Saturday, 30 June 2018

Razor Girl - Carl Hiaasen

It's been a while - five years, unbelievably - since I last read a Hiassen. That was Bad Monkey. This is Razor Girl. The hero is the same, Andrew Yancy, busted ex-cop turned roach inspector, but other than that, all is new.

The razor girl is Merry Mansfield, who specialises in tail-ending other vehicles while she's purportedly shaving her pubic hair. She and Yancy team up to solve the case of the missing reality TV redneck, Buck Nance, who has gone AWOL after an ill-judged homophobic/racist rant in the wrong bar in the wrong part of Florida.

Along the way we and they encounter Mafioso 'Big Noogie' Aeola, replacement beach specialist Marty Trebeaux, class action lawyer Brock Richardson and his fiancée Deb, Buck's biggest fan 'Blister' Krill and a pair of giant Gambian pouch rats. So it's all business as usual, brilliantly plotted and laugh-out loud funny. Pure Hiaassen on top form.

Thursday, 28 June 2018

Prelude to Space - Arthur C Clarke

Prelude to Space was apparently written in 1947 but not published until 1953, which I find hard to believe. There seems to be a manuscript from 1947 but is it the same text as that published in 1953? Or is it, as with so many authors, just a portmanteau title that was attached to several works until the right one came along?

Certainly it is the right title for this novel. It is entirely about events leading up to the first moon shot in 1978, British of course, from Woomera in Australia, here rechristened Luna City. The book ends with the spaceship taking off and we can only guess the outcome from the epilogue in which our retired hero, Dirk Alexson, is living on the Moon for health reasons, a benefit I have never seen elsewhere. Other prophetic content includes the famous geostationary communication satellites, but it is the spaceship itself which is the most interesting.

Clarke envisages a two stage process for Prometheus. Beta is the mother ship which transports the rocket Alpha and fuel pods into Earth orbit. From the back of Beta, Alpha attaches itself to the fuel source and uses atomic power to head off the Moon. Thus Clarke gives us a recyclable, affordable system which causes vastly less pollutants than a the skyscraper of inflammable carbon fuel that was actually used by NASA. In time some parts of the system will be moved to the lunar surface which will become Man's gateway to the stars, hence this really is the prelude to space, not just the prelude to the Moon.

All of this stuff, framed as debates between the characters or presentations at press conferences, is totally fascinating. As a novel, however, it is a total failure. The characters are simplistic mouthpieces, even though they are supposed to possess giant intellects. There is no action, mystery or tension. Frankly, there are no meaningful human relationships. The only real fantasy is Alexson's afterlife on the Moon. Yet I loved it.

Saturday, 23 June 2018

Bad News - Edward St Aubyn

Very much the flavour of the month, thanks to the Showtime dramatisations (which I hated), St Aubyn has written five autobiographical novels about his alter ego, Patrick Melrose. Bad News is the second. It is also, as it happens, the novel upon which the first episode of the dramatization was based, the only one I managed to sit through to the end.

Turns out I dislike the acting of Benedict Cumberbatch much more than I dislike the writing of Edward St Aubyn. In fact, I like the writing a great deal. St Aubyn is rich, pampered, objectionable in principle - of course he became an author of autobiographical novels, that's what people like him do, just as people slightly less well off than him publish them. Talent, however, is no respecter of wealth or lack thereof. I loved St Aubyn's way with words from the off. I especially enjoyed the scenes in which Patrick is so stoned that he hears voices. I was less fond of the scene in which he dines with a trio of bores; this is because, self-evidently, they are boring.

We have to accept that Bad News is already a historic artefact, a relic of an era now long gone. 1992 (when the book was written) was when heroin chic was ultra-fashionable and those with inherited wealth were the perverted mirror of 'honest' entrepreneurs like Branson and Green. The book is set in 1982 when St Aubyn/Melrose was 22, which makes him a pioneer of excess. Patrick Melrose is reminiscent of the late 7th Marquess of Bristol, except that Melrose is never going to run out of cash. Ah, those were the days!

The trick, of course, is that St Aubyn makes Melrose not only acceptable but actually likeable. We laugh at his jokes, we tag along on his helter-skelter of Class A drugs. We do not want him to come to harm.

Much of this empathy is achieved via the horrible backstory of being raped as a child by his unspeakable father. The bad news of the title, by the way, is that old man Melrose has died in New York and Patrick has to fly in (on Concorde) to collect the cremains. We are told by the internet that this is what in fact happened to young Edward. The older Edward is successful as a novelist because he tells the tale of the ultimate sad little rich boy. He knows whereof he writes. And he really does write beautifully. More of the same for me, then!

Thursday, 21 June 2018

A Study in Scarlet - Arthur Conan Doyle

Everybody knows it - but how many have actually read it? Not as many as one might think, is my guess. I certainly read lots of Sherlock Holmes in my early teens but even after fifty years I'm sure I would have remembered this. Why? Because nearly half of it is actually a cowboy story!

To be clear, I have always thought Conan Doyle is overrated - a moderately capable writer who, from time to time, and not only in the Holmes genre - hit upon really compelling storylines and great characters. None of that applies to A Study in Scarlet. Part One, the Holmes origin and initial investigation as we would expect it, is actually extremely well done, the writing considerably better than in later works. The second part, the cowboy stuff, is guff beyond belief, filler in every sense of the term.

The reverse thinking, the famous analytic deduction, I found as unconvincing as ever. Holmes just proposes something outlandish and Conan Doyle works backwards to justify it. But it works as well here as it ever did later on in the canon. And there are many things I didn't realise would be present in the first episode. We have both Scotland Yard inspectors, Lestrade and Gregson, for example. The Baker Street Irregulars are up and running. Mrs Hudson doesn't have a name yet, but she does have a maid and a dying dog. I was under the impression that Watson had to leave the army because of a leg wound from Afghanistan but it transpires it's a shoulder wound and a bout of enteric fever contracted in hospital.

As for the title - again, everyone knows it, but who can explain it? Well, Holmes does to a certain extent: "There's the scarlet thread of murder running through the colourless skein of life and it is our duty to unravel it." Well, no there isn't. Other than that, your guess is as good as mine.

In short then (and one of the best aspects is that A Study in Scarlet is only really a novella), reading the first Holmes story was something I should have done fifty years ago. Reading it now was fascinating and, even allowing for the cowboy romance, it turned out to be much better than expected. Yes, I enjoyed it.

Tuesday, 19 June 2018

The Difference Engine - William Gibson and Bruce Sterling

What we have here is a collaboration between two founding fathers of cyberpunk, an alternate history in which Babbage's proto-computer has changed the world, notably Britain. The Tories under the Duke of Wellington tried to hold off the Radicals until Wellington was assassinated and the Rads took over. Byron is Prime Minister, his daughter Ada is effectively First Lady, and the House of Lords has become an appointed senate of savants. Steam carriages prowl the streets and the greatest, most popular form of communication is by way of punched cards. Vast bodies of data are stored and minutely analysed. The Victorians of 1855-56 even have their own version of fake news - eye-catching headlines on big screens with no real fact or analysis behind them. Which is pretty damn impressive for a book published in 1991.

It fascinated me. I loved the game of style played by the authors in which we have a series of five more or less standalone 'iterations' and conclude with a 'modus' of pseudo documents. We have a series of protagonists who come and go, some taking up more space than others. We have the Rad prostitute Sybil Gerard, who becomes involved with the speaking tour of ousted 'Texian' president Sam Houston; then there is Edward Mallory, discoverer of the Wisconsin Brontosaurus. He falls in with Laurence Oliphant, a sort of effete James Bond with connections in the very highest circles in Britain, the US and, for some reason, Japan.

These are fascinating characters. The world they inhabit is vividly realised down to the tiniest detail. The warnings to the modern reader are manifold. The problem is, though, I haven't the faintest idea what the book was about. What is its theme? What exactly are our heroes trying to achieve? And what do they actually achieve?

I'm not at all sure these things actually matter. They didn't in any way spoil my enjoyment. I suppose in a way there's a similarity to Murakami's 1Q84. Essentially, this is the world I have created for you; this is what these people do in it; make of that what you will.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

The Quiet American - Graham Greene

It's faintly disturbing to come across a book written in the year I was born, about then contemporary events, that seems so up to date today, sixty-three years later.

Graham Greene, as usual, knew what he was talking about. He had reported on the early stages of the Vietnam conflict and had encountered the early stages of US involvement. That is the setting here. Thomas Fowler is an ageing (in the 1950s he would have been downright elderly) reporter for a major London newspaper. He has been happily covering the conflict from Saigon for several years. It suits him because his high Anglican wife back in England won't divorce him and out East he can live with his twenty year-old girlfriend Phoung and his opium pipe. Unluckily he meets the rawest of new boys, young WASP Alden Pyle, who claims to be working for medical aid but who is clearly a 'diplomat' as they used to be called, or spy as we call them now. He supports America's policy of a third way in Vietnam (basically replace French domination with American). Pyle is a devotee of the US thinker York Harding. Harding is fictional but reflects a trend of the time. Fowler elucidates: Harding was a foreign correspondent rather than a frontline reporter; his work is all opinion with no factual underpinning. The irony is, Fowler's secure life is now threatened because his paper wants him back in London as their foreign correspondent.

Fowler and Pyle become unlikely friends. Thus Pyle encounters Phoung and falls in love. Unlike Fowler he is single and plans to take Phoung home with him. Fowler cannot do that if he returns to London and his wife still won't divorce him. So he doesn't stand in the way when Pyle takes Phoung from him. But then Pyle is found dead in the river. Inevitably Inspector Vigot suspects Fowler. Vigot and Fowler are old friends, which makes things awkward.

It could easily be a murder-mystery but it's not, albeit the story does rely on an unexpected twist in the tale. Instead it is a novel of clashing attitudes and beliefs - a strong philosophical basis brought to life by the deft characterisation of the handful of main characters. The other stroke of genius is the time structure. We start with the discovery of Pyle's body, then recover the events that preceded it. A lesser hand would have either gone back to the beginning and continued in the past or alternated, but Greene was at the peak of his powers in 1955. He flips back and forth between present and recent past - the investigation unfolds for the reader at the same time as s/he discovers the relationships between the characters and their motives. It really is brilliantly done.

For me, the only drawback was the purely journalistic stuff, the local colour. The problem here arises because in 1955 Greene could have no idea of the horrors that full American involvement would bring in the Sixties. In 1955 Vietnam was largely unknown to the English-speaking world and was very backwards under its French masters. Therefore Greene had to explain it and show how primitive it was in parts. However for those of us born in 1955 we all know about Vietnam (or we think we do - how many of us truly know that the US took over a pre-existing war and turned a war for freedom into civil war?), thus the 'native' sections were very dull for me. On the other hand, it is unmistakably, inarguably anti-American, which makes it irresistible in the time of Trump.

Thursday, 7 June 2018

Burmese Days - George Orwell

Burmese Days was Orwell's debut novel in 1934. It is however set in 1926 and, like many first novels, is heavily autobiographical. Orwell was resident in Burma, then part of the greater British Empire of India, until 1927. He was a member of the Imperial Indian Police, unlike his counterpart in the book John Florey, who works for a timber firm. Orwell's stay was terminated by a bout of dengue fever; Florey, without giving anything away, finds another way out.

Obviously, I have read Animal Farm more than once. I have recently read key works of non-fiction - Down and Out in Paris and London and The Road to Wigan Pier. None of these prepared me for the skill and immersive storytelling of Burmese Days.

Florey is a peripheral member of the ex-pat community in this up-country maidan. He keeps a Burmese mistress and is on friendly terms with the local Indian doctor. Life for the Europeans centres on their club. It is not much of a bulwark against the natives - they can't even guarantee ice for their gin - but it is all they have. When notice comes from Delhi that they should consider admitting at least one local to their club, sparks fly. Similarly, the corrupt local magistrate O Po Kyin begins to plot against Dr Veraswami, his only serious rival for the honour.

The routine of ages is further disrupted when the Lackersteens' niece Elizabeth arrives from England. Elizabeth is very modern with her cropped hair, but insufferably old-fashioned regarding her mission in life. Her mission is marry a suitable man. To return from Burma without a husband would be unthinkable. There is not much choice in Kyauktada; Florey perhaps, albeit he has socialist leanings, a disfiguring birth mark on his face and talks too much; or the dashing young policeman, Verrall, who talks hardly at all, loves Polo and bears the title The Honourable.

All narrative strands are pleasingly resolved, by no means all in foreseeable ways. There is much comedy, smart, authentic-sounding dialogue, and the occasional laugh-out-loud comedy. The characters are brilliantly drawn and Orwell takes us inside their heads to reveal the beliefs and attitudes they would never dream of voicing.

I was hugely impressed.