Thursday, 31 December 2015

The Wolves of London - Mark Morris

I had not come across Mark Morris before spotting this, the first part of his Obsidian Heart trilogy, in my local library.  I am already on the lookout for more.

Wolves is a horror/fantasy adventure with the added bonus (so often missed) of an engaging protagonist, Alex Locke, goalbird turned psychology lecturer, with something worthwhile at risk - he wanders from the straight and narrow because his eldest daughter's boyfriend is in bother, and gets stuck there when his younger daughter is kidnapped.  The writing style is lively but nowhere near so lively as Morris's imagination.  The surprises and twists keep on coming and kept me entertained to the very end.

Being a trilogy, the end is not conclusive and I admit I would have preferred some loose ends to be resolved.  I expect I shall just have to pick up Book Two, The Society of Blood, to satisfy my curiosity,

By the way, the artwork on the cover, by, is just superb.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

1Q84 Book Three - Haruki Murakami

OK, not the best idea to read book three of a magnum opus with no knowledge of the first two.  But there we are.  This is what I did - and it didn't matter.  Murakami's dystopian world is so similar to the 'real' world as it was in Japan in 1984 that it makes no difference. His big concept is self-explanatory and does not subsume the three main characters, Aomame, Tengo and Ushikawa,  Aomame has crossed into this world and killed the Leader of the Sakigake sect.  She is being hidden by the Dowager but it obsessed with finding Tengo, briefly a schoolmate twenty years ago.  Tengo is a part-time teacher who has ghost-written the sensational bestseller Air Chrysalis for the teenaged prodigy Fuka-Eri, real name Eriko Fukada.  Air Chrysalis is ostensibly science fiction but actually it is an expose of the Sakigake cult.  In this world - which no one has noticed is different, even though the main difference is two moons - the air chrysalis and the Little People who make them are real.  Ushikawa is the profoundly ugly investigator who has been hired by Sakigake to track down Aomame.  He goes to great lengths because he feels responsible, as he was the one who vetted her when she started work for the cult.  Unable to breach the Dowager's elaborate security he decides to track down Tengo instead.

It is an intriguing book, which keeps rumbling on in the mind long after you've put it down.  The Little People, when they appear, are jaw-dropping.  Who is the unseen fee-collector for the national TV service who keeps banging on people's doors - even when they haven't got TVs?  What is his relationship to Tengo's comatose father?  What difference does the smaller, greenish moon make and why has nobody noticed?

Murakami's cool, understated prose makes the bizarre instantly acceptable - and, when the truly bizarre things happen, gives them double the impact.  By focusing on the three main viewpoint characters, and giving them each a chapter in turn, he builds an appreciation of their personalities by sheer accumulation.  Their linking characteristic is a patient stoicism - it doesn't matter how long Ushikawa has to stake out Tengo's apartment; Aomame cannot and will not leave Tokyo for a safer location until she has found Tengo, even though she has no reason to believe he has thought about her since they were ten years old; and Tengo is content to sit by the bedside of the father for whom he has no feelings whatsoever, using his spare time to plod away at his novel.

Superb.  I will be happy to read the other two books (published in a single volume in the UK) but what really appeals to me is Murakami's earlier international successes, Norwegian Wood and Kafka on the Shore

Friday, 18 December 2015

Beatrice and Her Son - Arthur Schnitzler

Schnitzler was the Viennese novelist of the Freudian era.  Beatrice and Her Son is one of his mature works, published just a year before World War One.  It is is very short (three chapters and less than 100 pages) but very dense and ultimately quite shocking.  Beatrice is the widow of a celebrated actor.  She is probably not yet forty (Schnitzler is far too subtle to specify) and reasonably well off.  Some respectable but slightly dull men of around her own age are showing an interest, now that her mourning period can be considered to be decently done.  But on her summer holiday in the mountains with her son Hugo it is one of Hugo's schoolfriends that she takes to her bed.  Schnitzler is a psychological novelist and sets up many reasons for her scandalous behaviour,  Is it boredom, novelty, risk - or simply revenge?  Revenge because the young man Fritz has hinted that Beatrice's late husband (of whom he does a good impression) had affairs - and/or revenge because Hugo is sleeping with an older woman, a former actress who may or may not have been one of his father's mistresses.  Beatrice only regrets her amour when she overhears the boys talking?  Are they talking - sniggering - about her?  That same night Hugo comes home dejected.  Beatrice guesses that his lover has dispensed with his services.  How can she recover what she and Hugo had before the summer?  The innocent intimacy of mother and son...

This is depth that Schnitzler is able to cram into his novella.  He switches between profound internal monologue and meaningless social chit-chat.  He probes Beatrice's character and motivations so deeply that a single paragraph lasts ten pages.  Yet he never bores, probably because he keeps the novella so short, and he never lectures us with his ideas.  Crucially, he does not judge his character. He merely gives us the symptoms and leaves us to make our own diagnosis.

This book is superb - the novella, which I love, at its best.  I shall definitely be reading more Schnitzler.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

The Guts - Roddy Doyle

The Guts (awful title) is Roddy Doyle's return to Barrytown and Jimmy Rabbitte, quondam manager of the Commitments.

Jimmy is middleaged now but still in the music business, having sold his nostalgia website just before the Irish Tiger was shot dead in the Crash of 2008.  Jimmy and Aoife retain an interest in the business, though, because it is their passion.  At the start of the novel Jimmy is diagnosed with early stage bowel cancer, hence the horrible title.  Doyle, however, neither dwells nor delivers on the premise.  Jimmy seems to sail through his gruelling treatment, hence we do not get the full impact of his 're-birth' as he rediscovers the cutting edge of proto-punk Irish folk music from the early Republic and, this being a very effective comedy, composes and records the key song he just can't find for the album.

Just as Jimmy rediscovers his musical soul, so he reunites with his long-lost brother Les. Again, a promising storyline which Doyle fails to deliver on.  When Les visits Ireland and joins Jimmy at the festival where the fake song (which has, of course, become a YouTube sensation with the young) has to be performed, there is no surprise, no revelation.

The Guts came out in 2013 and completely passed me by.  I fancy it didn't get much publicity because of the shortcomings outlined above.  Nonetheless Doyle is one of the top Irish novelists of a pretty good generation.  No one says so much with monosyllabic dialogue.  The Guts might be technically flawed but it is nevertheless a joyous, hilarious, life-affirming read.

Wednesday, 9 December 2015

Transition - Iain Banks

The problem with sci fi is that there is a balance needs to be struck between big idea and human interest.  So far as I am concerned Arthur C Clarke never found it, albeit his ideas were admittedly huge.  Transition isn't officially sci fi, in that Banks hasn't used his middle initial, his usual sci fi signature.  Perhaps he considered it more of a dystopian novel.  If so it is a multiverse dystopia.  His polished narrative skills just about got me through the 450 pages, and there were many passages of great interest, but there was no human interest, absolutely none, and that was a huge disappointment.

The crux of the matter is there are too many central characters spread across too many parallel Earths, none of them emotionally engaged with any other.  None have any engaging human traits and all are, to a greater or lesser extent, servants of the all-powerful Concern - the ubiquitous future-Nazis of far too many similar works.  Their means of travel - the titular transition - is trite, a device for getting them out of any peril at the speed of thought.  The consequences of the device are blithely ignored by Banks whereas for me that would have been the key to human interest - what does the non-transitioner make of the fact that their loved one's body has evidently been taken over by someone from a parallel world?

I can't deny Banks' narrative gifts but Transition has put me off any of his overt sci fi and I shall carefully check the nature of any of his straight novels before taking the plunge again.

Wednesday, 2 December 2015

The Strangler Vine - M J Carter

The Strangler Vine is the first novel by Miranda Carter, biographer of Anthony Blunt and author of The Three Emperors, an account of Queen Victoria's grandsons and how their relationships contributed to World War I.

For a first novel The Strangler Vine is an astonishing achievement.  Carter says she knew nothing about India in the 19th Century before starting the project.  By the end, clearly, she knew more or less everything.  The level of detail is just right.  We never get any sense of contrivance, avoidance or - just as fatal in a novel - showing off.

The story inevitably has hints of Kipling and John Buchan.  The blurbs cite Sherlock Holmes but it is much better than that (Conan Doyle is a martyr to contrivance and bodge).  The year is 1837 and young William Avery, a neophyte and impoverished officer in the private army of the East India Company, is paired up with lapsed agent Jem Blake to go in search of Xavier Mountstuart, the Byrom of India.  Avery is a huge fan of Mountstuart, whose work inspired him to seek his fortune in India.  Blake was Mountstuart's protege back in the days before he trading spying for literature.

The quest is multi-layered.  Nothing is as it first seems as Blake and Avery probe to the black heart of corruption in the Company.  The revelations keep on coming, alongside rip-roaring adventure and a sensitive portrait of India clinging to its last vestiges of independence.

I can't wait to lay hands on the second Blake and Avery, The Infidel Strain.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Magnus Merriman - Eric Linklater

Magnus Merriman (1934) is Linklater's comic take on early literary fame and Scottish politics.  Linklater was familiar with both: his third novel Juan in America, also reviewed on this blog, had been a considerable success and on the back of it (with a nudge from his friend Compton Mackenzie) Linklater stood as the very first Scottish Nationalist candidate in the East Fife parliamentary by-election of 1933 - with a similar catastrophic result to that suffered by his hero here.  Linklater lost his deposit with only 3.6% of the vote.  Even the candidate for the Agricultural Party got five times more than him.

For me, as a political activist, the first third of the book, with its raucous scenes of Edinburgh nightlife and the local literati, is the most entertaining.  The rabid poet Skene is easy to identify in reality but I would love to know who some of the others are, especially Meiklejohn, the journalist who lends his dress trousers.

Merriman's sex life is quite breathtaking for the period and one wonders how much of that is based on the author's experience.  It is noteworthy that he married in 1933 and Merriman is probably the first book written after his marriage.  His wife Marjorie, to whom the novel is dedicated, is clearly not the model for Rose, the farmer's daughter Magnus marries in Orkney.  The Orkney episodes make up and second and much of the third 'acts' of the book.  The tone changes, awkwardly but not unpleasantly, as Magnus rediscovers the beauty of his homeland, its simple rustic pleasures and, ultimately, Rose.  In between is a brief return to London where Magnus writes journalism for a newpaper owned by Lady Mercy Cotton.  Lady Mercy and girl-reporter Nelly Bly both apparently figure in Linklater's earlier novel Poet's Pub, which I haven't yet read.  Again I cannot guess who her real-life parallel was.

I continue to enjoy Linklater.  His politics are not mine but there is material here which, 80 years on, is just as accurate in its condemnation and outright abuse of the political classes.  Linklater is a conservative but his not the Thatcherite free-market, greed-is-good, greed-is-great brand.  No, Linklater is an old-school conservative of freedom, honesty and fair play.  He is a good sort and good company.


Tuesday, 17 November 2015

King of the Badgers - Philip Hensher

Hensher's defining strength is for building narratives of community, Northern working class in The Northern Clemency and West Country genteel here in King of the Badgers.  Clemency also had the advantage of being set against a background of the Thatcher reign of terror, all of which, naturally, could be viewed from hindsight; Badger on the other hand is set and written at the beginning of the Age of Austerity where the outcome can only be guessed at.  Thus Clemency is driven by what we know is waiting for our characters, Badger has to have a genre device, a missing child, to propel its narrative.

The setting is the picturesque estuary town of Hanmouth in Devon.  In Hanmouth proper the houses are worth £1m apiece, the shops are all craft and there are CCTV cameras everywhere, thanks to Mr Calvin and his influential Neighbourhood Watch.  People here who work for a living do so elsewhere - in London or at Barnstaple's third-rate university.  The daytime, weekday residents are mostly retired. None of them were born in the houses they now live in.

Out beyond the big roundabout there is another, less fragrant Hanmouth, a massive estate of social housing, which is where single 'mom' Heidi O'Connor lives with her brood.  Her second daughter, China, is the one who goes missing.  Because Heidi is telegenic, the national Press Pack descends and goes into overdrive.  Because the Ruskin estate is anything but telegenic, it is old Hanmouth that is overwhelmed.  When direct news dries up the coverage turns speculative.  What if Heidi set up the so-called abduction and her skanky ex, Marcus, is hiding China while Heidi cashes in?  Before we know it, that is the approved version of events and Heidi is remanded, awaiting trial.  Then Marcus is found murdered.  And still there is no sign of China.

The thriller narrative effectively ends there, at the end of Act One, though it is resolved three hundred pages or so later.  Hensher's second theme is the gay community in Hanmouth, which centres on Sam, the artisan cheesemonger, and his husband Harry, aka Lord What-a-Waste.  They belong to a group of bears who meet regularly for food and orgies.  We then move to David in St Albans, who writes purposefully unreadable copy for Chine fashionistas who want to be seen with English novels.  His parents have moved to a flat in Hanmouth, leaving shy, fat, gay David alone.  Then, miraculously, he manages to attract the attention of Mauro, a Soho waiter.  David lends Mauro money.  Mauro agrees to pose as David's boyfriend during a weekend with his parents in Devon.  This happens to be the weekend that Sam and Harry are hosting the bears.  Anarchy, sex and profound unhappiness ensue.

The narrative is complex but expertly interwoven.  The style is traditional English comic, wherein Hensher excels because he has the rare ability to mock himself without overindulgence.  His cast of characters is well-rounded and he holds our attention by gradually peeling off the onion-skin layers of gentle deceit and polite hypocrisy at what always seems like the perfect moment.

Hensher is building a major body of work in which King of the Badgers is a significant milestone.

Monday, 9 November 2015

The Best Short Stories - Rudyard Kipling

Kipling is such a difficult writer to pin down.  He won the Nobel Prize for Literature, but wrote only one novel; he celebrated British Imperialism but was in no sense blind to the squalor in which so many of its citizens lived; he often seems misogynistic yet in so many of his stories he celebrates strong, capable women; he is at home in a very personal brand of mysticism yet is utterly fascinated by the latest technology of his day; he is best known for his anthropomorphic tales (Jungle Book etc,) but can also produce a piece as startlingly and subtly original as any post-modernist.

Now, I hated two of the anthropomorphic tales here - "The Ship that Found Herself" and (ugh!) "Below the Mill Dam", which was so cloyingly twee, I couldn't force myself to the end. "The Maltese Cat", on the other hand, I found tolerable in that at least it was about an animal, which we can all accept has a certain level of thought process and, furthermore, it was set in India, which Kipling knew so well.  There are naturally several Indian tales here.  For me the best was "At the End of the Passage", which is about the downside of working in colonial service.

There are tales of the macabre, notably "Wireless", which exemplifies Kipling's blend of mysticism and modernity, with the titular wireless somehow channeling the spirit of the poet Keats (who was a qualified apothecary) into the soul of an Edwardian pharmacist and fellow consumptive.  'They' was profoundly affecting - a ghost story in which the presence of dead children is a cause for celebration.  Again, it is the narrator's up-to-the-minute motor car which attracts the inquisitive spirits.  'They' really is a beautiful piece of work.

The two best stories, though, are "The Finest Story in the World" and "Mrs Bathurst".  I think most Kipling readers would agree on the merits of the latter.  The former is still very clever and layered - a wannabe writer tells a more experienced hand about his idea for a story.  The narrator, recognising the potential of the idea, buys the rights for a pittance.  But the youth falls in love with a shop girl and cannot remember how the story ends.  The misogyny and the snobbery implicit in the device is, I accept, a major flaw.  It's ironic, given that the next story in this collection, "The Record of Badalia Herodsfoot" is a slice of life at its rawest, set in the London slums, in which Badalia is strong, honest and honourable, despite her circumstances.

As for "Mrs Bathurst" - what a marvel it is.  Mrs B is a widow based in New Zealand whose fame has spread through the Empire.  She is indirectly recalled by an ill-assorted group of men who happen to come together in South Africa.  She herself only appears in an early cinema film of people getting off a train in London - a moment of sheer genius on Kipling's part, again showing his fondness for the latest gadgetry. The end is both startling - two unidentifiable human figures reduced to charcoal by lightning - and inconclusive.  There is nothing to say if either victim is the lady in question or her apparently final lover.  The story's power lies in its elusiveness.  And its power is extraordinary.  I cannot stop thinking about it, three days after reading it.

Regular readers of this blog will know that I am not a fan of introductions to books.  I make an exception for that of Cedric Watts in this instance.  He is especially useful on "Mrs Bathurst".  I read his comments both before and after reading the story itself.

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Jeremy Hutchinson's Case Histories - Thomas Grant

Jeremy Hutchinson is 100 years old.  He has been a barrister since 1945, a Queen's Counsel since the early sixties and a life peer since 1978.  He is a scion of the Bloomsbury set and a lifelong patron (and defender) of the arts.  He stood as the Labour candidate for the hopeless Westminster Abbey seat in the 1945 General Election.

Thomas Grant is also a QC and what they have come up with in this book is a social history of postwar Britain seen through the lens of celebrated court cases in which Hutchinson led the defence.  These include the spy trials of George Blake and John Vassall, the Profumo Affair in which he represented Christine Keeler, various obscenity cases including Lady Chatterley's Lover and The Romans in Britain, the art fraudster Tom Keating and the drugs smuggler Howard Marks.  Grant has cleverly grouped these by subject because his aim is not a comprehensive or chronological life of his subject.  That said, he does begin with an excellent short biography, which I thought was nigh on perfect.

The highlight, though, is the postscript by the great man himself, whom great age has in no sense withered.  Indeed, he seems to have written it in his centenary month (March 2015).  Here he takes a swipe at the consequences of Legal Aid cuts and the attempts of the then Lord Chancellor, Chris Grayling, to undermine the fundamentals of British justice.  Hutchinson, the great libertarian, takes the 'savings' apart with consummate, even deadly, skill.  He ends with the obvious and proper solution to ballooning budgets at the Ministry of Justice:
[The MoJ] has only to attend to another area of its responsibility: the crisis in our intolerably overcrowded prisons. The prison population has now grown to over 85,000 (it was 46,000 when I retired). Each of these prisoners costs the taxpayer around £40,000 a year to keep. The 'warehousing' and humiliation of offenders in grossly full and inhuman conditions make meaningful education, constructive work, rehabilitation and self-respect impossible.  It produces inevitable recidivism and lowers the morale of the overworked and dedicated staff. Governors repeatedly point out that they have to cope with thousands of inmates who should not be there at all: the mentally ill, the drug takers, those serving indeterminate sentences under a law now long repealed, unconvicted defendants in custody awaiting trial for minor offences for which they clearly will not receive a custodial sentence. ,,, Real prison reform calls for imagination, courage and determination; the dismantling of legal aid a mere stroke of the pen.
In case you think this is Hutchinson's Labour bias (or mine, for that matter), let me also quote his onslaught on New Labour's so-called 'reforms':
In 2003 Tony Blair, supporting his autocratic and oppressive Home Secretary David Blunkett, without consultation or advice, sacked his protesting Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine, and abolished the office itself. Thus, on the whim of an arrogant and power-hungry politician the second greatest office of state was destroyed, after 800 years.
This is how great lives should be lived and recorded.  My book of the year thus far. Essential reading.

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

The Missing and the Dead - Stuart MacBride

Yes, it's a long overdue return to Tartan Noir with the ninth in the Logan McRae novel.

Wisely choosing to vary his established formula, MacBride has given Logan a career-development 'promotion' to the backwoods of Banff, where he is the uniform sergeant in charge of a shift of 'bunnets'.  Logan is trying to make a clean start but events, inevitably, conspire against him.  The discovery of a murdered child brings the MIT to Banff - under DCI Roberta Steel, it goes without saying.  Meanwhile the rubber heelers are after our hero following the collapse of a major attempted murder trial, and a bunch of the local paedos have gone missing.

MacBride's great strengths are plotting, character and prose style - just about the Holy Trinity for any successful crime writer.  He can put some horrendous comments into the mouths of his characters without ever losing humanity or compassion.  To me, he is the leader of the pack in Tartan Noir.  Number Nine is the series is every bit as good as any other, and always recommended.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

The Pearl - John Steinbeck

Steinbeck's ninety-page novella from 1947 is a fable about the evils of capitalism.  Kino the dirt-poor pearl-diver finds the biggest, most beautiful pearl in the world.  He should be set for life but in fact has only days to live.  He cannot sell the pearl in the village where he lives because all the so-called independent pearl buyers are in fact agents for the one buyer.  They operate a cartel which goes through a sham bidding process which results in one take-it-or-leave-it offer of less than 5% of the pearl's true worth.  Kino might be poor but he's not stupid.  He knows he can do better - he knows his wife and baby son deserve better.  While he mulls over the situation, attempts are made to steal the pearl from his hut.  Kino is attacked - he strikes back with his knife.  Suddenly the safe haven of brush huts where his family has lived fior generations is no longer safe.  Kino knows he must go to the city to sell his pearl.  His wife Juana doesn't want to go.  She is fearful of the change that has come over Kino, his dark obsession with the pearl.  For Juana the pearl embodies unwanted change and loss.  She wants to throw it back into the sea.  She tries it one night - Kino catches her and beats her.

Steinbeck's world-view might be simplistic, dwelling on the ancient simplicity - the songs that succour the pearl-diving community - rather than the grinding poverty that diminishes their humanity, but that is the purpose of fables.  The writing is unbelievably beautiful, the perfection of the prose mirroring the beauty of the pearl itself.  They should use this in school as a teaching aid.  They should certainly have it on every Humanities reading list to remind scholars that text doesn't have to be prolix to be effective.

Friday, 16 October 2015

Edmund Campion - Evelyn Waugh

Waugh, one of our better-known Catholic converts in his day, wrote this, his only biography, in 1935, to mark the relocation of Campion Hall, the Jesuit college in Oxford.  Whilst Campion was executed in 1581, it is a measure of the suppression of Catholicism in England that the Hall was only founded in 1896 and only renamed in memory of Campion in 1918.

At that time Campion was not yet a saint - that didn't happen until 1970 - and interestingly Waugh makes no claim for canonization.  For him Campion was a leading English martyr for the faith and a very real person, to be noted as much for his scholarship as his sacrifice.  Indeed, for me the last of the four parts (scholar, priest, hero, martyr) is the weakest.  The other three I found masterful, even thrilling.

Waugh himself was only a recent convert (1930) and he writes about absolute faith with the intellect of the Enlightenment.  Catholicism gave him emotional comfort but he struggles to blind himself to the flaws of Rome.  The popes and cardinals do not do well in his account.  For Waugh, and for me, the heroes are those who chose to leave their English comforts, especially those who chose to return and succour the faithful.  This last is important - Waugh's point is that these men were never traitors, despite suffering the traitor's death; their mission was purely to provide comfort to the oppressed.  It was clearly ridiculous to claim, as Burghley did, that merely celebrating Mass was an attempt on the Queen's life and state.

Campion is well characterised - an eminent scholar and rising star of academia who, even at the very end, the authorities were prepared to welcome home provided only that he abandoned Rome.  This is the Campion who emerges in his notorious Brag, included as an appendix here.  He, too, was a master of English prose.  In the Brag he could not declare more clearly:

I never had mind, and am strictly forbidden by our Father that sent me, to deal in any respect with matter of State or Policy of this realm, as things which appertain not to my vocation, and from which I do gladly restrain and sequester my thoughts.
I am a big fan of Waugh.  It is a measure of his achievement that even when I disagree with his views or have no interest in his subject-matter he stills holds me enthralled.  I don't disagree with him here, and I am interested in his subject, so I absolutely adored this book.  My only regret is that his skill as a novelist ("All I have done is select the incidents which struck as novelist as important, and relate them as a single narrative.") does not allow him to include foot- or end-notes.  I would dearly have loved to find out what became of Campion's colleague and co-leader of the Mission Robert Persons.  According to Wikipedia he lived another thirty years and died in Rome.  Waugh, I'm sure, could have told it better.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch - Philip K Dick

Stigmata is Dick at the height of his powers, in the early Sixties, when he was knocking out books at the rate of at least two a year.  It appeared a year or two after The Man in the High Castle, which I reviewed here a couple of months ago.

The setting is the late 21st century.  The world has become an uncomfortable place to live, with temperatures fatal by lunchtime.  Capitalism has progressed to the inevitable stage, where a few monopolies control the world.  The elite pacify the plebs with the drug Can-D and the miniature world of Perky Pat, a Barbie-type doll with every conceivable accessory to collect, forming a perfect self-contained picture of the world as society's romantics would like it to be - essentially, smalltown America circa 1968.  Indeed, Perky Pat (and Can-D) is the only thing that keeps conscripted colonists sane on the dust-bowl that is Mars.

Can-D is a social drug; it allows users to enter the Perky Pat world as a group.  But then the renegade capitalist entrepreneur Palmer Eldritch returns from exploring the outer reaches of the solar system.  He brings with him a new drug, Chew-Z, which threatens the monopoly of Can-D.  Any threat to Can-D is a threat to P P Layouts, miniaturists of Perky Pat and her world.

P P is where our keys characters work - the pre-cog Barney Mayerson, who assesses the viability of objects offered to be 'minned', and Chairman of the Board Leo Bulero.  The story begins when Richard Hnatt, current husband of Mayerson's ex-wife Emily brings in a selection of her hand-made ceramics for minning.  Mayerson cravenly rejects them.  His fellow pre-cog and current squeeze Roni Fulgate disagrees and tells Bulero.  Bulero fires Mayerson and, with no real alternative employer to take him on, Mayerson volunteers for Mars.

Actually there is another option, a rival for P P.  A strange example of humanity called Icholtz strikes a deal with Hnatt and offers Mayerson a job.  Bulero responds by offering Mayerson his old job back.  But Mayerson is determined to go to Mars and the best Bulero can do is persuade him to become his eyes and ears in the colonists' hovels.

Bulero is a bubblehead, one of the elite who pay Dr Denkmal (of the Eichenwald Clinic) to artificially evolve their frontal cortex.  Hnatt, suddenly in possession of a wodge of truffle skins (the only acceptable cash in the late 21st century) signs himself and Emily up for the full programme, although she is reluctant and fearful of the occasional glitch which is accidental regression.  For the proles, like Mayerson, who are not so low in the pecking order that they have to subsist on drugs and dreams, but who can never put together a sizeable stash of liquid funds, there is Dr Smile, the pyschoanalyst in box, who is probably a simulation because he never gets your name quite right.

Palmer Eldritch, too, might be a simulation or simalcrum.  Many times when we encounter him, he turns out to be a projection.  He is known everywhere that mankind lives by his three stigmata: the artificial mechanical arm, stainless steel teeth and wide-vision artificial eyes.  The downside of his challenger drug Chew-Z is that people who appear in your visions often display the three stigmata, as do people who are themselves under the influence.  Chew-Z is antisocial drug; you go into your inner self, a world which consists of you and simulcra of Palmer Eldritch.

Mayerson figures this out:

It's an illusory world in which Eldritch holds all the key positions as god; he gives you a chance to do what you can't really ever do - reconstruct the past as it ought to have been. [SF Masterworks edition, p. 176]
It is not so much a question of which reality is real as which reality does the least harm?  Yes, it's a genre work but The Three Stigmata is also a novel of serious intent and genuine insight.  On the one hand it forecasts the future we now have - are Can-D and Chew-Z Facebook and Twitter?  is Palmer Eldritch a simalcrum of Richard Branson?  On the other hand, it is a vision of its time and a mirror of our time.  I highly recommend it.

Wednesday, 7 October 2015

The Devil in the Marshalsea - Antonia Hodgson

For a first novel, this is a cracker, a welcome addition to the ranks of historical detective fiction in the generally underwhelming sub-category of early Georgian.

Tom Hawkins (not, I have to say, the most imaginative name) is a theology student gone to the dogs in the best Hogarthian manner, the friend of bawds, a menace to his true friends, and an unsuccessful gambler.  The latter, and an anonymous allegation that he was been enjoying the favours of his landlord's wife, lands him in the notorious titular debtors' prison.  The Marshalsea in 1727 was at the height of its notoriety under the auspices of the butcher-turned-gaolkeeper Thomas Acton.

Another fallen gentleman, Captain Roberts (Hodgson really does have to spice up the names of her fictional characters) has recently died in the Marshalsea.  The coroner has declared it suicide but the captain's friends and family insist he was murdered.  The captain's widow has come into money since his death and has friends in high places.  It is in everyone's best interests to have the matter cleared up.  In the absence of a police force, it falls to Tom Hawkins to win his freedom by unmasking the killer.

Every good detective needs an amanuensis and Tom's is the imprisoned publisher and part-time spy Samuel Fleet, who just happens to have shared a room with Captain Roberts and is himself the prime suspect.  This is where Hodgson's story really takes wings.  Fleet is a wonderful character, utterly untrustworthy, surprisingly free with his cash.  He is the Devil in the Marshalsea and revels in the notoriety.

Hodgson's other great strength is plotting.  There is a quote from Mark Billingham on the cover - "Fiendishly plotted" - and he is spot on.  There are so many twists and turns in the narrative, set against the ticking clock of the two days Tom is ultimately given to solve the case, that you really don't like to put the book down for fear you miss something.  Who cares who really did it?  That's never the critical factor in a whodunnit so long as someone did it.  The denouement is acceptable, the way it is delivered exemplary.

A stunning debut, then.  It says in the back that Hodgson is working on a successor.  So where is it?  Her website says nothing - in fact the site is useless and she really ought to take it down before it does harm.

Tuesday, 29 September 2015

An Officer and a Spy - Robert Harris

Harris is one of those writers it's impossible to ignore.  He sells millions of books yet is neither formulaic nor predictable.  His choice of subject matter is incredibly diverse though I suspect his favourite themes might be boiled down to espionage, political power, and the abuse of both.

Certainly that is the case with his latest novel.  It's no secret that his topic is the Dreyfus Affair (1895-1906) and, obviously, everyone knows the outcome of that, more or less.  Yet Harris is so skillful that he manages to maintain tension for a full 500 pages.  He takes for his hero the young rising star of the military establishment Georges Picquart.  As a reward for his minor role in convicting Dreyfus of treason, Picquart is raised to the rank of colonel, the youngest in the French army, and put in charge of the counter-espionage section which of course played a much rather role.  Early on, Picquart stumbles across a much more plausible candidate for the German spy.  His superiors have such faith in him that they allow him licence to investigate further - right up to the point where Picquart tells them that if his man is guilty, Dreyfus must be innocent. From that moment, his life and career is systematically dismantled.  He ends up dishonoured, imprisoned, disgraced.  The end for Dreyfus we know, but I had no knowledge of Picquart or his subsequent career, and that is how Harris is able to keep us hooked.

The other unusual trait for such a successful writer is that Harris, by and large, gets better with each new book.  There is a section here in which, through Picquart, he diagnoses how the French establishment became so convinced of Dreyfus's guilt on such flimsy evidence.  I suggest that section epitomises quality literature.  Frankly, if the passage isn't a work of genius it's damn close to it,

Monday, 28 September 2015

The Critic - Peter May-

The Critic is the second of May's Enzo Macleod series, one of the many novels he wrote and published abroad before his Lewis Trilogy was taken up at home in the UK and The Blackhouse made him a bestseller.  All have now been rushed out to cash in on his success, thereby flooding the market and putting a lot of people off.

However, because they haven't been written to cash in, the standard is high.  May wrote them to try and become a bestseller, and was therefore both ambitious in his storytelling but careful with his prose.  Once The Critic gets going, this certainly pays off.  For the first couple of chapters, I have to say, I was in two minds.  All the descriptions of landscape were essentially the same, though what else May could have done in describing the intensive wine-making country around Albi in the south of France, I don't know.  Then the trick of the prologue paid off and I realised I was in safe hands.

Enzo Macleod, like May, is a Scottish ex-pat of middle years.  He is colourful: he sports a ponytail, a white stripe in his hair and eyes of different colours.  He is a professor of forensic science at Toulouse University but has (in Book One of the series, apparently) set himself the task of solving the unsolved cases in a book written by Roger Raffin, whose ex is now Enzo's girlfriend and who, in this book, finds an unusual way of evening the amatory score.

Essentially, the story here is that an overmighty US wine critic is found, crudely displayed, three or four years after he disappeared.  In the meantime his remains have been stored in the local wine.  Enzo therefore immerses himself in the lore and process of wine to figure out who did it.

The detail, the science and the local characteristics are well and convincingly handled.  I learnt a few French terms I didn't know which will come in useful in my own writing.  Enzo is a great character but, in this book at least, has too many women around him who are not sufficiently distinguished for easy tracking.  The male characters are little better drawn but at least there are fewer of them.  The final revelation was a bit peremptory but that never really bothers me in crime fiction.  Someone has to do the deed and their motives will always be a bit on the loopy side.  I really liked, however, the very last revelation which opens the door for Book Three, Backlight Blue, which I will happily try for the title alone.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

Under the Skin - Michael Faber

Under the Skin was Faber's first novel, published in 2000, when it won the Saltire First Book of the Year Award.

I would suggest that we have here is a fable about factory farming.  Human beings are selected, cut from the herd, force-fed in underground pens and ultimately processed as food for the elite of another, extraterrestrial civilisation.  But those who do the processing are merely the social rejects of that civilisation and, in the case of just two - the pioneer Essin and our protagonist Isserley - they have themselves been mutilated beyond belief, to resemble an earthly man and woman.

Essin, who does not trouble us much, manages the remote Highland farm which provides cover for the subterranean processing plant.  Isserley drives up and down the road network preying on hitchhikers.  Her orders are specific: they must be decent specimens, unlikely to be missed, and always male.

Faber's masterstroke, which elevates the book from simple sci-fi, is making Isserley female.  She is not a woman, although she looks more or less like one thanks to mammoth surgery, but she is female, the only female in the expeditionary force.  She is thus apart from her own kind.  But she was always apart.  When she was younger, on her native planet, she was considered beautiful.  Elite males promised her the world but always let her down.  In the end, her only escape from the Estates - the bottom rung of her underground society, was the experimental surgery which turned her into what she considers a freak and left her in constant pain.  Isserley knows she can never go home because then she would definitely be a freak.  She can pass a 'vodsel' (earthly human) but she can never be one - her surgery is not that convincing, as a would-be rapist discovers.  Then she learns that her unsought, unique status on the farm might be under threat.

I read the ebook and don't know quite how long the print version is.  I would say, however, that the text is just long enough.  Faber's prose style is perfectly judged and his descriptions of the Highland are both fresh and beautiful.  A millennium must-read.

Thursday, 17 September 2015

Dracula Unborn - Peter Tremayne

Peter Tremayne is one of the pseudonyms of the astonishingly prolific Peter Berresford Ellis. Dracula Unborn, the first of the trilogy illustrated above, was written when he was only in his early twenties. In 1977 the idea of continuing and developing the characters of another author was relatively radical whereas today it is commonplace.  Tremayne brings a remarkable amount of background knowledge to his story and much of it turns out to be accurate.  I had not suspected he was so young when he did it.

Given the time of writing, the hand of Hammer weighs heavily.  You can picture the crappy sets and see the late Michael Ripper giving us his usual turn as Toma the village innkeeper.  In the story, Mircea is the youngest son of the actual Dracula by his second wife.  When the old man 'dies', Mircea is summoned from Italy by the brothers he has never met.  Again, this is typical Hammer hokum and Tremayne includes all the expected tropes.  Yet he somehow manages to keep them fresh and generates a fair amount of tension.

My only complaint is a minor one. Whilst I was confident of all the backstory involving the historical Vlad and the fictional Dracula, I was never confident that these characters were living in the 1480s.  I never imagined that they were wearing the clothes of the late Middle Ages or early Renaissance, and that's a pity.

Wednesday, 16 September 2015

La Place de L'Etoile - Patrick Modiano

Patrick Modiano won the 2014 Nobel Prize for Literature.  La Place de L'Etoile is the first novel in his Occupation Trilogy and was also his first novel, published in 1968, when Modiano was only 23.

Though nothing of what happens is specifically in 1968 it is very much a book of 1968.  I can't imagine how readers who don't remember the excitement of '68, when the whole of Western Europe seemed to teeter on the brink of revolution, can come to terms with Place de l'Etoile.  Our hero is Raphael Schlemilovitch, or so he says; his persona is readily changeable.  What doesn't change is his Jewishsness, although he is not practising and is not in any way persecuted.  Instead, in his main persona, he is an incredibly rich young man of Venezuelan origins but born and brought up in Paris. He fancies himself a writer of belle-lettres and amateur philosophy.  His main preoccupation, though, is the Nazi occupation of France, which he is not old enough to remember but re-lives, working backwards from university to college to school and immersing himself - not with the Jews who suffered - but in those who hated them, especially the antisemitic artists who collaborated.

First and foremost amongst these is the novelist Celine.  Celine himself does not appear yet he is everywhere.  His characters become Modiano's characters.  The very first passage of the book is a pastiche of Celine's unique style - short, staccato, semi-sentences and exclamations.

The plot radiates from the central pivot of Raphael and his obsession.  Time is relative.  Every passage is a self-contained prose poem. People appear and disappear only to pop up again years later, or earlier, in another city entirely.  Even the narrative person changes when Raphael falls in lust the Marquise and her passion for sexual role-play.  Yet it all makes sense in a surreal way.  I was enthralled.

It's a very short book, just over 100 pages, but you have to take your time reading it or you will miss some of the nuances.  Just to sum up, I'm pretty sure the Place de L'Etoile has nothing to do with any of it.

Saturday, 12 September 2015

Exile - Denise Mina

Exile is the second of Mina's 'Garnethill' trilogy. The first, not surprisingly, is Garnethill.  The heroine, Maureen, is a damaged, abused young woman with a drug-dealing brother - not unlike Alex Morrow in the later novels.  The setting would seem to be Glasgow, as it should be in Tartan Noir, but actually about half the book takes place in London, which is a tremendous mistake, especially since the people Maureen mixes with there, even the copper with the Met who eventually listens to her, are Glaswegian,

It's a second novel which Mina made doubly hard for herself as the second in a series.  One of Mina's themes is that Scottish women have traditionally been abused by their men.  She wants to say that oppression has made them strong and feisty, a positive message.  Sadly, she undermines herself at every turn, because two of the sleaziest baddies are women and all the white knights who ride to Maureen's rescue are men - Scottish men, at that.

Exile is highly readable.  It is well plotted but, in this Orion paperback, poorly proof-read.  There are far too many characters, especially the ill-defined secondary women, and I often had to pause and wonder who is this when they reappeared much later.  There is one exception, though - Kilty Goldfarb, a great fun character who has no real purpose and has apparently just been plonked in the story to add some much needed light.  Or perhaps I was beguiled by the fact that she has the name of a well known firm of solicitors in Leicester West, now I believe defunct.  Spooky, eh?

In summary, not Mina's best by a long chalk (for me, that remains The End of the Wasp Season) but still better than many of its peers.

Friday, 4 September 2015

Some Other Place, The Right Place - Donald Harington

The second of Harington's 'Stay More' novels, dating from 1973 and somehow or other filmed as The Return (1985).  I haven't seen the movie version but I'm guessing much was omitted.  For one thing, it is a colossal read; indeed I just couldn't keep at it and I have actually read the book over several months.  Not that I got bored with it, far from it - every time I thought 'Harington can't get another twist into this', he did.  As with Lightning Bug (see below) he uses different voices expressed in different typefaces, but here he also uses narrative poems and various levels of reality.  Just as Harington featured in Lightning Bug, here he features as an adult called G, a deaf professor of fine art who gets embroiled in the search for a missing teenager, Diana.  Diana is voluntarily missing.  Driving home from college she hit a pothole and had to stop in New Jersey for repairs.  While waiting she saw an article in the local newspaper about an 18 year old local lad, Day, who seems to recall a former life under hypnosis.  Diana is intrigued because Day claims to be recalling the life of Daniel Lyam Montross, her maternal grandfather.  Daniel kidnapped Diana as an infant - her rescuers shot and killed him.  Eighteen years later Diana persuades Day to run away with her.  They travel across New England and, later, Hillbilly country, moving from lost township to lost township, guided by the 'memories' of Daniel Lyam Montross.  Eventually - and I do mean eventually - they arrive in Stick Around, the place Daniel hid with baby Diana and where he died.  This is where G, who also remembers Stay More/Stick Around from his own childhood, finds Diana, happily and heavily pregnant.  Day, it seems has died, apparently a suicide.  But nothing in Some Other Place... is as it seems.  Not even death is certain.

I loved Some Other Place and am girding my loins before tackling the third installment The Architecture of the Arkansas Ozarks. But not just yet.

Sunday, 30 August 2015

The Death and Life of Sylvia Plath - Ronald Hayman

It's an odd book, first published in 1991 when Ted Hughes and his sister Olwyn were both still alive, still exercising their notorious stranglehold over the Plath estate, and revised in 2003, after Hughes had died and more material had become available.  Revised, but not rewritten - you sense, as you read, that some of the old material still pokes through where the new is available and indeed given.

Hayman tries to be even handed; he shows that Plath was demanding and ultimately deranged, but she is nevertheless his subject and protagonist, and Ted Hughes is always referred to by both names and thereby distanced.  There are some very good parts.  I personally enjoyed Hayman's critique of the sole radio play, Three Women.  I felt less confident with his reading of some of the later, indeed last poems.

The style is simple and direct, even in extrapolating the unfathomable (Plath's most elusive poems and her roiling psyche), and wisely doesn't do what Middlebrook too often does in her study of the marriage (see below) - he doesn't try to show off his own literary talents.

The Death and Life is therefore a slightly odd construct but it's a good book and essential reading for Plath enthusiasts.

In the Darkness - Karin Fossum

Karin Fossum is one of the leading lights of Nordic Noir. She has won all the prizes and is up there with Mankell and Nesbo in Scandinavia.  It is such a shame that she is so poorly published in English.  You never find her books in major bookshops and the product itself looks cheap and frankly manky.

In the Darkness dates from 1995 and is ostensibly an Inspector Sejer novel (her other protagonist Skarre hardly features).  In fact Sejer appears to do very little - until everything falls into place at the end and you realise just how clever a book this is.  The final twist came out of nowhere but, for me, was just perfect.  In many ways I was reminded of Nesbo's standalone novel Headhunters, which I've raved about before on this blog (I still haven't plucked up the courage to watch the movie for fear of disappointment).  It's no secret that Nesbo is a Fossum fan - the endorsement on the moon above is, for once, genuine.  Indeed he pays homage in Headhunters to one of the more startling moments here.  I won't go into detail, because the last thing I want to do is give any plot away, but toilets are involved.  Nesbo's cyclical structure, so different from the linear arrangement of the Hole novels, is surely also influenced by In the Darkness.

A magnificent achievement.  My interest in Nordic Noir, which was slipping a bit after a couple of imported duds on TV, is reinvigorated.

Tuesday, 25 August 2015

Christine Falls - Benjamin Black

You have to start a series somewhere; I just wish Banville/Black hadn't started the Quirke series here. This opener is by some distance the least interesting of the series and if I hadn't read all the others before finding Christine Falls my involvement would have ended here.  Of course there has to be a certain amount of exposition when you set up the series, and the minimal amount offered here merely proves my point.  The problem throughout Quirke is the rather preposterous domestic arrangements of Quirke, his adoptive brother Mal and the Crawford sisters (and, in later volumes, the sisters' stepmother Rose).  Couple that with an overheated transatlantic Catholic conspiracy and you are on sticky ground.  It is a tribute to Banville's measured writing style that he manages to keep us involved to the end.  But he does.  Personally, I'd recommend new readers start with one of the others, all of which I liked.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Her Husband - Hughes and Plath: A Marriage - Diane Middlebrook

The title is well-chosen.  Middlebrook, an eminent US scholar and poet who sadly died in 2007, just three years after this major work was published, focuses on the marriage itself and the art that resulted for both protagonists.  Of course an account of their very different childhoods is essential context, but Middlebrook keeps it short and to the point.  What matters for her, and for us, is their coming together and their creative partnership.  Likewise, Plath's end has to be there - it changed everything and will always colour our perceptions of surely the most accomplished poetic couple.  Middlebrook does this very well and very fairly.  Plath killed herself because she was ill.  She had always had mental problems and had been hospitalised after a suicide attempt as a teenager.  Hughes's humiliating affair with Assia Wevill can't have helped but it certainly wasn't the trigger.

The first two-thirds of the book are exemplary.  Of course as an American, a woman, a scholar and a poet, Middlebrook feels more attuned to Plath and her work.  I am a man, an academic, and an English northerner born in same Pennine post-industrial wasteland as Hughes, so naturally my affinity is with him.  For me, the final third of Her Husband falters slightly, though I do not know what Middlebrook could have done to improve the situation.  Hughes and Plath were still married when she died.  Her estate automatically came to him.  He oversaw its publication but - some would say infamously - removed unfortunate references to himself and others.  Without him The Bell Jar would not have become a core feminist text, Ariel would not have cemented Sylvia's reputation whilst the memory of her was still fresh, and the Journals would likely not have surfaced until after his own death in 1998.  Because he edited them, there are other versions out there and a thriving trade has emerged in Plath's literary afterlife.  Middlebrook treats Hughes's work as editor with an open mind; the problem is that she feels obliged to also consider his personal work, which does not appeal to her so much. This in turn leads to rounding-off his biography and his reprehensible behaviour to other women in his life.  To my mind she would have been better sticking to her thesis - the marriage of minds and talents with a survey of Plath's legacy as managed and manipulated by 'her husband' as an afterpiece.

It is, nonetheless, the best Hughes/Plath study I have read.

Thursday, 13 August 2015

1876 - Gore Vidal

I keep reading Gore Vidal's novels over and over.  I must have read Burr at least three times, and 1876, in most ways its successor, twice.  Both feature Charles Schermerhorn Schuyler, illegitimate son of Aaron Burr and half-brother of the similarly illegitimate President Martin van Buren.  Van Buren and Burr are obviously real but Charlie is fictional, and possibly Vidal's most beguiling creation.  Journalist, author, friend of great men - Charlie is sent to France in the 1830s and only returns to America for the Centennial, together with his devastatingly beautiful daughter, the Princess d'Agrigente.

Scratching for a living and hoping for an ambassadorship (the ambassadorship, back to France) he spends the entire year in New York and Washington.  As a political animal, he is much more interested in the presidential election than the centenary celebrations or even the dying days of President Grant's corrupt administration.  Schulyer's candidate is the Democratic Governor of New York, Samuel Tilden (below, top). Various Republican aspirants come and go until, almost in desperation, the party fields the unknown Rutherford B Hayes (below, bottom).

No doubt Vidal's American readers all know the outcome.  As a non-American I knew of Hayes but had never heard of Tilden before reading 1876 the first time.  In fact Tilden won the election - that is to say, the popular vote - by a considerable majority.  But the electoral college was rigged so that Hayes became the winner, ultimately voted in by Southern Democrats in return for a pledge, which he kept, to pull the troops out of the last unreconstructed Confederate States.

This is the advantage of reading good books twice.  The first time predated the Millennium and I felt sure, at that time, that ballot rigging on such a scale could not happen again.  Then George W Bush contrived to 'beat' Vidal's cousin Al in a state controlled by his brother Jeb.  Thus the lessons of history go unlearned.

Overall, though, re-reading the same books repeatedly at my age is not a good idea.  I should focus on reading the other five novels of the Narratives of Empire, and then perhaps move on to the Breckenridges, Myra and Myron.

Wednesday, 5 August 2015

Homer and Langley - E L Doctorow

Doctorow, the arch-manipulator of modern American history, produced this atypical short novel in 2009.  It is atypical in the sense that whereas in novels like Ragtime and Billy Bathgate he goes in for panoramic sweep of a particular era with multiple protagonists, Homer and Langley covers an immense period (roughly 1900 to 1970) and has only two significant characters, the eponymous Collyer brothers.  I didn't know when reading the novel that the Collyers were real and every bit as bizarrely behaved as Doctorow shows them to be - the ultimate compulsive hoarders who dressed in rags but who were immensely rich.  Doctorow swaps their identities and I think I can see why. In reality Homer was the elder brother who didn't go blind until middle age and Langley was the pianist.  But Langley was the one who died first and fell victim to his own hoarding, and Doctorow makes that more impactful on Homer because - in the story - he has been reliant on his 'older' brother for almost his entire life.  The novel is about withdrawal from normal society and therefore Doctorow chooses to make Homer deaf rather than paralyzed as he became in real life.  What I can't understand, and what I think undermines the book, is the decision to add thirty years to their lives.  The brothers actually died in 1947, and the opening up of their Fifth Avenue brownstone mansion was a press sensation.  Surely the interest was on account of how much the brothers had when the general population had gone without of recent years as their contribution to the war effort.  Also, I feel that Doctorow was much better at capturing the flavour of the first half of the Twentieth Century than he is at tackling the second.  He really doesn't get the hippies which seem to be the main reason for stretching the timescale - they rather conveniently take to the elderly brothers as fellow drop-outs, which is lame and predictable.  The end is also predictable but that matters less, because Doctorow handles it so well.  The idea of Jacqueline, for whom Homer is typing out his life story on a Braille typewriter scavenged by his brother, strikes me as pointless.

I know I'm being picky but it's only because Ragtime is one of my Desert Island books.  For all its flaws what we have in Homer and Langley is an autumnal display of Doctorow's huge literary skills, quirky imagination and skewed take on the society which bred him.  For most of his rivals, that would count as a major achievement.

For those who want to read Homer and Langley reviewed by one of Doctorow's most eminent peers, here is the link to Joyce Carol Oates in the New Yorker.

Saturday, 1 August 2015

The Mistresses of Henry VIII - Kelly Hart

Hart started something of a trend when this book appeared in 2009.  Before that, everyone knew that King Henry had one illegitimate son, the Duke of Richmond and Somerset (the double duke) by Bessie Blount, who became the king's mistress shortly after the birth of Princess Mary.  Most people also knew that Mary Boleyn preceded her sister Anne between the royal sheets.  Mary did not rise so high as her sister, nor did she fall so far and so fatally.  What Hart brings into the equation is the question of whether Mary Boleyn's two children, Catherine and Henry Carey, were actually the king's by-blows.  Sure, many people have thought they were, over the years, but Hart discusses the matter in detail, laying out the pros and cons without coming to any firm conclusion.  My suspicion is that she feels the Carey siblings were half-Tudor.  I base this on the lack of similar discussion about other proposed bastards, all of whom are dismissed out of hand.  It is interesting (and I did not know this) that Catherine and Henry flourished at court - but, of course, they were Queen Elizabeth's cousins in any event.  My own favourite potential royal bastard, Ethelreda or Audrey Malte, is one of those summarily dismissed by Hart.  But she too moved in royal circles (serving Princess Elizabeth during her time in Tower) and might have risen higher had she survived Mary's reign.  What is certain is that Henry VIII gave Audrey land and money - this from a man who didn't even pay for the funeral of his acknowledged bastard Richmond.  In the end, we can only speculate, which Hart does very well.

Her main problem, though, is that there weren't enough mistresses to warrant a full-length book.  So she speculates about who may or may not have slept with the king over the years.  Many are only snide remarks in Ambassador Chapuys' reports to the Emperor.  Others are confused within their own families - for example Mary, Madge and Margaret Shelton; only one did the deed with the dude, but which one?

She also fills space by tracing the family connections of her protagonists.  She makes too much, I feel, about cousins in an environment where everyone was to a greater or lesser degree the cousin of everyone else.  Similarly, she relies overmuch on what the Church considered a proscribed degree of consanguinity and the status of sisters-in-law.  The crowned heads of Europe were accustomed to give not a toss about such things, save where it suited them.

Nevertheless, this is a well-written and thoroughly entertaining read.

Tuesday, 28 July 2015

Running Dog - Don DeLillo

Running Dog (1978) is a relatively early DeLillo novel.  It is redolent with post-Watergate paranoia in which mysterious corporations war with alternative entrepreneurs but both, fundamentally, seek the same thing, control of assets.  The nature of the assets matter little.  Everyone and everything is corruptible, which DeLillo demonstrates by anchoring his story on an asset which, in itself, could not be more corrupt or corrupting: a film believed to feature footage of Hitler and his entourage having orgies in the Berlin bunker as the Russians close in.

DeLillo deploys a number of principal characters, all of whom pay a price for their involvement in the quest.  The second rank characters, corruptors all, pay no price whatsoever.  This is their world and in it they flourish.  Albeit Running Dog sounds like a polemic, the characterisation is so accomplished that the message never supplants the medium.

I've had a long but sporadic relationship with the novels of Don DeLillo.  I always enjoy them but never seem to seek them out.  This was the same.  I picked it up by chance and enjoyed it on every level.  I commend it to you.

Monday, 20 July 2015

Richard III and the Bosworth Campaign - Peter Hammond

Written in 2010, that is to say before the discovery of the body in the car park, Hammond writes in the belief that nothing the likes of Thomas More, the Croyland Chronicler, and indeed every single contemporary chronicler said about Richard III was true.  Of course the undoubted body demonstrates that everything they said about his appearance and death was absolutely true, which logically suggests that everything they said about his usurpation was true too.  Hammond is a dyed in the wool Ricardian, a former research officer of the Richard III Society.  As such he seems reluctant to accept that Richard's seizing of the throne was a usurpation, and no mention is made here of the fact that he had his nephews murdered.  Instead we have a long and unnecessary passage about how he didn't really want to marry his niece, Elizabeth of York, albeit, according to Hammond, Elizabeth was mad keen on marrying Richard.  This is piffle and our author is wearing blinkers.

We know where he starts from by his use of the works of Ashdown Hill, who has won awards for his genealogical research but who labours under the belief that everybody in the 15th century was either illegitimate, responsible for whole tribes of illegitimate offspring, or preferably both.  Here we are given two Ricardian bastards, John and Katherine, both of whom seem to have been teenagers, albeit their putative father was only 32 when he died.  It is of course perfectly possible for Richard to have fathered children when he was himself an early teen but let us not forget (what Hammond and Ashdown Hill didn't know in 2010) that Richard's puberty was much worse than most with his spine curving by the day.  It had to hurt and it had to have had psychological impact.  Still, perhaps his response to the trauma was to go out and get bastards.

The main problem with this book, though, is that it doesn't tell me anything I didn't already know about the battle.  Surely A L Rowse did a better job back in 1966?  Funnily enough, Hammond doesn't cite Rowse in his bibliography.  He does, however, make extensive use of the Mancini text, and the second continuation of Croyland, which both have the merit of being contemporary.  I'm sure everything Hammond says about the battle is true so far as it can be, but in a book of only 116 pages, specifically about a battle and written for a specialist military publisher (Pen & Sword), less than ten pages of actual battle is not enough.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Nemesis - Philip Roth

Here we have late Roth, great Roth, superlative Roth.  Set in Newark, New Jersey, in the furnace-hot summer of 1944, our hero is Bucky Cantor, 23 year-old athletic star who has been rejected for military service because of his appalling eyesight.  Bucky is nevertheless a local hero.  All the young boys want to be like Bucky, all the girls adore him.  Bucky is embarrassed not to be in the army with his friends but here in Newark he does his duty.  As a newly-qualified sports teacher he does summer work running his local playground.  Then he finds his personal battle.

Polio starts its annual rampage.  A bunch of Italian youths make mischief at Bucky's playground.  Soon after the first of Bucky's young charges - a promising young lad very much in the Bucky Cantor mould - falls ill and, shockingly, dies.  The Jewish parents (this is a wholly Jewish part of town) blame the Italian layabouts for bringing the infection up from the slums.  Some blame Bucky.  Bucky certainly blames Bucky.  For a time he fights then, at the urging of his fiancee Marcia, he does the unthinkable - the one thing no one ever expected Bucky to do - he runs away.  He takes up a cushy job at a summer camp for better off Jewish kids.  The consequences are obvious.  This is not a complex story.  What it is, though, is a powerful, thoroughgoing examination of the all-American local hero.  Roth spares us nothing.  He is as scientific in his dissection of character as he is in his polishing of prose.

I'm in two minds about the ending.  Is it too long (the final section, not the book itself)?  Is it necessary at all?  I didn't like the ending, but I suspect that's Roth's point.  It got me thinking, reading at deeper than normal level.  And that, I fancy, is what makes a masterpiece.  Check it out - now!  See what you think.

Thursday, 16 July 2015

Watchman - Ian Rankin

Watchman is Rankin's third novel, after Flood, which I loved, and the first Inspector Rebus novel, Knots and Crosses, which I bought when it first came out in paperback and thought was very poor. Watchman, reasonably enough, sits somewhere between the two.  Like Knots it is genre fiction and thus does not aim as high as Flood.  In this instance it is spy fiction, written very much in the aftermath of watching the Smiley adaptations on TV.  Miles Flint is a silly name, but no sillier than George Smiley, and as with Smiley the name is the direct opposite of the man.  Smiley never smiled - or, at least, not as if he meant it - and Miles Flint is neither well-travelled nor especially hard.

Flint is a watchman, an organiser of surveillance.  One of his key operations goes horribly wrong.  He seems to have been forgiven but soon realises he hasn't.  Machinations are in progress for the top job at MI5, as they always seem to be in sub le Carre fiction, and Miles finds himself caught in the crosshairs.  He is despatched to Ulster, still - in 1988 - embroiled in the Troubles, betrayed and left to fend for himself.  Can he rise to the occasion?  That is the nub of the book but it is far too long in coming.  Really what we have here is three stories rather crudely bolted together.  It cries out for depth and knowledge of the human condition that sets le Carre apart.

It's an immature work by a young writer still trying to find his voice.  There's nothing wrong in that - on these foundations Rankin built one of the great literary careers.  It's well worth reading and judging on its own merits.  But you wouldn't want to read it twice.

Thursday, 9 July 2015

Ghost Stories - M R James

Why is it I didn't take to the stories of Thomas Ligotti (see below) but fell instantly under the spell of M R James?  They have much in common - James is obviously a key influence on Ligotti.  Both writers tend to use the same type of narrator - learned, single, often a writer - and both use distancing devices such as "this is the story as someone told it to me."  I have thought about it for some days now, and have concluded that the difference is the attitude of the narrator/protagonist.  Ligotti's are inert, accepting, and thus alienate us; James's academic old buffers, on the other hand, rebel against their disturbing experiences and strive to put the world back in order.  That makes them appealing.  They do what we would hope to do in their position.

This selection, for Vintage Classics, includes an introduction by Ruth Rendell.  I like Rendell but hate it when publishers feel they need to add a 'name' to a classic.  This introduction is amiable enough but in the end it is piffle.  It tells us nothing about James and even less about his works.

On to the stories themselves, there are thirteen of them, naturally, and the best for me was the story "Number 13".  Can I say why I preferred it?  Well, to an extent.  It is odd, as hotel rooms tend to be odd, especially old hotels which have been converted from something else.  Hotel rooms strive to be comfortable, to be a temporary home from home, but they always fail because most of us can never be truly comfortable away from home.  We never fully have our bearings because there's always somewhere else, staff areas and other people's rooms, which we cannot access.

As always with ghost stories, it depends what you find frightening.  If you have a problem with spiders, then James is definitely the boy for you.  Personally, it's the oddness rather than the apparition which unsettles me.  The flapping sheet on the beach in "Oh Whistle and I'll Come to You My Lad" is, for me, much scarier than the attack on Parkins by his bedsheets.  But even if the thing itself in a particular story doesn't raise your gooseflesh you can always enjoy the sheer mastery of James's writing.  James, of course, was far more learned than any of his protagonists; that means he does not need to show off, and he doesn't.  Instead his pen flows like Picasso's line, effortless and yet magnificent.

Monday, 29 June 2015

Teatro Grottesco - Thomas Ligotti

Thomas Ligotti has become a cult writer since the millennium.  People liken him to Lovecraft, Poe, and M R James.  I like all those authors so naturally I was keen to try Ligotti.  My conclusion?  He's not like the aforementioned.  He's not scary, though he does successfully get under your skin, and for all the very obvious work that goes into crafting his stories, he ends up being a bit dull.  For me, the problem is that his first-person narrator has always the same characteristics - reclusive, obsessive, an outsider with a bad stomach - no matter whether he is a creative artist or a drudge in a slave-labour town.  The towns, likewise, are always in the north, on the border, and he has usually left by the time he comes to write down his experience.  There are other regular tropes - other recluses, bizarre modern artworks, and carnival performers (carnies are much scarier in America, apparently, than they are in the UK).  Frankly, some of the long pieces are distinctly over-wrought - by the time I've got to the end of some of his paragraphs I've forgotten what he began with.  I admire the work, the commitment to form.  I own Ligotti has created a fictional world almost as real as Lovecraft's Arkham.  But he's not adventurous enough for my taste.

The King in the North - Max Adams

I've got one problem with this book, and that's the title.  It's not really about Oswald, king of Northumbria and, very soon after that, a saint.  He is just one of the many kings covered here, some of them (for example his brother Oswy) at much greater length.  OK, the subtitle "Life and Times" is supposed to deal with the problem but it doesn't because Oswald's reign was only eight years in the middle of a timescale of close on two centuries.

I understand Adams feeling the need to individualise his narrative but it doesn't work.  What we really have here is the story of the foundation of the late Saxon kingdom of Northumbria from two earlier kingdoms, Bernicia and Deira.  We have two royal dynasties coming together in Oswald and Oswy, their unity forged on early conversion to Christianity.  Their lasting achievement was probably the Synod of Whitby presided over by Hilda, a member of the royal house.  But Oswy called the synod, not Oswald.  In fact, Oswy was much more successful a king than his shortlived brother, not least by becoming the first king in the region to die in his bed.  Oswald was supposedly lucky, but not lucky enough to avoid being hacked to pieces on the battlefield.  Indeed Adams devotes almost as much narrative to the travels of the various body parts as he does to Oswald himself.  And again, it was Oswy who decided which head on a pole belonged to Oswald and thus began the cult which, four hundred years on, led to the relic being buried in Durham Cathedral alongside the uncorrupted remains of St Cuthbert.

Within the terms of what is, as opposed to what it claims to be, The King is the North is fascinating.  Adams knows his Anglo Saxons, he knows his Bede back to front, and he is a native of the region he describes so beautifully.  He has produced a major work of scholarship which has the added bonus of being eminently readable.

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

The Man in the High Castle - Philip K Dick

I have long been aware of Philip K Dick, but the only book of his I had hitherto tried was complete and utter rubbish.  Unfortunately I cannot remember what it was called.  All I know is, it read like it had been knocked up late at night on an unhelpful cocktail of caffeine and amphetamines.

Yet I was still interested enough to give The Man in the High Castle a try.  It seemed a safer bet, having been written early in Dick's career and having won the Hugo Award in 1963.  The cover art on this Roc paperback was also an inducement.

And how taking the chance paid off.  This is not only a good dystopian novel, it is a good novel, many-layered with rounded characters and a cunningly contrived writing style.  The action is set in San Francisco in 1962, but California is the Japanese part of North America, the East Coast being part of Germany.  Thus Japanese people are high status and the indigenous population converse with them in a form of pidgin shorthand.  Yes, the Axis of Japan and Nazi Germany won World War 2.  Baldur von Shirach has drained the Mediterranean to provide extra farmland and Lufthansa runs a rocket service that can cross the Atlantic in under an hour.

The Japanese are much more easy-going than the Nazis.  The Reich is run by Bormann, Goebbels, Goering and Heydrich are all still active, though Adolf himself is in an asylum.  Genocide is still very much the order of the day (presently concentrated on the African continent) but the Japanese consider such policies subhuman.  The Japanese collect prewar American artifacts, like Colt pistols and Mickey Mouse watches.  Rickshaws ("pedecabs") thread their way through downtown traffic. The Nazis meanwhile are exploring space.

The current bestseller on the Pacific Coast (it's banned in the Reich) is The Grasshopper Lies Heavy by Hawthorne Abendsen, a dystopian novel in which the Allies overcame the Axis in 1945.  It is said the Nazis hate it so much that Abendsen has to live in a fortified tower to protect himself and his family.  He is the Man in the High Castle.

The book which everyone on the West Coast is obsessed with is the I Ching.  Everyone, irrespective of race or status, is casting hexagrams at every opportunity.

There are various narrative strands, loosely linked: the retailer of high-end Americana Robert Childan; Frank Frink, the secret Jew who actually makes some of the so-called antiques Childan sells; Frinks estranged wife Juliana, a judo instructor who takes up with an Italian trucker and sets off in a quest to find the man in the castle; Tagomi, who heads up the Home Islands trade mission in San Fransisco; the mysterious Baynes, who purports to be a Swedish businessman.  Everyone seems to have a position, but everyone has to review their position - usually in consultation with the yarrow stalks of I Ching - when the third Fuhrer, Martin Bormann, unexpectedly dies.

Unlike the other Dick book I tried, The Man in the High Castle is brilliantly constructed, the writing polished without ever toppling over into bland.  If the author of the first novel was fried with stimulants, this one has the focus and clarity of Sherlock Holmes on cocaine.  I am now willing to give any Dick novel a try.  Apparently The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch is also available in Roc paperback (a Penguin imprint I had never previously heard of), so that seems like the perfect next step.

Thursday, 18 June 2015

The Other Log of Phileas Fogg - Philip Jose Farmer

The title says it all: there is another log, other than the one Jules Verne edited for publication, containing the real, intergalactic context of Fogg's round-the-world journey.  It is crossover literature to a certain extent, in that Verne was of course for many people the father of science fiction, but Around the World in Eighty Days was not one of his science fiction works.  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was, however, pure sci fi, and Farmer imports Nemo here as his criminal mastermind.

Farmer was the pioneer of this form, which is one I love and try to write myself.  He began with Tarzan, then Fogg, and on to create an entire world - the world of Wold Newton, in which all the heroes of fantastical pulp fiction coexist.  The Other Log, as I say, was his second experiment in the form.  Farmer completes the illusion with  editorial digressions.  The result is great fun, though I would say that, as so often with Big Idea Fiction, the characterisation suffers somewhat.  Finally, I must put on record how much I adore the artwork on this original 1973 Daw paperback.