Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Angelica Lost and Found - Russell Hoban

Published in 2010, Angelica Lost and Found was Hoban's last book. He died the following year. His powers clearly were undiminished to the end. Angelica bristles with ideas, invention, and joie de vivre.

For those who have not encountered Hoban before, the concept takes some swallowing. Here goes---
Volatore the hippogriff (offspring of a griffin and a mare) has escaped from Girolami da Carpi's painting of a scene from Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, specifically the scene from Canto IV in which Ruggiero, aboard the hippogriff, rescues the naked Angelica from the sea monster Orca. So far, so straightforward, yes? Hoban's Volatore has been enthused by the idea of a naked Angelica, so he sets out to find his own, in post-Millennium San Fransisco. As you do. The Angelica he finds is the gallerist daughter of two painters. She likes the idea of an amorous hippogriff and they have sex. They then become separated. And it is Angelica who embarks on a quest to find Volatore.

She finds a number of men who smell like Volatore, some of whom even call themselves Volatore, but none of them actually are Volatore the hippogriff. There is the painter who can't remember painting the painting of tiny elephants and the Hollywood hairstylist who buys it and then chucks it into the bay where Angelica and her psychiatrist lover fish it out. Meanwhile Angelica adopts a cat and Volatore enters a Russian man's penis.

All this in 71 chapters over 237 big print pages.

I think this is one for specialist tastes. I loved it.

Thursday, 23 November 2017

Ancient Images - Ramsey Campbell

Given my long fascination with horror fiction it seems remarkable that Ancient Images (1989) is the first Ramsey Campbell novel I have read.

Campbell has been writing since childhood and thus is very unlikely to make mistakes with construction or deployment of plot. In this book, at least, story is absolutely everything. Ostensibly it is about a suppressed British quota quickie movie from 1938 starring Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Sandy's friend Graham, a researcher in forgotten films, has managed to track down a copy but before he can show it he 'jumps' off the top of a block of flats. The film itself has been stolen. Sandy, a TV film editor, sets off in pursuit.

Her quest takes her into Wicker Man territory where she tracks down some truly ancient images which seem to be mirrored in the film, and some very ancient versions of those who had repressed it. To say more would be to give the game away.

Campbell wisely sets all the events of the past within a very contemporary picture of England at the time he wrote it. The Right Wing Press and TV is full of stories about Enoch's Army, a tribe of New Age travellers, who Sandy comes into contact with several times. They, of course, hark back to a way of life in the deep past from which the 'ancient images' stem.

Campbell manages to keep the action moving, the tension building. Until the climax everything supernatural is half-glimpsed, and when the climax comes it is allowed to unfold at exactly the right pace for me. The characters are well-drawn. It is a masterstroke to have a female protagonist who can be intimidated in very different ways to the men who preceded her on the quest. Sandy is exceptionally well-drawn. The places she visits are all made distinct and - those I know - realistic. The idea of the film, Tower of Fear, is wickedly reminiscent of all those horrible clunkers Karloff and Lugosi churned out in their declining years - right down to ghastly music hall comic relief.

I was entertained and impressed. Ancient Images certainly won't be my last foray into the world of Ramsey Campbell.

Friday, 17 November 2017

The Girl From Venice - Martin Cruz Smith

The Girl From Venice is Cruz Smith's latest, the successor to Tatiana, which I recently reviewed here. It is a very different kettle of fish (excuse pun - it's about a fisherman). Set during the strange period between the Allied invasion of Italy and the Nazi departure. Venice, scrupulously unbombd by either side, delineates the boundary between.

Cenzo is the middle of three brothers, a fisherman from one of the poorer islands in the lagoon where fishermen live. His older brother Giorgio is a movie star, a Mussolini favourite, the so-called Lion of Tripoli. Younger brother Hugo was drowned during what may have been the only airborne attack on Venice. One might Cenzo fishes a young girl out of the water. He thinks she is dead but she's not. She is Guilia, daughter of Jewish academics. The Nazis are searching everywhere because she holds a secret.

Cenzo eventually arranges for her to be smuggled to safety. This is where the book loses momentum. Cenzo is too determinedly ordinary to be our hero. He only comes alive when Guilia is around. Fortunately he finds her again for what is to all intents and purposes Act Three, but it has to be said Act Two is a bit of a slog, albeit the flamboyant Giorgio livens it up from time to time. The ending is good and I enjoyed reading about Mussolino's bolt hole in the wonderfully named Salo. I'm assuming this is historic fact because Cruz Smith is so damned good at research. He writes pretty well too. He has decided to soak this story in fisherman lore and tweaks his prose accordingly, successfully. Events rapidly become myths - superstitions are made into plot points.

Overall then, an enjoyable read, sufficiently off-beat to hold our attention when poor old Cenzo doesn't quite manage to.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Savages - Don Winslow

Savages (2010) comes between The Power of the Dog and The Cartel. It is connected in so far as it is set against the cartel wars in Mexico which are the subject matter of the two linked novels. Some of the key characters in those get a mention in this. Otherwise Savages is very different. The Power of the Dog and The Cartel are like James Ellroy on good cocaine rather than bad speed. Savages has flavours of Elmore Leonard and Carl Hiaasen and the texture of George V Higgins stripped down.
What? you wonder. Can you get more stripped down than George V? Winslow can. As The Donald might say, Bigly.

As an indication, we have 290 chapters in 302 pages. Some lines are so fragmentary they don't have full stops. Sometimes Winslow takes the time to explain the etymology of some of his acronyms. Ophelia's mom, for example, is Pacu - Passive Aggressive Queen of the Universe. Others you are left to work out for yourself. Some passages are presented as movie script - a fun inside joke once you realise that Oliver Stone had bought the movie rights before Savages was even published. I have mentioned the Stone movie before. It's his best in twenty years and well worth a watch. But it's not as good as the novel.

Ben and Chon grow dope in South Orange County, the best dope on the market. Ben is a third world activist, Chon an ex-SEAL who has served in all the nastiest theatres of post-millennium war. Ben and Chon are best buds from childhood. They are both in love with Ophelia, who calls herself simply O. O loves them both equally.

But then the Baja Cartel seeks to muscle in on their action. Ben and Chon say no. They are happy to walk away and leave the Baja Cartel to it, but the Cartel says no. They want to market Ben's genetically modified blow. They want the boys' market, they want their people. And to make their point, they kidnap O and threaten to dismember her with a chainsaw.

Which is when things get really nasty...

The pace is relentless, the action bloody. Yet Winslow's gift is to stay perfectly balanced on the thin line between violence and schlock. Even the worst of the bad guys have backstory, people they love. The characterisation is rich and varied. It is, in short, a masterpiece.

Saturday, 11 November 2017

John Aubrey: My Own Life - Ruth Scurr

What Ruth Scurr has done here is create a biographical collage from the voluminous papers of the Seventeenth Century antiquarian, best known today for his Brief Lives. For those who only know Aubrey through the brilliant one-man play, also called Brief Lives, created by Patrick Garland for Roy Dotrice, the result is very different, not at all funny and in fact indescribably sad.

Aubrey was a Wiltshire gentlemen, educated at Oxford before and during the Civil Wars. He became addicted to collecting information - I'm quite sure it was an obsessive compulsion for him. He lost his home, his moderate fortune, and his chances of matrimony, all for the sake of piling up topographical, biographical, astrological and historical 'facts'. In his personal papers he goes on and on about the need to get his work published, but those of us with similar problems will recognise early on that he will never compromise the compilation process in order to secure a hard-copy legacy. In fact his only publication, printed just before his death at the age of seventy-one, was little more than a scrapbook of trash and leftovers. He had entrusted everything else to fellow antiquarians who ripped him off for their own work without ever giving him credit.

Aubrey did in fact achieve things of lasting significance. He is the first to relate Avebury to Stonehenge (albeit William Stukeley hijacked his research and passed it off as his own). If we want to know about significant figures of the Commonwealth period - written out of his history by the Monarchists - Aubrey is often the only source.

Scurr has achieved a brilliant book. Her rare and subtle interpolations (all flagged up as "On this day" and used to provide a general context for what Aubrey was writing at a particular time) merge seamlessly. She has modernised Aubrey's prose without losing any meaning, simply to allow him to speak to us directly. Hugely impressive but, like I say, very sad.

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

In the Cold Dark Ground - Stuart MacBride

I think I must have missed a couple of instalments in the Logan McRae saga. I knew that Logan had given up the big city (Aberdeen) in favour of a rural posting (Banff) back in uniform. I knew he had taken up with the Goth beauty Samantha and that he had been the surrogate father for at least one of DCI Steel's children. But I didn't know that Samantha was in a vegetative coma following an attempt on Logan's life or that the urbane gangland fixer John Urquart had bought his old flat for a ridiculously overblown price - that is to say criminally, comproimisingly inflated.

In the Cold Dark Grave is Logan's tenth outing. His search for a missing person leads to a naked male body in the woods. His head is covered with plastic and his body has been bleached to remove any forensic traces.These are the signature stylings of Malcolm McLennan, "Malk the Knife", gangland supremo of Edinburgh. The dead man turns out to be a partner in a shipping business with apparent links to McLennan. The other partner is missing - but turns up safe and sound back home. Meanwhile the police inquiry, now headed up by Steel's MIT unit, discover the dead man's collection of graphic homemade porn. Turns out his partner was a partner in every sense...

Logan has to cram in a lot of funerals over the coming weekend. First he has to pull the plug on Samantha as the palliative care team at her nursing home have given up hope. At the same time he is called to the deathbed of the Aberdeen kingpin Wee Hamish Mowatt, who has always been oddly fond of Logan and who now wants him to take over his empire. The other contender, the ultra-thug Reuben Kennedy, begs to differ. To top it all off another angry female officer, Superintendent Niamh Harper, takes charge. She seems to have taken against Logan for no reason. But there is a reason - and it's a good one.

MacBride is on top form. Some of the wisecracks are laugh out loud funny, the action dark and bloody, and the plot, despite its complexity, remains somehow credible throughout. The crime is always just an inciting incident in the McRae novels, but here it remains logical and brilliantly deployed. I didn't guess who did it or who the mole on the police team was, but the clues were all there. I say it again, Brilliant.

Monday, 6 November 2017

The Shakespeare Conspiracy - Graham Phillips and Martin Keatman

I'm a sucker for the who-really-wrote-Shakespeare genre. Let's get it straight, though - I don't for one moment that Shakespeare of Stratford was largely responsible for most of the plays that appeared under his name in 1623. He probably wrote most of Titus Andronicus and nothing of Comedy of Errors. For the late great plays - say, 1600 to 1610 - he wrote the vast majority but never all of the texts, which is why they are the best plays. He wrote very little of The Tempest or Timon of Athens or indeed Taming of the Shrew, which are mostly by John Fletcher. The so-called witty dialogue (or, as I prefer to think of it, space filler) in trash like Much Ado, As You Like It, is Thomas Middleton, and Middleton also wrote the witchy stuff in Macbeth. It is simply not possible for him to have written 37 plays in blank verse in a career of barely twenty years. Try it and see. Nor was it required. Stage plays were a team effort in Jacobeathan times, just as TV series are now. Shakespeare in his prime was team leader. He came up with the core plot, wrote the big speeches, and had final cut on the contributions of those lower down the food chain. The only bits he couldn't control were the clown bits (Will Kemp and Robert Armin), which is why they are so toe-curlingly bad. The reason nobody in Stratford seemed to notice he was a playwright is that they didn't know and didn't care; there was no theatre locally, and so far as the neighbours knew he was a prosperous merchant with a big house and two daughters likely to come with decent dowries. It is simply not true that we know more about other playwrights of the period. We know more about Marlowe because he was a spy, a student and he was murdered. He was also, in my opinion, a much more original writer who invented the form (Shakespeare was a better man of the theatre). Try, for example, to trace the life of Shakespeare's collaborator Fletcher, or Fletcher's collaborator Beaumont, or the omnipresent Middleton. All of them had longer careers than Shakespeare. All had the occasional hit. All effectively vanished without trace. Nor is it a credible argument that Oxford or Bacon wrote the plays under pseudonyms. There was absolutely no reason to - Queen Elizabeth and King James both loved the theatre and any aspiring favourite could win big kudos by being theatrical, hence so many patronised acting companies. Bacon was a decent writer of factual prose, Oxford's surviving fragments are amateurish in the extreme.

Having got that off my chest, what of The Shakespeare Conspiracy? Well, Phillips and Keatman get my attention because they accept that the merchant of Stratford wrote the plays. They tackle the other question, why is so little known? They conclude it's because he was a spy. Well, Marlowe certainly was, Jonson might have been (personally I think he just grassed up his peers) and Anthony Munday, a playwright of almost zero merit, probably was. To support their theory they revert to the game of literary clues. Ingeniously they take the frontispiece of the Sonnets and the mysterious Mr WH. How is WH the 'onlie begetter' of poems that the title credits to Shakespeare? They spot that there are superfluous full stops everywhere. Take one out and you get Mr W Hall, who they have traced in the records of the spymasters. Was this Shakespeare's alias when working undercover? They say yes, obviously, ignoring the quibble that everyone Hall was associated with in the archives did not use an alias. They then go on to try and link Shakespeare with the Gunpowder Plot, which is silly but no more so than the Bacon or Oxford theories. They argue that Shakespeare ended up related by marriage to several of the plotters - an argument so complex that I couldn't make head nor tail of it.

Great fun. The best of its type that I have come across lately. To be read for sheer amusement and to learn more about conspiracy than  about Shakespeare the man.