By chance I have lately read two books inspired by the jungles of Burma. In George Orwell's 'Burmese Days', the debt is explicit, but Burma also provi...moreBy chance I have lately read two books inspired by the jungles of Burma. In George Orwell's 'Burmese Days', the debt is explicit, but Burma also provides the imaginative underpinning of Aldiss' torrid dystopia 'Hothouse'.
Imaginative it certainly is. There are more ideas fizzing away in one of these pages than in the sum total of many novels. That's not to say it's totally successful; in many ways I was reminded of JG Ballard's 'Drowned World', a book published in the same year and similarly entranced by the idea of a planet in thrall to the jungle's savage embrace.
In both cases it's the clarity of the writers' vision which makes the books so compelling. They paint these nightmare worlds of viridescence with an intensity which commands attention. That they do this at the expense of narrative convention is a piece of legerdemain they both successfully achieve.
Hothouse is a delirious creation, drunk on invention. It's a world gone mad, where every evolutionary niche has been colonised by the vegetable kingdom. Within this carniverous greenhouse scamper our descendants; small, monkey-like creatures who occupy almost the bottom rung of the food chain. We follow the picaresque and peripatetic meanderings of one such tribe. They encounter wondrous things and many threats. Almost too many in fact; after the umpteenth predator attacks it starts to feel like reading the transcript of a 1930s movie serial.
In the course of their wanderings decisions are made, actions plotted, but little is ever resolved. One gets the feeling that Aldiss, besotted with the Orrery he has built, is content to simply watch it, untroubled by the need to formulate anything like a classical plot. Maybe that is the point though; maybe as mankind devolves, so too do human conceits and logic. Our requirement for a tidy narrative arc is a mammalian need, rendered hopelessly antique by the rampaging plants. Like the rest of the world of blood and bone, our concerns are choked and subsumed by the pitiless, remorseless advance of sap.(less)
This is a pastiche of the kind of arch, expansive Victorian thriller that writers like Wilkie Collins did so well. I've been meaning to read it for a...moreThis is a pastiche of the kind of arch, expansive Victorian thriller that writers like Wilkie Collins did so well. I've been meaning to read it for a while and I wasn't disappointed. Taylor apes the form perfectly, seemingly relishing the myriad authorial voices and demonstrating a formidable level of detail in his period research. Based on this I shall certainly try his later, more well known sequel, Derby Day.(less)
A fair collection of stories dating from the '40's up to the early '90's, when this book was published. Tone, setting and subject vary greatly, the on...moreA fair collection of stories dating from the '40's up to the early '90's, when this book was published. Tone, setting and subject vary greatly, the only unifying theme being 'Christmas'. Stand outs were WW Jacobs' atmospheric shaggy dog story 'Jerry Bundler', 'The Stocking', a supremely nasty account of neglect by Nigel 'Quatermass' Neale, and F McDermott's 'The Spider' a nightmarish, cautionary traveller's tale.(less)
The beautifully written reminiscences of a pioneer from the early days of aviation. Saint-Exupery brings an elegiac sense of contemplation to his expe...moreThe beautifully written reminiscences of a pioneer from the early days of aviation. Saint-Exupery brings an elegiac sense of contemplation to his experiences, which makes for a memoir that is immensely moving. (less)
Despite being hamstrung by a dreadful comic-book style cover design this was an enjoyable read. The Watsonian voice rings true, as does a lengthy test...moreDespite being hamstrung by a dreadful comic-book style cover design this was an enjoyable read. The Watsonian voice rings true, as does a lengthy testimony by way of exposition. The story relies a touch too heavily on coincidence for my taste — the more so since the author has Holmes condemning coincidence twice, but that's only a minor cavil on a well researched and lovingly-crafted tale.(less)
There was an article in The Guardian today about the lamentable gaps in the History syllabus in Britain. A report complained that all our children wer...moreThere was an article in The Guardian today about the lamentable gaps in the History syllabus in Britain. A report complained that all our children were learning was a thin diet of 'Hitler and the Henrys', which sounds rather like a punk band to me.
I think they may have a point. History was one of my favourite subjects at school. What I learned in those classes has stayed with me for life, so I'm certain that I haven't simply forgotten large chunks of the curriculum. I'm fairly sure, for instance, that we never covered the Wars of the Roses. Admittedly I never studied History to A-Level standard (my chosen route was art and design), but I can't even recall the most cursory survey of the period.
I've found that this state of affairs has both its advantages and disadvantages. Yes, there are gaps in my historical knowledge which if filled could help enrich my perspective on life, but on the other hand — what enjoyment there is to be had for the enthusiastic autodidact! I can tackle books like Alison Weir's 'Lancaster and York' with a relish unspoilt by exact foreknowledge of the outcome.
And what a tangled web of intrigue, treachery and double dealing the Wars of The Roses were. Weir's excellent book exposes the 'divine right of Kings' for the platitude it always was. Kings it seems — in this country at least — were just as susceptible to the manipulation of powerbrokers and the whims of mob rule as ever democratic governments have been.
It's a labyrinthine struggle, played out across three countries and thirty years. Its principal instigators pursued power irregardless of responsibility, and consummately manipulated public opinion in a way that predates George Orwell's '1984' by 500 years.
At times it can be hard to follow the shifting dynastic allegiances and seemingly limitless supplies of Lords, but this doesn't actually detract from the overarching narrative, and the set-piece battles are clearly elucidated. The book ends in a period of stability. Edward IV sits comfortably on the throne, with two healthy sons waiting to succeed him. As somebody unwisely once said, "what could possibly go wrong?"(less)
In a word, magnificent. I think this is one of the best works of historical biography — of history even — that I've ever read. The quality of Kendall'...moreIn a word, magnificent. I think this is one of the best works of historical biography — of history even — that I've ever read. The quality of Kendall's prose is really quite exceptional. Every page is enlivened by sentences so memorable you want to speak them aloud, just for the pleasure of hearing them roll off your tongue. His pen portraits are pithy and compelling: in just a few short paragraphs characters rise from the page, living again. And then of course there's the story he has to tell — what a story it is.
I knew little about Richard before I came to this book — an awareness of the Shakespeare play and the hunch-backed caricature of popular culture — but such is the power of Kendall's masterly portrait that I was moved to tears by the final pages. If you have any interest at all in this period — dammit, if you have any interest at all in the frailties of human nature and the struggle for power, then read it. Just read it.