Thursday, 27 February 2014

Capital - John Lanchester

John Lanchester has attempted a forensic, fictional analysis of London and therefore Britain, because in the first decade of the 21st century London was the only part of Britain that counted, at the time of the great bank fraud collapse. It's a brave attempt but inevitably some bits work better than others. His Asian and Zimbabwean immigrants are more attractive than the Eastern Europeans. Amazingly his investment banker is the most appealing character of all. I loved the terrorism subplot, the quiet death of Petunia, and hated the conceptual art device. But that's the thing with a state of the nation novel, especially one this long. No one is going to like it all, it cannot maintain quality throughout, and much as I enjoyed it I cannot give it an unequivocal Must Read.

Tuesday, 18 February 2014

Bitter Water - Gordon Ferris

Yet another new Scottish crime writer, this time specialising in the latest sub-genre, post-WW2 Scottish crime.  Ferris has two strands on the go, a London series featuring Danny McRae, and a Glasgow series fearuring Douglas Brodie.  Bitter Water is the second Brodie; the fourth, Gallowglass, is due imminently.

Brodie has a great backstory which gives him access to crime.  He used to be a policeman, then he became an officer in the 51st Highland Regiment, one of the few to escape betrayal by French surrender monkeys at Caen - a subject which interests me greatly, and which is a key storyline here.  For this novel he has been taken on as a crime reporter at the Glasgow Gazette, clearly as a result of his adventures in the first of the series, The Hanging Shed.

Bitter Water is so heavily reliant on The Hanging Shed that there really should be a warning on the cover, saying read them in order.  Having read Bitter Water there can be no surprises in The Hanging Shed as everything, but everything is reiterated.  That's a mistake on Ferris's part.  It's cost him a sale in my case.  And it's a shame because I absolutely loved this book.  He seems to be spot on in his research.  There are bags and bags of period details to get our teeth into.  The story is complex and cleverly incorporates subjects of importance to us today, thus letting us empathise with characters who would have been reviled at the time.  And Ferris is very, very good at pace.  The action never flags, the denouement is pure thriller, and there is a revelation at the very end which justifies what I feared would be an overlong and unnecessary tying up of loose ends.

Highly recommended.

The Revolution - Eric Linklater

A real oddity - three linked short stories published by the White Owl Press as a single volume just 80 pages long.  In 1934 Linklater was about five years into his fiction writing career and still wildly experimental.  We begin with the story of the Russian actress Olenina (not a million miles away from Lenin, namewise), marooned in London by the outbreak of World War I, the mistress of a high-ranking British officer and on the verge of having sex with a Russian waiter who she thinks is about to volunteer for active service.  There's a neat twist, quite funny, and then we move on to the revolution itself, in Baltland, a sort of Nordic Ruritania. King Oscar III is a benevolent constitutional monarch brought down by the actor, playwright and socialist Jean Paris - who just happens to the lover of the actress Olenina.  The King and Queen are exiled - along with Paris and Olenina, considered by the ruling Committee of Five "to be dangerous to the new Republic by reason of their ability to excite the populace, their unruly and impolite views of life, their penchant for criticism, and their tendency to revolution."  In the third story the exiles are lodged together in a Scottish Highland castle and they come to realise that their causes and beliefs are not so far apart.

Every writer goes into a bit of an eclipse after their death but Linklater's has gone on far too long.  He was a significant writer of the mid Twentieth Century with a unique outsider's viewpoint (he considered himself an Orkney man and was passionate about the very far north), an easy narrative gift, a satirical humour and a lifelong fondness for pushing the boundaries of his chosen form.  He was also a major radio dramatist with a short but critical role in World War II home front propaganda.

In many ways he's like a Scottish George Bernard Shaw but funnier and in no way a pacifist (he was badly wounded in World War I and on active duty guarding Scapa Flow before war was actually declared in 1939).

Friday, 14 February 2014

Girl in a Green Gown - Carola Hicks

The 'girl' is the woman in the National Gallery's most popular painting, The Arnolifini Marriage  by Jan van Eyck.  Here, Hicks intersperses scrutiny of the painting itself with its history.  It is a smart technique which keeps the tone light and allows a rolling narrative to develop.  It's hard to be critical, because Hicks died as the work was being readied for publication.  I like to think that a further revision, pushing deeper into the fundamental mysteries of the work, would have produced a landmark study.

The mysteries in question are: who are the people depicted (Hicks just accepts it is Giovanni Arnolfini and his wife without any real airing of the arguments; and in my view she has plumped for the wrong Giovanni and thus the wrong wife); what made van Eyck, painter of altarpieces and the occasional stand-alone portrait, invent the curious notion of the double portrait (and, indeed, is it actually a portrait as such, or a compilation of elements?); and who are the people seen in the mirror?

The lack of a biographical sketch of van Eyck is a big mistake.  He's not the best documented painter who ever lived but there is more known about him than is included here.  I would also have liked something about his contemporaries, van der Weyden, Campin and Petrus Cristus, all of whom echoed (or were echoed in) The Arnolifini Marriage in their work.

Sunday, 9 February 2014

Unknown Man No. 89 - Elmore Leonard

This dates from 1977, the beginning of one of several golden periods for the late Leonard.  It is, as usual, a caper novel featuring assorted grifters and lowlifes.  This being a relatively early novel, it is set in Detroit where Leonard did most of his growing-up.

It scarcely needs saying, but it reads like a dream.  The premise is flimsy, inconsequential, but who cares?  The Elmore Leonard experience is totally immersive and credible for exactly as long as it takes to finish reading.  On reflection, I don't find the key characters sufficiently beguiling.  Jack Ryan, process server, is a returnee from an early (and rare) Leonard failure, 1969's The Big Bounce.  His antagonist, Mr Perez, is a super-smooth dodgy businessman whose practice was probably sneered at back in 1977 but which in Twenty-First Century Britain is celebrated in BBC1's daytime dross Heir Hunters.  The lucky legatee Denise is winning enough in her way, but it is the secondary characters who really catch the imagination: superfly Virgil Royal and his hapless brother-in-law Tunafish; Mr Perez's downhome hitman Raymond Gidre.  Technically, this is a fault that relatively early Leonard often has, but somehow it never dulls the enjoyment.

Wednesday, 5 February 2014

Half of Paradise - James Lee Burke

I've recently become addicted to the non-Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke. This is the least interesting but that's forgivable, given it's the first. The three storylines don't work as well as they might because they're not interlinked, not even thematically, except that we're talking about three losers who continue losing. That said, the quality of the writing is amazing for a first novel. The dialogue rings true and some of the descriptive passages are really jaw-droppingly fine. I'm glad I read it but I wouldn't read it again. One intriguing point - when Avery Broussard's girlfriend finally gets a surname two pages from the end, it's Robicheaux.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

The Day of the Triffids - John Wyndham

We all know Day of the Triffids, right?  It's a classic, adapted for film and TV on a regular basis.  I certainly thought I knew it - man-eating plants invade Planet Earth, send everyone blind, etc.  How wrong was I.  In fairness, Wyndham was also wrong in that it's not about triffids at all and, whilst they keep cropping up to string the occasional passer-by, they don't really become a threat to the survival of humankind until the very end of the novel.  What this actually is is a post-apocalyptic survivor story.  A spectacular meteor shower brings everyone out into the streets to watch, then blinds them with its brilliance.  Our hero, Bill Masen, wakes up in hospital to find everyone gone.  He has not been blinded because he was already blind - stung by a triffid, an occupational hazard in that he is a researcher into triffids which have been bred for years (genetically modified) for their various useful by-products.  Triffids have developed idiosyncrasies like walking, and they always wear poisonous, though it's GM which has made them gigantic and thus potentially lethal, but it is only when humankind can no longer maintain their paddocks and cages that they go on the rampage.

Bill, his eyesight recovered, joins up with other survivors and traverses the south of England in search of a bolt-hole.  Meanwhile the triffids multiply, organise and attack.  In many ways it was the evolution of the triffids which held my attention through all the quest sludge; that and the way Wyndham evokes the paranoia of the immediate postwar era - the nuclear threat, the disinclination of the authorities to abandon control of the population and, fascinatingly, satellite technology which provides a surprising twist at the end.

We call Wyndham a sci-fi writer but I like his description of what he does - 'logical fantasy'.  That's what The Day of the Triffids is precisely.  It remains a classic and we should all know it better.