements, though.  Hemingway was, of course, a volunteer ambulance driver in World War I, he was badly wounded and decorated for it, he did fall for his nurse and - most disturbingly, his real wife was undergoing the traumatic delivery at the time Hemingway wrote the scenes that end the book.

I have listed the autobiographical elements because are the episodes in the novel that hooked me and kept me reading.  Otherwise, the rather antiseptic, offhand affair between Fred and Catherine alienated me.  Having now read the end sequence, I understand why Hemingway took the risk.  The detachment we feel - which he means us to feel - renders the ending all the more harrowing.  The ending makes the novel stupendous and is well worth waiting for.  In the meantime Fred Henry's wartime adventures, the characters he meets, and the brilliant descriptions of landscape keep us just interested enough.

A Farewell to Arms is one of those novels you have an emotional interaction with.  It's like a love affair in itself - frustrating, occasionally captivated, and when it ends, utterly devastating.  A true classic of world literature.

Thursday, 11 December 2014

In Dubious Battle - John Steinbeck

In Dubious Battle is Steinbeck's unabashed socialist novel.  Written in 1936 at the height of the Depression but before The Grapes of Wrath it deals, in a sense, with what the Joad family were heading out to California to do - find work picking fruit.

Jim Nolan has had enough.  He has seen his father beaten and humiliated for trying to stand up for the working man's rights.  His father stood alone - that was his mistake - so son Jim decides to join the Party.  There is little doubt that Steinbeck means the Communist Party.  The Party locally is run by Mac and soon Mac takes Jim down to Torgas Valley to try and organise an apple-pickers' strike.

Fruit picking is the only work available.  Families travel miles in clapped out jalopies or, like Mac and Jim, by hopping on freight trains.  Because it is a hirer's market, and because they know the labourers have spent their last dime just to get to Torgas, the owners slash wages the instant the men arrive.  What are they going to do about it?  Nothing - until Mac plants the idea of striking in their minds.  After all, the fruit has to be picked right now, or the growers lose their profits.

Thus begins the labour war.  Mac is a professional; people suspect his motives.  But Jim is open and honest and becomes something of an icon.  The outcome, inevitably, is violent and tragic.

It's amazing that In Dubious Battle isn't better known.  Surely it can only be because of its politics.  There is no doubt whatever that Steinbeck is with the strikers.  It can be said that he knows their efforts are doomed but nevertheless he is in awe of their willingness to fight.  The characters - almost all men - are varied, vibrant and vividly drawn; not just Jim and Mac but London (a reference, surely, to that other literary socialist Jack London), the bear of a man they persuade to lead the strike; old Joy, an echo of Jim's father, who hops a freight down to Torgas just to betray the scabs; the Andersons, father and son, who pay a terribly price for supporting the strikers; the ambivalent Doc Burton, who voices what seems to be Steinbeck's feelings; old Dan, who used to be a daredevil tree-feller; and even Burke, who may or may not be the bosses' plant.

No mere polemic, the book is crammed with plot and twists and surprises.  I for one did not expect the ending.  To put it plainly, I adored In Dubious Battle and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Disappeared - Anthony Quinn

Disappeared is Anthony Quinn's first novel, and allowances must be made.  On the positive side, a story about the 'disappeared' of the Ulster Troubles is current and compelling.  Quinn's descriptions of the shores of Lough Neagh are spellbinding and sometimes downright beautiful.  On the negative side, the plot is preposterous, there are far too many characters to keep track of, and pretty well all of them are more interesting than Quinn's lacklustre protagonist DI Celsius Daly yes, the name is the only interesting trait).  On the whole, the positives just outweigh the negatives.  I read it to the end, otherwise it wouldn't be here on my blog.  The denouement was a bit disappointing - somewhat of a deus ex machina.  Also, am I right in thinking that diesel isn't easily flammable, thus not the weapon of choice for your averagely intelligent teenage arsonist?

Personally, I won't be revisiting Inspector Daly again in a hurry.  That shouldn't put anyone else off - I hated the first Rebus novels when they came out, and look what happened with them.

Friday, 28 November 2014

Truth Dare Kill - Gordon Ferris

Ferris sets his crime thrillers in the immediate postwar period, when everything was still rationed but already people were starting to wonder how we could have won against the odds and yet seemingly lost everything.  His Douglas Brodie quartet is set in Glasgow, whereas Danny McRae is a private eye in London.  Otherwise, the two protagonists are much too similar - born in Ayrshire poverty, both ex-Glasgow coppers, both elevated to rank in the war, both damaged by the experience.  To be fair, McRae is much more damaged.  He was an SOE operative captured by the Germans and beaten to within an inch of his life.  As a result he is visibly and mentally scarred.  He has lost an entire year of memory and suffers crushing headaches during which he loses days and suffers all sorts of visions.  During these episodes, who knows what he gets up to?

A rare paying client sucks him to a dark family secret which also opens a door onto his own past.  Further than that, it wouldn't be fair to go, because Ferris revels in tangled webs for his plots.  On that score, I will content myself by saying, the final twist is an absolute stunner which I, for one, did not suspect.

Otherwise, Ferris writes well, very well.  His characters, male and female, are equally interesting and fully rounded.  His research rings true.  I will certainly be on the lookout for the second McRae, The Unquiet Heart.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

The Virgin in the Ice - Ellis Peters

This was the sixth Brother Cadfael mystery by Ellis Peters, also known as Edith Pargeter, published back in 1982.  Peters was the original author of medieval murder mysteries, a field which has now proliferated into a double sub-genre of history and crime.  I can't remember if Peters came before or after Umberto Eco's overblown In the Name of the Rose.  To my memory they were coeval.  Certainly Peters wrote a lot more of them.

In this story, it is coming up to Christmas 1139, the first year of the Anarchy - "years in which the saints slept" - when the last of the The House of Normandy, Stephen and Matilda, vied for the English crown. Cadfael is called away from Shewsbury to nearby Bromfield to tend a monk who has been beaten and left for dead.  Meanwhile the authorities are searching for a brother and sister, heirs to a great estate, who have gone missing.  And then Cadfael himself finds the titular virgin entombed in a frozen beck.

The plot unfolds smoothly.  The writing tends to the stilted, but I find that preferable to giving historical figures a version of modern speech,  Peters is immersed in her period - a similar period in which she wrote her most significant works as Pargeter (for example, the Brothers of Gwynedd trilogy) and brings it vividly to life.  The villain was fairly obvious by about halfway and the twist at the end which is supposed to make us gasp made me cringe.  Nevertheless, a minor classic of the sub-genre which gave much pleasure.

Sunday, 16 November 2014

What It Was - George Pelecanos

In the present day, two middleaged men chew the fat in a Washington bar.  Both are PIs from Pelecanos's earlier fiction - his original character, Nick Stefanos, and the post-Millennium character Derek Strange, this time without his partner Terry Quinn.

They reminisce about their youth, back in the Seventies, and Strange tells the tale of the notorious Red Fury who made a brief, spectacular name for himself in 1972.  The book is really about Red, as Pelecanos makes clear in the Intro - and Red is based on the real-life Cadillac Smith.  Strange is the right character to oversee Red's story because he, like Red, is black.  Red gets his handle from the reddish tinge of his distinctive Afro.

The 1972 Strange, four years out of the MPD and newly set-up as a PI, is drawn into Red's story by virtue of ring he is hired to find.  Pelecanos is really shrewd here, because commonsense tells us PIs are rarely hired to investigate killings.  The Homicide detective is Frank 'Hound Dog' Vaughan, a middleaged cop on the verge of retirement, thus making the circle with 2012 Strange and Stefanos.  Vaughn was Strange's partner back in '68, which again makes their cooperation in '72 sensible.

Vaughn is not the only one on the tail of Red Fury.  Red has caused a New York mobster to lose money and face, which is clearly not acceptable.  Red himself knows his days are limited.  The question is, who is going to get to him first?

Nobody writes dialogue as naturally and convincingly as Pelecanos.  Writing The Wire clearly honed his technique into a minor art form.  The characters, as ever, are compelling and multi-layered.  There is a slight problem structurally - he sets up Strange as the storyteller but immediately switches to third person for the story itself, allowing him to fully develop all his main characters.  He tries to resolve the problem with a jokey and unnecessary Outro, but for me that makes it worse.  What makes the novel sing, though, is the wonderful, encyclopedic period detail.  The beers, the cars, the fashions, the hairdo's and, above all, the music.

I have admitted in other reviews that I am not a big fan of the Derek Strange series.  But What It Was is nevertheless a reading treat.

Thursday, 13 November 2014

Death of a Murderer - Rupert Thomson

We all know who the murderer is. There's a photo of her on the cover. That photo. It's November 2002 and she's died in prison. Unlucky career constable Billy Tyler draws what is literally the graveyard shift, guarding the body in the hospital morgue, protecting the infamous woman from the press, souvenir hunters, the kind of vulnerable people who get worked up into a lather over crimes committed forty years ago. Billy's wife Sue, who's going through a difficult time, doesn't want him to do it. But Billy's former protege, now his superior, has asked him as a personal favour. And besides, where's the harm? The body's locked away in a drawer; he can't even look on the face.

Inevitably, the the hours round midnight, Billy's mind starts to wander. He comes from the same area as the murderers, he is the same generation as their victims. There are connections, parallels. Billy confronts his past, his life now.

Death of a Murderer is the only Rupert Thomson novel I have read. It won't be the last. The stunning premise, compressing so much emotional resonance into a twelve-hour shift; the central conceit, which I won't reveal here, leaving you to experience the jaw-dropping moment for yourself; and above all the prose - nothing elaborate, nothing overwrought, just simple, steady, everyday language transcribing the experience of life.

Superb and highly recommended.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Ulverton - Adam Thorpe

Amazingly, Ulverton (1992) was Adam Thorpe's first novel, an astonishing achievement in itself, in that it's not a novel in the customary sense.  There are no continuing characters for us to follow, no integrated narrative sweep.  Instead, what we get are twelve excepts from the history of the village - itself, not explicitly located or described.  Each segment has a different voice and a different format.  We begin in 1650 with someone just telling his story, these being pre-literate days in Ulverton (albeit far from the case in history).  We end in 1988 with the post-production script of a documentary.  In between we have journals, a drunken man spinning his tale for more drink, a draft account of being the amanuensis to a forgotten cartoonist and, my favourite stylistically, the description of photographic plates which we don't of course see for ourselves.  Ulverton the village is only a tenuous link; by no means all of the action takes place there.  Instead, the great over-arching link is the land itself, how it is tended, improved, used and even desecrated.

Inevitably, given the truly mixed bag we are offered, some parts work better than others.  For me, unfortunately, the last two chapters (the cartoonist and the documentary) failed terribly.  I hated the former and got just plain bored with the latter.  Personally, I would have ended with the first world war.  The discovery which joins the beginning to the end could have fitted better, and more symbolically, in 1914.  That, though, is personal taste.  Ulverton remains an incredible achievement.  And I liked it well enough to buy Thorpe's most recent novel, Hodd.

Incidentally, what a fabulous cover - the woodcut by Jonanthan Gibbs.  It was that which caught my eye, so it certainly did its job.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

The Lair of the White Worm - Bram Stoker

It's coming up to Halloween and I just love these Penguin yellowbacks.  I saw this and couldn't resist.

Bram Stoker was a one-novel writer - and what a novel Dracula is.  Unfortunately he wrote several other novels of which Lair of the White Worm is one.  It may be the best but we are talking a bad bunch, one of which, The Man, is just execrable.

The Lair of the White Worm is not execrable.  It's tosh.  Young Adam Salton is brought from Australia to (gawd 'elp 'im) rural Staffordshire as the chosen heir to his elderly great uncle, who plays no further part.  Instead Adam is taken up by the former diplomat and historian of Mercia Sir Nathaniel, who tells him all about the strange Caswalls of Castra Regis and druidic Diana's Grove aka the titular Lair.  There follows a load of guff, including a giant bird-scarer kite and a series of unfortunate mongooses.  There is also a lot of jaw-dropping racism concerning Caswall's black African servant Oolanga, which I fancy was a bit strong even for the Edwardian era.

It all comes to a sort of life when we realise that Lady Arabella is actually the physical embodiment of the Worm.  This comes as no surprise given that she dresses in white, wears tinted glasses, waves her arms about in serpentine manner and tears mongooses in half.  The worm itself is massive so where it all goes when it's in human form beats me.  Ultimately there's a storm with no rain, the kite does what it was always going to do and conducts lightning down to Diana's Grove which goes spectacularly bang, scattering bits of age-old worm all over Staffordshire.

The writing is medium grade pulp, full of discordant word choices and irritating habits - the number of times Sir Nathaniel says "Let's continue our discussion of this important matter when we've had dinner/lunch/supper/a kip/a walk etc. drove me insane.

The Angry Island - A A Gill

Subtitled "Hunting the English", this is a series of essays on the National Character by Sunday Times TV and Restaurant critic A A Gill, who is actually Scottish.

Some bits are inevitably better than others.  Gill is good on class, exceptional on Letchworth Garden City, and builds to a climax with an attack on the National Trust which to him represents the sealed-in-aspic aspect of Heritage Britain.  He is less good on things like political correctness and class, the latterly probably because he is a beneficiary of the class system.

It is readable enough, and I read it to the end with varying interest.  The trouble is, I don't like his tone, which is sub Clive James in the days when he revolutionized TV criticism, but without the redeeming intelligence and soul.

Tuesday, 28 October 2014

If Not Now, When? - Primo Levi

I was astonished to learn that this was Levi's only novel written at the end of his career.  I remember him as an iconic writer, in many ways the spokesman for all Holocaust survivors, and had assumed that at least some of his many books were fiction.

Levi was an Italian Jew but his hero here is a Russian Jew.  Mendel has become detached from his unit of the Red Army.  For a year he has been wandering alone through the vast Russian landscape.  Then he is joined by Leonid, a paratrooper who has escaped from the German lager at Smolensk.  Leonid, too, is Jewish, but is keen to hide the fact, a recurring theme of the book.  They decide to wander on together - and wander is the word; they have no plan, no goal.  They meet up with various others in the same predicament, until they come upon the predominantly Jewish partisan troop led by the quixotic Gedaleh.  This becomes their family.  They share the troop's Jewishness and adopt their aim of finding a way to Israel.  Instead of trying to avoid the war, they begin to attack the Germans.

A fascinating and truly moving book, all the more so because the debutante novelist turns out to be a master storyteller.  He doesn't wallow in the horror of the Holocaust but finds green shoots of humanity and hope sprouting from the horror.

It is a disgrace that this is not on the A-level syllabus every year.

Sunday, 19 October 2014

Katherine the Queen - Linda Porter

Like every other biography of Katherine Parr, Porter's book claims to be the first "full-scale" life of Henry VIII's sixth queen.  This is nonsense - publisher's puff - and should not be held against the author.  The facts are generally well known and I have to say I was a little let down by Porter's coverage of the Anne Askew affair, surely the most dangerous moment of Katherine's public life.  Other than that, Porter provides a thorough, well-written and entertaining account.  A modern biographer, of course, has to determine a persona for their subject.  Traditionally Katherine has been presented as something of a bluestocking, churning out tedious and pompous leaflets on the New Learning.  Certainly she wrote such material, and certainly her puritanical streak got her into hot water with her husband.  But Katherine was clearly also a woman of passion who, when finally free of arranged marriages, threw herself into marriage with the rakish Thomas Seymour within weeks of old Henry's death.  She was also, as Porter points out, popular with her stepchildren, which can't have been easy with such a bunch.  This latter, I suggest, is what Porter really brings fresh to the party.  Katherine the Queen may not be the first in its field, but it may well be the best to date.

Saturday, 18 October 2014

A Confederate General from Big Sur

I read a piece by Jarvis Cocker citing Brautigan as his favourite author, so I laid hands on this anthology to see if Cocker's opinion was worth spit - and it was.  I won't go so far as to say Brautigan has now become my favourite author, but he's certainly in there with another hundred or so.

Brautigan was a hippie success in the Sixties and Seventies, who fell from favour in the Eighties and shot himself in 1985.  A Confederate General from Big Sur was one of his first fictions, written in the late Fifties but not published until 1964 after the "success" of Trout Fishing in America.

You get the idea of what Brautigan is about when you realise a) there were no confederate generals from Big Sur, and b) there are no confederate generals in the novel.  There is, however, a lot of Big Sur, though it should be borne in mind that this is long before the Beach Boys and the Californian promontory was strictly for the dedicated Bohemian.  And such a one is Lee Mellon, our hero and very much the hero of Brautigan's narrator persona Jesse.  Every life should have a Lee Mellon in it.  I know and am grateful that mine did.  Lee Mellon (always referred to by the full name) is a force of nature, toothless, workshy, but a devil with the ladies, and he invites the insular Jesse down from San Francisco for a season in the wild.

The echo of Kerouac and Neal Cassady is unavoidable - especially since Kerouac also wrote a novel called Big Sur.  On the Road was published in 1957, the year in which Confederate General is set. But Brautigan's work is much gentler and humorous.  Lee Mellon and Jesse use weed not speed.  I found their story much more to my taste.

Monday, 13 October 2014

Something Nasty in the Woodshed/Beast of Jersey

The second of Kyril Bonfiglioli's comic capers featuring the Hon Charlie Mortdechai is set in Jersey, where Bonfiglioli himself popped up following publication of his first, Don't Point That Thing at Me, previously reviewed on this blog.

The most striking thing is that the story centres on the truelife Beast of Jersey, Edward Paisnel, who had only been sentenced for a decade of appalling sexual attacks on women and young boys seven years before Bonfiglioli's comic take was published.  What is alarming is how heavily Bonfiglioli relies on the cash-in book, The Beast of Jersey (1972), ostensibly by Paisnel's wife, Joan.  I say 'relies' but I am being over-generous: Bonfiglioli simply lifts great tranches of Beast, lock, stock and barrel.  It is such shameless plagiarism that I recognised some passages almost forty years after originally reading them.  So I re-read the original, a huge success in its day, and I was right.

Otherwise, Something Nasty is vintage Mortdechai, full of drink, debauchery and generally disgraceful behaviour, all rendered in wickedly cynical banter.  The story, effectively making fun of rape, is unpleasant, not to say ridiculous - but anyone reading Bonfiglioli for the story has made a fundamental mistake.

As for The Beast of Jersey itself, cobbled-together cash-in though it is, it is also a classic of its type and era, as ubiquitous in its day as Emlyn Williams' study of the Moors Murderers, Beyond Belief. Everybody I knew had a copy and I daresay most of us still do.  There must have been a massive first edition but so far as I can tell nothing further.  The cover remains iconic.

Yes, Paisnel walked about a five mile long island where he had lived all his life dressed like that and no one noticed.  Like the Yorkshire Ripper ten years later he was caught by traffic police for a relatively minor infringement.  The book itself is a second parallel with the Sutcliffe case.  Nobody believed Sonia Sutcliffe couldn't have suspected something about her husband and people felt the same, apparently, about Paisnel's wife Joan.  Indeed, Paisnel's behaviour was much more bizarre than Sutcliffe's and, of course, he was committing crimes on his doorstep whilst Sutcliffe capitalised on his job as a HGV driver.

For example, Paisnel and Joan did not live or sleep together as man and wife, to the extent that he built accommodation for himself onto the family home.  He told fantastical lies about his past which she soon knew were rubbish and he first approached her in connection with the children's home Joan ran with her parents. (Yes, I know - Jersey/children's home/paedophilia - but the official line is that Paisnel had no connection with Haut de la Garenne, it's a complete coincidence.)

Anyway, Joan very quickly got her account into print.  The book purports to be by her but the few times we do hear her voice stand out like sore thumbs - for one thing, they all share the same message: "I knew nothing!"  The real authors were Alan Shadrake (recently imprisoned in Singapore for attacking their judicial system) and John Lisners (recent biographer of Rupert Murdoch).  The speed of their writing is obvious from the vast number of typos and grammatical errors.

For all that, it's a strong read that stands the test of time.  What struck me most on re-reading it this week, was Paisnel's sentence - thirty years, a phenomenal sentence at that time.  He got full remission and died a free man in 1994.  Today he would have got multiple life sentences without possibility of parole.  And we think we've made progress...

Sunday, 5 October 2014

Queer - William S Burroughs

An unsatisfactory offcut of a larger, more significant work, I'm afraid.  Queer was originally the second part of Junkie, culminating in a hunt for the drug Yage, which ultimately became a stand-alone story.  Having temporarily come off the junk, Burroughs' alter ego William Lee becomes infatuated with with an American student studying in Mexico City, Eugene Allerton.

Apart from the deliberately provocative title, there is no real homosexuality in the book, certainly nothing physical.  From time to time Lee persuades Allerton to have sex with him, then we instantly cut to post coital torpor.  We are never told who does what to whom, albeit we can guess.  They then head off to various South American countries in the world's least-travelled travelogue since Sterne's Sentimental Journey.  Somewhere in Ecuador Burroughs simply abandons the story, annoyingly having come up (belatedly) with an interestingly opaque character, Dr Cotter.

The truth is, Queer is an abandoned chunk of text, retrieved from the bottom drawer and published in 1985, more than thirty years after it was written.  Burroughs added on a pointless return to Mexico City intended to round-off the narrative, and a long introduction which I remember generating a heap of publicity at the time.

The thing is, Junkie and Queer and the Yage story are an autobiographical sequence covering the years 1950-1952.  What is missing is the most infamous event - Burroughs being goaded by his wife Joan to shoot an apple off her head and missing, fatally.  This is why in the bolted-on return to Mexico, Lee has to sneak back into the country, because proceedings are ongoing.

Burroughs can write, but this is one for students only.  Insignificant and half-baked.  Burroughs himself likened Queer to "an artist's poor art school sketches."  He exaggerated: it's worse than that.

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

Of Love and Other Demons - Gabriel Garcia Marquez

I first read this novella when it came out in paperback in 1995.  I liked it then but, re-reading it now and having read much more Latin American literature, I loved it.

The structure is clever.  The prologue, which may or may not be true, tells us that as a young reporter Marquez was sent to report on the exhumation of corpses from the old Clarrisan convent in Cartagena.  While he is there, a tomb in the third niche of the high altar is cracked open and an ocean of red-gold hair spills out.  A skull follows, the skull of a teenage girl.  The inscription tells us that this was once Sierva Maria de Todos Los Angeles.  The remainder of the book is her story.

Back in the late Eighteenth Century Sierva was the only child of an elderly decayed marquis and his crazy bulimic wife.  Sierva has been left to run wild with the slaves.  One day, when she is twelve years old, she is nipped on the ankle by a rabid dog.  Nothing happens but the marquis becomes obsessed with the idea that his daughter is going to go mad and die.  Eventually, after his wife has left him, he places Sierva in the convent where the abbess immediately concludes she is possessed.  The bishop sends his protege Cayetano Delaura to exorcise her.  Instead, he falls in love with the child.

The atmosphere of sweltering decay - the exploration of an alien, debased society imposed on layers and layers of native culture - is spellbinding.  There is a sense of a fairytale, or moral fable, yet it remains of novel of character tested in extremis.  Utterly compelling.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Dangerous to Know - Chapman Pincher

It's quite something to read a book written by a man in his 100th year.  Chapman Pincher, chief investigative reporter for the Daily Express when it was a proper paper and not something you wouldn't even wrap your chips in, lived not only to celebrate his centenary but also to see this final book published.  He died on August 5th.

Of course, we only read Pincher for his spy scoops.  This, after all, was the man who first revealed that the head of MI5, Roger Hollis, was almost certainly a Russian spy and who collaborated with Peter Wright before Spycatcher.  Fortunately, no one knows that better than Pincher himself and this book not only summarizes his biggest coups but even adds new information to some of them.

It's worth knowing, however, that Pincher retired from Fleet Street as long ago as 1979.  For the last thirty-five years he combined investigative non-fiction with novels of all kinds and his lifelong passion for field sports.  Indeed, many of his biggest stories were leaked by friends from shooting and fishing (he doesn't seem to have been a hunting man).

Pincher never sets out to be likeable.  He was a dyed-in-the-wool Tory, incredibly snobbish for a publican's son born in India and brought up in Yorkshire, and an olympic-level name-dropper.  He knew this and is unapologetic here.  The fact is, he might have been wrong in his views but he was the greatest journalist of the last fifty years and was absolutely honest in his revelations.  It seems bizarre, nowadays, to couple journalist and honest in the same sentence, but Pincher might well have been the last of his breed.

The greatest revelation in Dangerous to Know, however, is that Pincher might have had to give up fishing in his late nineties, but at the age of ninety-nine his prose was as elegant and lucid as in his heyday in the 1960s.  Amazing.

Sunday, 21 September 2014

The Cut - George Pelecanos

As usual, I'm reading the series the wrong way round.  This is the second Spero Lucas novel I've read in the last month or so, but this is his debut.  Luckily, Pelecanos is such a good writer that it makes no difference which way you read them.

Anyway Afghan vet and retriever of lost property Spero is asked by hippie defence lawyer Tom Petersen to find evidence to help the case of an underage driver who has crashed and killed his friend.   Success leads him to the boy's father, another of Petersen's clients, awaiting trial for dealing marijuana.  Here Pelecanos joins his friend and colleague David Simon's crusade to show the stupidity of America's War on Drugs - filling up prisons with nonviolent offenders.

Anyway, someone is stealing the dealer's deliveries and he asks Spero to recover the goods for his customary forty percent cut.  From this point on the ripples of the conspiracy spread wider and wider and the violence ratchets remorselessly up.

The Derek Strange series never really hooked me (Strange gets a witty nod in The Cut, almost an acknowledgement of shared DNA) but I find Spero Lucas properly compelling.  Perhaps it's the way he draws in his former comrades, now shattered one way or another.  The Afghan conflict, right or wrong, adds depth and tone which really chimes with me.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

A Foreign Country - Charles Cumming

I've been keeping an eye out for Cumming's work since he won the CWA Steel Dagger, and the Bloody Scotland Scottish Crime Book of the Year for this very novel in 2012.

As I have stated several times on this blog, spy fiction is not my first choice and I can only tolerate the very best.  Fortunately, Cumming is up there with the very best.  Much more literate than Fleming and not as tendentious as le Carre can sometimes be.

The storyline here is unrolled through a number of clever twists, none of which strain the credulity.  Essentially, it is this: the incoming female head of MI6 vanishes; Thomas Kell, the spy who was effectively thrown into the cold, is given the off-the-books task of tracking her down with the vague promise of reinstatement if successful.  This means we don't have to endure too much office in-fighting and can get down to the chase through Tunisia and France.

The plot deepens, the target changes more than once, and the pace never once relents.  Cumming has stripped down the backstory of his characters to the bare minimum needed to engage our empathy.  Thus he can devote all his authorial energy to making his thriller thrilling.  He succeeds.

I am definitely up for more.  The Trinity Six sounds intriguing...

Friday, 12 September 2014

The Temple of the Golden Pavilion - Yukio Mishima

Mishima's story is based on a real-life incident.  In July 1950 the novice monk Hayashi Yoken burned down the Zen Buddhist temple of Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto.  The temple was rebuilt and Yoken survived his suicide attempt (only to die in 1956, the year the literary world's most spectacular suicide published his fictionalised version).

Mishima changes the Yoken's name to Mizoguchi and ends with his flight into the hills after starting the fire.  The real novice was insane, Mizoguchi is not.  That would be too easy.  Mishima's is an existentialist quest to explain the act of atrocious vandalism.  Mizoguchi's journey turns into a quest for beauty and freedom.

Mishima is one of the greatest 20th century novelists.  His failed coup and ritual suicide in November 1970, when he was only forty-five, has probably eclipsed his literary output.  It certainly meant his achievement was never marked by the Nobel Prize, although he almost won in 1968.  Of course the life of a Buddhist monk is alien to the western reader but Mishima knows that (he had spent time in America) and explains in more detail than I suspect the Japanese reader needs.  In this he is assisted by Ivan Morris's beautifully lucid translation.

The result is a novel of enormous power.  Alien though it is, Mizoguchi's narration draws us in.  His action is appalling, his motives (despite Mishima's efforts) inexplicable save as a form of offensively selfish performance art, and yet we can never hate him because he is so entirely human.

I truly love everything about this book - EXCEPT the trite and patronising introduction by Nancy Wilson Ross, an expert, apparently, on Eastern religion.  This she may well have been, and we have to indulge her because she was writing before literature went truly international.  But the problem is, this is not a novel about religion.  Take my tip and skip the intro.

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Ripeness is All - Eric Linklater

Ripeness is All was written in 1934 and published in 1935, by which time Linklater was an established and successful novelist.  He was writing too much and it shows.  The humour here is sometimes forced and the story is not as long as the book.  You sense padding.

Nevertheless, Linklater is a spectacularly talented writer.  The sheer force of his prose keeps you going through the duller bits.  His viewpoint is idiosyncratic.  He takes some unexpected swipes at unusual sacred cows - the blessed state of maternity, for example - and makes no bones about some of his characters being gay and lesbian. Some critics feel his humour is aggressively masculine but I do not find it so.  Here, his male characters are all idiots.  The character he clearly likes best is forty year-old spinster Hilary.

The plot is inventive.  The bachelor John dies and leaves the family fortune to whichever of the progeny of the late Jonathan Gander (his father) has the largest number of legitimate children by a given date.  So begins a comical race to procreate.  The comic twist is that it turns out stern Victorian patriarch Jonathan had a lot more progeny than anyone knew.  I don't think I'm giving too much away by revealing that.  It's set up quite early on.  The problem is, it's never really resolved.  You get the impression Linklater hits the contracted word or page count and then just wraps things up as quickly as he can.

I increasingly enjoy Linklater and enjoyed reading this.  It's not one of his best but it's better than many other comic novels of the period.  It is very English, which is an odd choice for such a proud Highland and Islander.  It is strikingly reminiscent of Linklater's friend and fellow Scottish Nationalist, Compton Mackenzie (who was, of course, English).  Indeed, Ripeness is All is effusively dedicated to 'Monty' Mackenzie.  I wonder if it was meant as a homage.

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

The Mersey Sound - Penguin Modern Poets 10

Yes, the classic collection from 1967, one of the best selling poetry anthologies of all time.  It was and may still be hugely influential, but it is also (naturally) dated and often shallow behind the surface shine.

The late Adrian Henri has dated the most - no doubt because he was the oldest poet represented and also the most tied to contemporaneity.  His Alf Jarry/Pere Ubu references would have been the ultimate in avant garde in the early sixties - they are less so now.  That said, I found Henri's sad love poetry very touching, notably 'Without You' and 'Where'er You Walk'.

Roger McGough was the one I liked best at the time and like least forty years on.  The poems here really are the epitome of shallow.  I know he swapped some for the revised edition and he has certainly acquired depth in his later work. The poems here are heavily redolent of John Lennon in his Spaniard in the Works, sub Spike Milligan phase.

Patten's the one, though.  Only 21 when this collection was first published but even then transparently the most significant poet of the three.  Every single entry here has to be read slowly and carefully to find meaning and fully take onboard the emotion.  I remember seeing Patten and McGough in a show with members of the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band in 1973 or maybe 1974.  McGough was always a natural performer whereas Patten opted for the nasal whine favoured by modern bards.  This really is the difference.  Henri and McGough's poetry is meant to be read out with actions and voices and comedy where appropriate.  Patten can of course be read out loud but it's really meant for the printed page.

Adrian Henri died some time ago, McGough is a national treasure, but what happened to Brian Patten?  He's still under 70 but I haven't heard anything of him for years.  According to Wikipedia he's still active.  I must look more carefully for more recent collections.

Saturday, 30 August 2014

The Double - Fyodor Dostoyevsky

You wait ages for a book called The Double to come along, then two arrive in doublequick time.  First the Pelecanos (see below), now the Dostoyevsky.

The Russian Double is from 1846, an early novella and the author's second published work of fiction.  Dostoyevsky was in his mid-twenties, a long way from imprisonment in Siberia and the dark depths of his mature work.  Essentially what we have here is a straight take on Gogol's The Nose from ten years earlier.  Even the dialogue smacks of the earlier work and, according to the notes by Ronald Wilks, Dostoyevsky even quotes from The Government Inspector and 'The Overcoat' in The Double.  We can safely say, then, he was a Gogol fan.

What the young Dostoyevsky lacks, however, is the mature Gogol's command of the absurd.  Here, middle ranking civil servant Golyadkin finds his life usurped by a doppelgänger who even claims to have the same name.  In The Nose the titular appendage absents itself from the face of Major Kovalyov and adopts an independent lifestyle.  Gogol embraces the absurd whereas Dostoyevsky opts for Kafkaesque comedy.  Both aim for a parody of naturalistic dialogue and internal monologue which was cutting edge at the time but now seems horribly contrived.  That said, The Double is enjoyable - I especially relished the description of the St Petersburg winter weather - and, like the best novellas, is just the perfect length for its story.  Wilks' translation (2009) seems about right.  I'm not sure I needed the notes.  Does it matter where some of the towns are?

Tuesday, 26 August 2014

Who Killed Palomino Molero? - Mario Vargas Llosa

Mario Vargas Llosa dips his toe into the whodunnit genre.  Obviously it's not as simple as that.  That the bolero singer turned volunteer airman Palomino Molero has been horribly, ritually killed is not in doubt, but even at the end who exactly did it and why is open to question.  And the cops are not exactly Scotland Yard or NYPD - just two unexceptional flatfoots from the local Guardia Civil in the rural middle of nowhere, which in Peru in the 1950s is pretty remote.

Why the 1950s?  I suspect the core of what is actually a novella was written back in the 50s, then rescued from the bottom drawer when Llosa got famous and heavily reworked.  I say reworked because all of the mature techniques are there: the elegant elision between past and present, memory and reality; the politics that underpin everyday life, even this far out in the backwoods; class prejudice; and, of course, the exploration of complex characters.  What, for example, is Alicia Mindreau's true state of mind?

Given the slim format, which feels just right for the subject, there is just one subplot - the comic infatuation of Lieutenant Silva for his Amazonian chubby Dona Adriana.  And the outcome of that is just as unexpected as the outcome of the main mystery.

Because it is very much centred in the landscape, there is far more description than in citybound Llosa novels.  I especially enjoyed the juxtaposition of the ocean and the blazing hot desert.  Only in Peru...

Sunday, 24 August 2014

The Double - George Pelecanos

Some people say George Pelecanos is best known as one of the writers on The Wire and, latterly, Treme.  I had definitely read at least one of his noir crime novels before then, but I'm damned if I can remember which one.  I think it might have been Soul Circus.  Anyhow, this is his latest, barely a year old, and it's a classic.

The Double is the second novel featuring Spero Lucas, ex-marine turned private investigator.  There are a number of storylines but the main one concerns a woman who had her painting (The Double) stolen by an ageing stud.  The title of the painting is a metaphor for the story.  It's not a double but the two sides of one man's personality, and hunting for it reveals the conflicting sides of Spero's personality, to him as well as to us.

Once you read Pelecanos's prose, you will recognise his dialogue in the TV series.  He has crafted a unique voice for himself, not so extreme as Ellroy, nor so flamboyant as Elmore Leonard, but crisp and hard and utterly compelling.  I get the impression Pelecanos is not as well known in the UK as he should be.  Now that Elmore has passed and Ellroy seems to have got stuck, there really is no better crime writer operating in the US today.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

Lady Jane Grey - A Tudor Mystery - Eric Ives

Eric Ives, being a highly respectable historian, offers something different amid the forest of books on England's first queen.  Instead of the usual recycled guff, he goes back to basics - to contemporary sources and indisputable facts - and reassesses everything.  Some of his conclusions may be arguable but you can't question the rigour with which he got there.

Why it's called a mystery I cannot fathom.  If anything was done in the full light of day, so far as the record is concerned, it was the Nine Day Rule.  Other than that, a superb addition to the canon which deserves to be top of the list for anyone fascinated by the Mid Tudor Crisis.

I was sorry to learn that Professor Ives died last September.  He wrote the classic study of Anne Boleyn (which I already have on my to-read pile) and brought a welcome scepticism to popular Tudor history.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The Feast of the Goat - Mario Vargas Llosa

I can't imagine what I've been reading all these years.  How have I managed to miss out on contemporary South American fiction?  One fairly insignificant Marquez - that's my lot.  Then I saw this in the library.  I liked the cover, I liked the fact that Faber had reissued it as part of its Revolutionary Writing series.  I thought, why not?

I'm staggered.  It's a masterpiece, pure and simple.  It's so good, I bought two more before I'd even finished it.

The deal is this: Urania returns to the Dominican Republic after 35 years.  In all that time she has had no contact whatsoever with her family - her father, her aunt, her cousins.  She left for America at 14, smuggled out by nuns on a contrived scholarship.  Her life has been hugely successful professionally.  Internally, though, nothing whatsoever.  Through the book we discover why.

She left in 1961, just after the Generalissimo (Goat) was assassinated.  We also relive those events, with the dictator, his puppet president, his assassins.  Every one of dozens of principal characters comes alive.  From time to time we are even inveigled into empathising with the Goat himself.  It is so cleverly structured that it was only in the penultimate chapter that I guessed how Urania and Trujillo were connected.

Not so much a cracking read.  More a life-changing artistic experience.  Can't recommend it highly enough.

Monday, 4 August 2014

The Wrestling - Simon Garfield

I bought this book when it first came out in 1996 and was prompted to re-read it by a mention on TV the other day.

The book is partly based on Garfield's earlier journalism but mainly on the memories of ageing grapple-and-groaners, gathered for a reunion at Wayne Bridge's pub in Greenwich in August 1995.  Distilled to its essence it might sound something of a cut-and-paste job but actually it is much better than that.  Garfield, like me, was a fan in his youth.  Given he is more youthful than I am, I fear he missed some of the greatest days - for example I went regularly to the wrestling when I lived in Middlesborough 1976-77, and saw Giant Haystacks fight Kendo Nagasaki (pictured, sort of, above).  Nagasaki is one of the stand-out characters in the book.  He doesn't speak - he never speaks, even on radio - but others speak about him with a certain awe.  He was spectacularly dedicated to his business and has never dissed it.  He is identified here but it matters not - without his mask and ring character he really is nobody.

The other stand-out who doesn't speak directly is Les Kellett, a middle-aged clown in the ring but very odd and extremely hard out of it.

Because mine is the original edition (there has been an update), Garfield only covers the first ripples of US superstar wrestling on the British scene.  He interviews a young Triple H, and Shawn Michaels when he still had a full supply of hair.  Unfortunately he doesn't get to Vince McMahon or any member of the Hart family, which became linked with two of the greatest British exports.

I remember seeing the Dynamite Kid, at Middlesbrough, when he was only 17 or 18.  He paved the way for British wrestlers in America, essentially the WWF.  Now the Kid is back in England and disabled, and his cousin Davey Boy Smith, the other half of the British Bulldogs, died in 2002 before he was 40.  Smith is interviewed here, at the height of his fame, and you can't help sensing the tragedy to come.  Already, in 1995-6, the Dynamite Kid was a reclusive, excluded figure.

Garfield's narrative is the death of British professional wrestling after it was dumped by ITV in the late 1980s.  You get the impression it was never much of a game, despite packed houses all round the country.  The wrestlers were never paid worthwhile money and the promoters ran a typically exploitative closed shop.  I get the impression that some pro wrestling still goes on in the UK - that must be a pretty tawdry affair.

Thursday, 31 July 2014

Cold Hand in Mine - Robert Aickman

The second of my Aickman Faber Finds but I suspect originally published before Wine Dark Sea.  Again, we have eight short stories.  The settings are as varied as ever, with many of the same tropes.  Again, the tales work best when they are truly strange.  I absolutely love it when something extremely strange happens - and that's it: no explanation, no consequences.

Take for example the opening story, 'The Swords'.  A young travelling salesman has his first sexual experience with a woman off the fair, a woman who can be pierced with swords without lasting injury or apparent pain.  The fact that the setting is somewhere in the West Midlands at the height of its grime and squalor only enhances the overall seediness.  Then something happens - I won't say what, save that it's strange, and disturbing and ever so slightly revolting.  Our hero pays off her pimp - somewhere else in the lodging house someone screams - and that's it.  Brilliant.

Something similar happens in 'The Hospice'.  Another commercial traveller, this time seemingly in the 1960s, runs out of petrol and spends the night at the titular establishment.  The meals are absolutely enormous.  They offer him a bed.  He has to share - everyone shares at the Hospice, by choice apparently.  In the night his room mate disappears and locks our protagonist in.  He returns later.  In the morning they carry out a body,  We don't know whose.  And they generously offer our hero a lift to the nearest petrol station ... in the hearse.

These and 'The Same Dog' were my favourites.  'Meeting Mr Millar' was enjoyable, and 'Neimandswasser' reminded me of D H Lawrence's 'The Prussian Officer'.  Some stories are better than others but there are no duds.  I'm really enjoying the range Aickman manages to achieve within quite a limited genre, and the depth of characterisation.  These are what make him a master.

Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Looking for the Archpoet

I have added a page to the blog (see right), reviewing and comparing a number of books on the same subject - medieval poetry from the fifth to the twelfth century, in particular the elusive and tantalising figure of the anonymous Archpoet.  I have already reviewed one of the books below - the Penguin Selections from the Carmina Burana - but it turned out that was only the start of my quest and I couldn't contextualise what I'd learnt since without referencing it again in this paper.

Anyway, hopefully it's a decent read - even if the subject is a tad obscure!

Monday, 28 July 2014

The Wine Dark Sea - Robert Aickman

With Aickman, the great Faber Finds print on demand service comes into his own.  By issuing three of his strange story collections as Finds, Faber were able to build sufficient interest to republish another collection in traditional form.

I had heard of Aickman, who is popular with cult writers like Mark Gatiss and Jeremy Dyson, and who was the grandson of the great Victorian horror writer Richard Marsh (author of The Beetle, 1897), but whose books are very hard to come by. This seems to be because he was a truly awkward sod.  Then I walked into my local Oxfam and there, on the classics shelf, were all three Faber Find collections, which I am now working my way through.

First off, Aickman has a unique flavour.  His stories are long - 30 pages or more, perhaps best defined as mini novellas - and not especially horrific.  Instead they are strange, just like he said they were.  His characters tend to be loners, outsiders, and we see generally see the world through their eyes.  The locations are incredibly varied - Greek island, Venice, industrial Yorkshire, Sweden, and that's just in this volume. There is often a thread of present-versus-past in which the present tends to come off worst.

There are eight stories here.  The first is the title piece - a tourist goes to a Greek island despite being warned off by the locals and finds himself embroiled in elemental forces personified.  To me it was obvious, not sufficiently strange and certainly nowhere near adequately erotic, albeit we have to remember Aickman died in 1981, in his mid-sixties, so "Wine Dark Sea" might have been hot stuff in its day.  The next story, "The Trains", was my favourite - two postwar young women hiking in Yorkshire have to take refuge in an isolated house.  The twist with the butler was very strange indeed, and I loved that Aickman doesn't bother explaining it.  The butler is called Beech, a tribute to the butler of the same name in Wodehouse's Blandings series - the stories are dotted with such little touches, which only increase the enjoyment.

Then it's "Your Tiny Hand is Frozen" about lonely people and the telephone, followed by "Growing Boys", exactly what it says on the tin and hugely enjoyable.  "The Fetch" and "The Inner Room" both feature hopeless fathers, which seems to be another Aickman trope.  The latter didn't quite work for me, albeit I loved it right up to the point at which it was supposed to become disturbing.  On the other hand, the woman who turned out to be the titular fetch was deeply disturbing and lingered round the back of my mind for some days.

Finally 'Never Visit Venice' and 'Into the Woods' were both English-abroad stories in which the locations play a key role.  Venice has become too associated with weird goings-on since Aickman wrote his contribution, so it has lost some of its force.  Again, though, the writing is good and engrossing.  'Into the Woods' is extremely strange and unsettling.  Such an odd idea to begin with - an asylum for insomniacs - which Aickman then builds on with a masterly touch.

The introduction is by Peter Straub.  He was big news in 1988 when this edition was first published.  He isn't now, and the introduction isn't worth the paper it's printed on.

Tuesday, 15 July 2014

Midnight in Europe - Alan Furst

I'd seen the TV version of The Spies of Warsaw, which I liked a lot, but I hadn't read Alan Furst until I came across this, his latest, in my local library.  It takes a while to get the tone, and I was worried at first that we seemed to be spending undue time with characters who clearly weren't going further.  But the main characters, Cristian Ferrar, Spanish ex-pat, living in Paris and partner in a prestigious New York law firm, and Max de Lyon, stateless soldier of fortune, are immensely likeable and multi-faceted.  There are no real villains - the villain is Fascism, in Spain for this novel but looming on the horizon for everyone when midnight turns in Europe.  The 1938 flavour seeps through every descriptive passage.  Nothing jarred against my eye or ear, and that's all a period novel has to achieve.  I liked the comparatively short length - 250 pages in the hardback.  Far too often novels in this eve-of-war espionage genre go on far too long.  Furst's economy of style means nothing wasted, nothing superfluous, and leaves you wanting more.  I certainly do.  The plotting which worried at me to begin with turned out to be a stroke of genius, and by no means the only one.  Highly recommended.

Tuesday, 8 July 2014

Don't Point That Thing At Me - Kyril Bonfiglioli

I confess I had never heard of Bonfiglioli, but there has been press lately because Johnny Depp is making a film and Penguin have therefore republished his Mortdecai trilogy, of which this is the first, originally published in the UK in 1972.

Despite the splendiferous name, Bonfigioli was English and his main influence was clearly Wodehouse, with a strong dash of Derek Raymond.  Charlie Mortdecai is the second son of a baronet and relies heavily on his manservant.  The valet or 'thug' is called Jock Strapp, which gives you a flavour of what follows.  Charlie is an art dealer and therefore dodgy.  There is a stolen Goya involved in things somewhere, and that gets him to America on a diplomatic passport but results in him being stalked across the mudflats of Morecambe Bay.

The plot is neither here nor there - though I love the final flourish by which Charlie leaves his fate up in the air.  What matters is the tone, which is maintained throughout, seemingly without effort.  Some of Charlie's observations and one-liners are laugh-out-loud funny.  Every para is read with a smile or a grin.  The good news is, there are two more volumes to acquire and read.  The bad news, it's only two, plus what seems like a prequel and one novel left unfinished when Bonfiglioli died in 1985.  It was finished by Craig Brown and I vaguely recall it now.  I'm not sure I'll bother with it, though.

Sunday, 6 July 2014

Whit - Iain Banks

The thing about Iain Banks is, I'm never much interested in the story, which is often the same from book to book - large, complex families with issues and history not quite what it seems.  What takes me by the collar is the authorial voice, different from book to book, and the sheer exhilarating quality of the writing.  Take Whit, for example.  Loopy new age religious cult living a cultish life in pastoral Scotland?  Really, I couldn't care less.  But, cast in terms of Isis's awakening to the real world and the truths that can be found therein, I was enthralled all the way through.  Well, almost all the way.  The trouble with family mysteries is that they have to be tied up, the parties reconciled - and that is done, somewhat perfunctorily, at the end of Whit.  I'm not sure there was any other way it could be done but ... still ... you could cut the last chapter and miss nothing

Banks is a giant of contemporary English literature, a trailblazer of the important Scottish novel in the 21st century.  That he died too soon is inarguable.  I just hope he doesn't fall into post mortem obscurity.

Saturday, 28 June 2014

A Bitter Field - Jack Ludlow

The third and final part of the "Roads to War" trilogy, I found A Bitter Field the weakest of the three.  It's as if Ludlow has decided three is it for Cal Jardine and kind of lost interest.  It's a shame because for me the setting - the Sudetenland on the very eve of Hitler's invasion of Czechoslovakia - is by far the most interesting of the trilogy. Nevertheless there are thrilling points (albeit the most thrilling - smuggling guns out of France - is the first third of the book), amusing points (Cal acting as interpreter), and a compelling sense of authenticity.  One thing's for sure - you can rely on Ludlow's research.  Enjoyable but not great.

Sunday, 22 June 2014

A Strange Manuscript Found in a Copper Cylinder - James de Mille

A real oddity, this.  Published posthumously in 1888, it follows the well-known fantasy trope made abundantly clear in the title, blending The Lost World with Gulliver's Travels.  The manuscript author gets lost in Antarctica and penetrates through to a semi-tropical land where dinosaurs co-exist with the Kosekin people who are incredibly kind and welcoming but who regard death as the best thing in life.

As an adventure yarn, there's not enough adventure.  There are nowhere near enough dinosaurs and those we do get - pterosaurs excepted - are simply not described well enough to be properly threatening.  So once we get established in the new world we have nothing to detain us but the unusual habits of the Kosekin and a rather tedious, formulaic romance.

The publishers (or re-publishers in this case) try to make the case for it being a satire of mid-Victorian mores, but it's not.  It's the oldest trope of all in satire, the world turned upside down.  Aristophanes did it better more than two thousand years earlier.  Again, once the premise is established - we love death/you love life, divorce is the best thing about marriage etc. - we have nowhere else to go.

For me, the part I really enjoyed was the framing device, usually the part we skip in these things (I particularly remember the tedium of the device in William Hope Hudgson's otherwise thrilling From the Tideless Sea).  Here we have an inbred toff on his yacht with a doctor, a writer of fiction and a linguist.  The chinless wonder is genuinely amusing, the writer dismisses the manuscript as a fake, and the two scholars get deep into debate of what and where the things described might be.  I can't help thinking these are the bits the academic De Mille enjoyed most too.  The very best, the last - we have to go back to the yacht, it's a requirement of the form, but instead of a wearisome epilogue, De Mille simply gives us:
Here Featherstone stopped, yawned and laid down the manuscript.
"That's enough for today," said he.  "I'm tired and can't read any more.  It's time for supper." 

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Something Wicked This Way Comes - Ray Bradbury

I don't know that I've ever read Ray Bradbury before - certainly not a full length work.  So this fascinated me.  Of course the evil carnival coming to town is nowadays a standard, even hackneyed, trope of American fantasy fiction, but I suspect Bradbury was first in the field, albeit with just a nod to Tod Browning's movie Freaks.  The writing itself is startling, so textured, gnarled, yet impactful.  I liked very much the role of Dad, much older than the usual dad, maybe an echo of Clark Kent's foster father.  I liked that he thought it through, based his plan on research in the library where he works - then discovered the true answer by accident.  The boys themselves, Will and Jim, were wholly convincing and well differentiated.  Stephen King tends to distinguish his boys by contrasting types but Will and Jim are cut from the same cloth but subtly different, hence Jim's fascination with what might be called the Magic Roundabout, which Will shuns.  Something Wicked is, quite simply, a masterpiece in its field.

Monday, 16 June 2014

Fanny & Stella, The Young Men Who Shocked Victorian England - Neil McKenna

April 1870, Ernest and Fred, or maybe Stella and Fanny, are attracting the boys' attention at the rather dodgy Strand Theatre.  Stella nips to the ladies.  They leave - and are promptly lifted by the police for the horrid crime of dressing as women.

Only ... crossdressing isn't a crime.  So the police have to build a case for buggery, which is, in Victorian times, very much a crime with penalties ranging up to long prison sentences with hard labour, which are to all intents and purposes death sentences because very few survive.  The next problem is, how do you prove giving or receiving anal intercourse?  The greatest medical brains of London are brought to bear.  Ernest and Fred are examined in minute, excruciating detail.  And, inevitably - to coin a phrase - they can't prove bugger all.

So, given the press hysteria (and the fact that Stella is apparently married to an MP who also happens to be the son and brother of dukes), the authorities end up with some ridiculous charge along the lines of outraging public decency.  In a West End theatre?  Then as now, come off it!

The fiasco drags on for a full year.  The showcase trial is held in Westminster Hall, the Lord Chief Justice presiding, the Attorney General leading for the prosecution.

Neil McKenna writes beautifully, sensitively.  The amount of research for this ostensible thin tale was clearly enormous.  Fascinating insight.  Great empathy.  A story brilliantly told.

Friday, 13 June 2014

The Hanging Shed - Gordon Ferris

I said I didn't need to read it because I'd read the follow-up which gives the plot away.  But I read it anyway and whilst I did already know some of the plot, there was enough extra storyline to reel me in.

It's 1946, Brodie has spent the months since being demobbed in London, doing a spot of casual freelance journalism.  But he's called to Glasgow by old school pal Hugh Donovan who has got a bit of a problem.  He's been found guilty of murdering a little boy and is due to hang in a couple of weeks.

Donovan used to be the best looking lad in his age group.  Not now - trapped in a burning cockpit, he's a monster now, hooked on painkillers.  Brodie hasn't seen him since they were in late teens.  They stopped being best pals when Donovan took Brodie's girlfriend.  It's her son Donovan is said to have killed.

It's more Richard Hannay than Inspector Rebus but it moves along and has moments of reflection.  On balance I think the key element of the storyline, the whys and wherefores of the boy's death which I obviously won't reveal here, is too easy.  It's in all the papers and it's the first idea every new crime writers reaches for.  Which means you kind of expect it from every new crime writer.

I liked Bitter Water better, and I'll certainly read the other two Brodie novels, Pilgrim Soul and Gallowglass.  What I really like the sound of though is Ferris's other series, about a private eye with amnesia.  Why the hell he chose to call him McRae is beyond me.  Stuart MacBride has that one covered.

Sunday, 8 June 2014

Flesh House - Stuart MacBride

Flesh House, from 2008, is the fourth of the Logan McRae novels, perhaps the most compelling series in contemporary Tartan Noir.  It shares all the regular tropes - horrors from the past, injustice righted, revenge - and features all the regular favourite characters.  It's the novel where MacBride really gets into his stride but you also get the sense that he's developing habits and the occasional shorthand approach to characterisation.  The premise here is great - the serial killer known as the Flesher has returned to butchery after twenty years; so has the man found guilty of the earlier crimes, now freed on bail.  DCI Insch, his blood pressure always about to blow, was on the original investigation.  So was the easy-going Chief Constable of the West Midlands, who pops up to Aberdeen to lend a friendly hand.  Other officers on the case are being targeted.  Who by?  Why?

The weak point for me were the scenes inside the Flesher's holding cell.  MacBride is exploring Stockholm Syndrome here, and there is a key plot point involved, but there were too many visits to the scene and for me it just got tedious.  I started skipping them and it affected my understanding of the plot not at all. I didn't figure out whodunnit, but the twist was too convoluted for me to care too much.  I always feel you need to know your villain - to a much greater extent than we know this villain - in order to get the real visceral shock.  I mean, that's the point of noir, isn't it - the horror of which seemingly hyper-normal human beings are capable of?

 As ever, a good, fun read - but not the best of the series so far as I was concerned.

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Slaughterhouse Five - Kurt Vonnegut

I know, I know, everyone else on the planet has read this 20th century classic before me, but at least I made it in the end.  The story is well known.  Hopeless loser Billy Pilgrim gets captured by the Germans in the dying days of World War II and survives the bombing of Dresden (the British equivalent of the US bombing of Hiroshima) in February 1945 because he and his work gang happened to be in Slaughterhouse Number Five.  Thus far, Billy is Vonnegut himself, however the we begin with the author and his return to Dresden twenty-five years later, and from time to time the author intrudes by pointing out that it was he, the author, who said that to Billy just now.  So we know from early on that this book is going to be different.

Billy, we are told, at the beginning of Chapter Two, "has come unstuck in time."  This is because he has been abducted by Tralfamadorians, the inverted sink plunger people, who see time as a whole not as a sequence.  So some of the time Billy is on display, naked, in a Tralfamadorian zoo, with the naked porn star, Montana Wildhack, the Tralfamadorians kidnapped for him, and then the next moment he is in Dresden, or the Veteran's Hospital, or in his optometrist office, or in 1976 (nine years after the book was published) when he is a celebrated public speaker on alien abductions about to murdered, as he has always known he will be, by the guy he met on the prisoner of war train back in 1944.

The book's inventiveness never flags.  On one level it is comic, satirical, but Vonnegut never loses track of the central point, the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians and prisoners of war in Dresden.  Throughout the book people keep dying, each passing marked with the dispassionate phrase, "So it goes."  So when he comes to telling us that 135,000 people died in Dresden in a single night "So it goes" knocks the stuffing out of us.

A book to cherish.  I loved it.

The Third Plantagenet - John Ashdown-Hill

John Ashdown-Hill was the genealogist-historian who tracked down people descended from Richard III's female relatives though not, of course, from Richard himself.  This meant the DNA in the skeleton dug up in the car park of Leicester Social Services could be matched, confirming the remains of the crooked-back man killed in battle, always said in the historical records to have been buried where he was found, was indeed the missing king.

The dig was funded by the Ricardians, of whom Ashdown-Hill is one, who were appalled when the 'Tudor propaganda' deformity was there before their very eyes.  The implication, of course, is that everything else Thomas More said about Richard might also be true, in particular that he murdered his nephews, the Princes in the Tower - just like every contemporary chronicler, including those who wrote before 1485, said he did.

The Ricardians, quite openly, have an agenda - to restore the king's reputation.  This can lead them into odd yet fascinating digressions, which is what interested me about Ashdown-Hill's latest book.  His thesis is that the Duke of Clarence, the surviving brother between Edward IV and Richard, was not the scheming, self-promoting, untrustworthy blot on the landscape who screams out at us from the pages of history (and I'm talking here to real history; that recorded at the time).  Thus, for Ashdown-Hill every Plantagenet male other than Clarence and Richard was illegitimate and excluded from the crown.  I'm no fan of the British royal family and their endless progeny but I know for a fact some of them were married - I've seen them marry on the telly.

His other problem is that Clarence has left very few traces behind him (though, to be fair, he has an awful lot of actual direct descendants thanks to his daughter Margaret Countess of Salisbury).  Even his bones seem to have vanished from his tomb.  Thus everything has to be reconstructed or hypothesized.  The result is great fun in every sense.  Ashdown-Hill provokes argument, which is what books should do from time to time.  I don't agree with some of his theories (frankly, I don't agree with any of them) but I am confident that what he identifies as facts are indeed reliable.  I enjoyed it, and there are plenty of other modern histories of the period I can't say the same about.

Thursday, 29 May 2014

The Blackhouse - Peter May

The Blackhouse is the first novel in the Lewis Trilogy and May's breakthrough in the UK.  But it's not his first novel - oh no, not by a long way.  May has long been a bestseller in France, writing in French, with two long-running novel series to his credit, The Enzo Files and The China Thrillers.  Yes, that's right, he writes about China in French.  And is an honorary member of the Chinese CWA.  The Blackhouse itself was originally written and published in French (L'Ile des Chasseurs D'Oiseaux) when no British publishing house would risk it.  It won prizes in France, and no wonder.  No wonder, by the way, that British publishing is at its lowest ebb, publishing ghost written drivel by 'celebs' and snubbing obvious classics of crime like this.

Having read the second of the sequence first (The Lewis Man) I thought I knew too much about what happened here (see my review below).  But I was wrong.  This is because of May's clever technique of going deep into his characters' past in the first person whilst driving the main plot in third.  Thus, while I knew the punchline of The Blackhouse, I didn't know how that had come to be, and had no idea how central to the plot it was.

In many ways the French title is better.  The key events, past and present, centre on the island where selected male islanders go once a year to club baby seabirds in a rite of passage.  It's the perfect metaphor for the blend of deep, ancient tradition which young men like Fin Mcleod are eager to escape but never truly can.  I enjoyed this book, indeed, even more than I enjoyed The Lewis Man.  I will of course seek out the third novel, The Chess Men, but what I'm really looking forward to is the arrival, at last, of The Enzo Files, the first of which, Extraordinary People, is out now.  The China Thrillers are available as ebooks.  I'm in!