Although it suffers a little as a novel by having no single protagonist to draw one through the decades, War With The Newts is an exceptionally witty...moreAlthough it suffers a little as a novel by having no single protagonist to draw one through the decades, War With The Newts is an exceptionally witty and mischievous satire - on just about everything. A species of large and smart newts are discovered, trained and quickly enslaved by humanity, before organising their own inevitable rebellion. This frame provides opportunities for taking the mickey out of scientists, business, politics, religion, you name it. Lots of fun.(less)
Gotta love it, because it's a huge slab of George's wonderful writing. And yet. Enormous as this volume is, some threads didn't seem to advance very f...moreGotta love it, because it's a huge slab of George's wonderful writing. And yet. Enormous as this volume is, some threads didn't seem to advance very far. For instance, whilst there's much business at the Wall, a lot of it seems largely administrative; and whilst we revisit Arya for a couple of chapters, we don't find any great change in her situation. Similarly, while the new thread about Quentyn Martell is undoubtedly worthwhile, there seemed to be perhaps more detail in its early stages than was needed. If the HBO series makes it this far, I can see a lot of this being dumped for the TV adaptation.
We also spend time journeying with Tyrion, and oddly, with Victarion of the Iron Islands, among others. The focus of attention in this book, however, is firmly on Daenerys Targaryen, and most of the book concerns her or people approaching her. Hers is far the most exciting thread and does reach the climax promised by the title; yet still, there's another aspect of the story about her city, Meereen, that is left hanging when it seemed like it was going to be the logical finale. So for all its length, it feels like the book finished 100 pages too soon.
Nonetheless, Martin's writing is engaging throughout, so I couldn't help but enjoy it, and for over a month! I just hope his plots aren't tipping over into uncontrollable sprawl, as in later volumes of Robert Jordan's stuff...(less)
Steve Martin's good-natured comedies would no more clue you in to his being a fine novelist than they would suggest to you that he's an accomplished b...moreSteve Martin's good-natured comedies would no more clue you in to his being a fine novelist than they would suggest to you that he's an accomplished bluegrass banjo player. From this book (his third novel) it would appear that he's also an art aficionado.
Lacey Yeagar is an up-and-coming trader in the exciting New York art scene of the 1990s. The narrator, her more conventional art-critic friend, details her manoeuvrings over the years, as she wields her knowledge, instincts, gaiety and sexuality in her efforts to get to the top. It is she who is the object of beauty in the title, and we see her 'value' rise and fall with fashion like that of a modern painting.
Immersed in its world, Martin's prose dances lightly on the plot, tasting telling details like a diligent butterfly. Wit and concision paint characters with deft strokes:
"I'm thinking of getting a dog," she said. "What kind?" I asked. "One that's near death." "Why?" "Less of a commitment," she answered.
He had a body shaped like a bowling pin and would sometimes accidentally dress like one, too, wearing a white suit with a wide red belt. His wife, Cornelia, was thin where he was wide, and wide where he was thin, so when they stood side by side, they fit together like Texas and Louisiana.
But this is not simply played for laughs: it's a portrait of a woman who fascinates and the damage she wreaks, largely through being herself. Like a work of art, she has a variety of impacts on those around her, and is rendered worthless by even a whiff of fakery. The novel is a sympathetic witness to the thrall that art, and other people, can exert on us. Stretching on through 9/11 and the Credit Crunch, and pleasingly illustrated by plates of many of the paintings mentioned, it's also an impressive chronicle of two heady decades among the New York cognoscenti.(less)
Even writing a week after finishing this one, I'm a little puzzled by it. The familiar Austen apparatus is all present and correct: Catherine, our goo...moreEven writing a week after finishing this one, I'm a little puzzled by it. The familiar Austen apparatus is all present and correct: Catherine, our good-natured heroine, visits Bath, commences an unspoken romance and negotiates her way through social difficulties to a satisfactory engagement. Interwoven is an overt defence of literature, leavened with a warning to be mindful of its influence, as Catherine's infatuation with horrific novels leads her into sensational fantasies. The prejudices and misunderstandings of real life are presented as potentially harsher still than her most Gothic imaginings. Honest Catherine grows convincingly from endearing naivety to brave dignity, snagging her Henry in the process, whilst those fixated on money find their obsession leads them into unhappiness.
Still, all this did not form a well-focussed beam for me. The theme of ill-judged fantasising seemed to end long before the contrasting reality (if such was intended) reared its head; and with over half the book gone before the eponymous Abbey appeared, the book's project remains unclear to me. (In fairness, Austen didn't choose the title.) This seems the slightest Austen I've read so far - but of course still engaging and intriguing throughout.(less)
It's 1963 in Texas, and Doc is down on his luck. Haunted by the irascible ghost of his sometime friend and patient Hank Williams, Doc has fallen out o...moreIt's 1963 in Texas, and Doc is down on his luck. Haunted by the irascible ghost of his sometime friend and patient Hank Williams, Doc has fallen out of practice and into dope addiction, scraping by in a boarding house by performing back-street abortions for prostitutes and poor girls. One of these waifs, Graciela, is left behind with him, unable to speak English and with nowhere to go. Over time he and Graciela become partners - in 'crime', if not precisely in love - but her startling and inexplicable healing powers begin to draw unwelcome attention.
This is a smart novel at the bottom of society. Steve Earle's prose is economic and pointed and he evokes the time and place very well. Ultimately the characters are fumbling towards ways to get right with themselves and their gods, and Earle deftly mixes elements from Mexican, Catholic and American cultures, his fantasy inclusions nodding towards magic realism. A word-fencing conversation between two priests, pulled out of a hat near the end, is a particular treat. The book is a heartening yet clear-sighted redemption song.(less)
The tenth and final volume of the chronicles of Thomas Covenant has a lot to live up to. The irritating features of the recent series are still presen...moreThe tenth and final volume of the chronicles of Thomas Covenant has a lot to live up to. The irritating features of the recent series are still present: a lot of talking and over-thinking between events; clumsy lists of who's standing where and who's following who (not aided by the cumbersome names of Giants); and vocabulary that varies from the actinic and pellucid to the lambent and crepuscular. (?)
However, the ratio seems better in this volume, the exotic language better worked-in, and a great deal happens in the way of spectacular confrontations. The moping Jeremiah comes into his own, and his personal resolution is cunningly organised. Linden and Covenant settle and work towards their separate goals with suitably final determination. Donaldson's plotting is smart and his moral philosophy of compassion and responsibility is trenchantly insistent. The climax is multi-stranded and exciting, though I was a little less comfortable with the epilogue, for reasons I couldn't disclose without spoilers.
One glaring peculiarity throughout this closing series of four books is that we see almost none of the ordinary inhabitants of the Land. Linden fled from Mithil Stonedown without meeting anyone but Liand, and later passed through a destroyed village without us hearing a single line of dialogue from the villagers. Apart from those close encounters, the thousands or millions of folk who populate the place remain invisible. It means that Team Covenant seem to be working to save a wilderness reserve rather than a living country - very different from the First Chronicles.
That aside, this volume and this series is a grand achievement, not only as an epic fantasy adventure but as a gymnasium of morality, a turbulent sequence of compelling thought-experiments that challenge the reader as well as the characters to find the best outcome. Impressive, involving and satisfying.(less)
A graphic novel about a pair of detectives, one of whom is, indeed, a teabag (see if you can guess which from th...more
"Don't be lecherous. You're a teabag."
A graphic novel about a pair of detectives, one of whom is, indeed, a teabag (see if you can guess which from their names...). Fernandez Britten is weary of being "the Heartbreaker", famous for investigating adultery cases and wrecking families. He takes on instead a case about an apparent suicide, possible a murder; but finds troubling links back to an unhappy investigation from years ago.
The story is complex, the dialogue dry and witty, but underlying the sordid intricacies of human machinations is Britten's growing disillusionment with the value of "truth" and his recognition of the harm his work has caused. The atmospheric artwork uses watery palettes and distancing perspectives that make the dark, cramped city seem like a rat run. Berry is good at conveying story through pictures too, although the wordless spread where Britten puts it all together made my brain hurt - in a good way! :) An original and intriguing debut.(less)
Around the end of the nineteenth century we find Jude, a country boy growing into a thoughtful man, unremarkable in his origins and untypically restle...moreAround the end of the nineteenth century we find Jude, a country boy growing into a thoughtful man, unremarkable in his origins and untypically restless. He aims to become a scholar in the university city of Christminster, but is waylaid by an ill-judged and ill-fated marriage, and then by a truer love that is no less problematic.
This is a dismal tale of nature and aspiration thwarted by society. Jude's lofty reading is no passport for one of humble birth, and it is only as a stonemason that he can approach Christminster's forbidding yet picturesque walls:
They had done nothing but wait, and had become poetical. How easy to the smallest building; how impossible to most men.
His next hope is that in Sue, his cousin of liberal views, he might find a soulmate and intellectual companion. But their regrettable marriages and the intractable opinions of the world drag them inexorably apart: their fierce love cannot hold them together on the diverging railtracks laid down by conventional morality.
Even with that indispensable love, there is little cheer in this story. Indeed, there are notable episodes that remain disturbingly dark a century after it was written. A schoolroom brawl contains the novel's only approach to humour, so make the most of it:
...a churchwarden was dealt such a topper with the map of Palestine that his head went right through Samaria...
Jude and Sue are, in their different ways, crushed by social convention as if by falling masonry. Neither academia, nor marriage, nor religion will accept them as they are. The benefits of civilisation to the ordinary man are questionable at best in Hardy's gloomfest, and we can only hope that his writing is less wise than it appears...(less)
Our unnamed narrator meets Harriet when both are students, helping to stage Henry V at a mid-west Shakespeare festival in the 1950s. He is intrigued b...moreOur unnamed narrator meets Harriet when both are students, helping to stage Henry V at a mid-west Shakespeare festival in the 1950s. He is intrigued by this self-proclaimed ‘free spirit’ and their relationship develops through a mutual interest in the theories about Shakespeare’s identity. He tells the tale from a later time, when their paths cross again in 1980.
It’s a puzzling piece. On the face of it, there is no reason for this novella to reside in Gollancz’s SF & fantasy range: nothing ‘impossible’ happens, and the only apparent contradiction with history is the moving of a real event by one month – which Crowley declares in an endnote. But why move it at all? Crowley is sometimes so fiendishly subtle that I wonder if I’ve missed something…
The title is also that of a mentioned real book, and perhaps hints at this quiet tale’s concern, which is less with Shakespeare than with a doomed and endless obsession about him – similar to the ill-starred obsession that the narrator has for Harriet. And is she – are any of us – truly free, or only shaken in the winds of history? It’s a graceful, moody piece, sunlit yet poignant, in which much more seems meant than is actually said. I feel a pull to reread this one sometime and look into all its corners. (But then that's true of all Crowley's writings.)(less)
Gustave Doré's illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe's poem are gothic, dramatic, crowded with angels and spirits, revelling in light and shade. There are...moreGustave Doré's illustrations for Edgar Allen Poe's poem are gothic, dramatic, crowded with angels and spirits, revelling in light and shade. There are some technical errors - the suggestive cone of shadow repeatedly shown over the chamber door doesn't really make sense, and an ornithologist would be unlikely to identify the depicted bird as a raven! - but the eye-poppingness of the pictures overwhelms any failings. I'm always impressed by engravings because the artist has to attend to every square millimetre of the page - there's precious little 'white space' in such dark images - and that in turn compels the viewer's eye to rove over the picture, picking up details and relishing the light and forms.
The edition includes a page of commentary, the full text of the poem, and then the plates, all full-page, accompanied by the relevant lines. These Dover editions are lovely things to have around.(less)
When Mrs Helen Graham moves into the dilapidated Wildfell Hall with her boy but no husband, she is the talk of the neighbourhood. Impressed by her str...moreWhen Mrs Helen Graham moves into the dilapidated Wildfell Hall with her boy but no husband, she is the talk of the neighbourhood. Impressed by her strong and intelligent character and angered by the gossip, narrator Gilbert Markham struggles to penetrate her guard, and in due course we learn about the roots of her defensiveness in her unhappy marriage to a dissolute.
Anne Brontë provides a sorrowful portrait of the ruin and emotional distress that drunken and immoral behaviour brings to the culprits and those around them. If Helen is a little too frosty and saintly to readily win the reader’s affection, Gilbert’s blundering impatience is quite the opposite, and the novel is not without engaging comedy, particularly in the scenes of Markham’s family. The inch by inch ‘romance’ that develops between these two protagonists is finely observed, as is the depiction of Helen’s shallow and selfish husband and his cronies. One has to indulge the text when Gilbert’s misunderstandings are improbably dense, but this is easily forgiven. Although far from sentiment and foolishness, the book has a didactic feel, like a high-class public information film; but it’s a good book, if not quite a great one.(less)
Jurgis, a strong, simple man, brings his extended family from Lithuania to Chicago, in hope of a better life. Thrown into the giant system of the Chic...moreJurgis, a strong, simple man, brings his extended family from Lithuania to Chicago, in hope of a better life. Thrown into the giant system of the Chicago stockyards, our heroes are gradually ground down by its ruthless practices. Their expectation that honest hard work will sustain a modest, decent lifestyle is revealed as hopelessly naive, and the family eventually crumbles under the strain to just survive.
The novel opens with the wedding of Jurgis and Ona, a scene in which the passion, humour and humanity of the characters are at their height:
As [Marija] roars her song, in a voice of which it is enough to say that it leaves no portion of the room vacant, the three musicians follow her, laboriously and note by note, but averaging one note behind.
The opening is bursting with life and goodness. But from there it is downhill all the way, as the gears of the packing machine bite into their lives and every day is a desperate struggle to claw a few cents out of it:
Once she cried aloud, and woke Jurgis, who was tired and cross. After that she learned to weep silently - their moods so seldom came together now! It was as if their hopes were buried in separate graves.
The relentless parade of barbarous practices ought logically to pale in its impact, but in fact each new monstrosity is more appalling than the last:
It was too dark in these storage places to see well, but a man could run his hand over these piles of meat and sweep off handfuls of the dried dung of rats. These rats were a nuisance, and the packers would put poisoned bread out for them; they would die, and then rats, bread and meat would go into the hoppers together.
The comparison between the packers' merciless exploitation of livestock and of workers is explicit and unavoidable:
He was of no consequence - he was flung aside, like a bit of trash, the carcass of some animal.
In its portrayal of savage exploitation, The Jungle stands alongside classics like London Labour and the London Poor and The Grapes of Wrath. Sinclair's exposé of industry's systematic devouring of immigrant labour shouts its own case, but he helps it along too with bursts of impassioned rhetoric - such as when Jurgis is arrested:
Now and then he cried aloud for a drink of water, but there was no one to hear him. There were others in that same station house with split heads and a fever; there were hundreds of them in the great city, and tens of thousands of them in the great land, and there was no one to hear any of them.
And when he is starving on the streets:
...everywhere was the sight of plenty and the merciless hand of authority waving them away. There is one kind of prison where the man is behind bars, and everything that he desires is outside; and there is another kind where the things are behind the bars, and the man is outside.
All this is powerful, furious and bleak writing; but the trajectory of the tale is unfortunate. Jurgis' long travails bring him at length into the arms of socialism, clearly Sinclair's cure for these ills. The author's utopian presentation of a socialist future is understandable, laudable even, for a writer in 1906 who had not the dubious benefit of seeing the advent of communism and finding it quite as susceptible to corruption and brutalisation as capitalism. Indeed, the first of the speeches that Jurgis witnesses is an absolutely enthralling piece of oration. However, the closing passages of the book are entirely concerned with these hopeful politics, and Jurgis becomes no more than a cypher, a sort of roving webcam giving the reader access to the discussion. It's sad that in his enthusiasm to convert, Sinclair does to Jurgis what he has been at such pains to condemn: he crushes out the man's humanity in pursuit of an ideology. Plainly the author's motives are infinitely preferable to the greed of untrammelled industry, but this failing means that the novel lacks any human, felt resolution - a great shame after the pathos and tragedy that has captivated us throughout.
Nonetheless, it's a moving, eye-opening and unforgettable novel.
(PS. My (kindley) edition was not the 36-chapter 'unexpurgated' version.)(less)
A classic picaresque comic yarn. I started it when I was 17 and ploughed to a stop in a few pages, up to my neck in the treacle of eighteenth-century...moreA classic picaresque comic yarn. I started it when I was 17 and ploughed to a stop in a few pages, up to my neck in the treacle of eighteenth-century prose. Or perhaps sawdust rather than treacle: this is dry stuff, after all. But this time, with many more years and books under my belt, I was able to enjoy and even relish the orotund sentences, the disingenuous authorial posturing and the windy dialogue.
Briefly: Tom, a bastard, is taken under the wing of the benevolent Squire Allworthy, and later falls for Sophia, pure-hearted daughter of a neighbour, the blustering Squire Western. Allworthy's nephew Blifil schemes to get Tom out of the way of any inheritance, and after numerous bawdy and domestic episodes, Tom is turned out and hits the road. Rambling across the land he has many more adventures, before fetching up in London. There the other characters gather for various reasons, and after much confusion things come to a satisfying end.
There's a lot to laugh at in this book: the passage in mock-Homeric prose about a slattern beating up a disapproving congregation in the churchyard had me choking on the bus. But then there's a lot of this book in general, and I could have done with the chuckles being closer together. Fielding paints his world in conversation and psychology: the senses are little catered for, so that, for instance, the long grey middle of the novel is a bewildering succession of inns and roads and bedrooms, with no physical descriptions to anchor the reader in the world. Reading this over months on my commute, I soon lost track of people, places and incidents. That said, it's good fun all the way along, and the close satirical observation of manners and character retains its good-natured bite across the centuries.
Much of this may be illustrated by a paragraph in which Blifil refers to the wisdom of the hypocrite priest Thwackum and the dissolute philosopher Square:
For these reasons Mr Blifil was so desirous of the match that he intended to deceive Sophia, by pretending love to her; and to deceive her father and his own uncle, by pretending he was beloved by her. In doing this he availed himself of the piety of Thwackum, who held, that if the end proposed was religious (as surely matrimony is), it mattered not how wicked were the means. As to other occasions, he used to apply the philosophy of Square, which taught, that the end was immaterial, so that the means were fair and consistent with moral rectitude. To say truth, there were few occurrences in life on which he could not draw advantage from the precepts of one or other of those great masters.
If that doesn't draw up the corners of your lips, this novel is probably not for you!(less)
The schtick here is that Charles Dickens, helping victims at a train crash, encounters a cadaverous and mysterious 'gentleman' called Drood, who seems...moreThe schtick here is that Charles Dickens, helping victims at a train crash, encounters a cadaverous and mysterious 'gentleman' called Drood, who seems to have a hand in hastening death among the injured. Fascinated and repelled by this creature, Dickens confides in his friend and fellow writer Wilkie Collins, and the two of them set out to search for Drood in the labyrinth of crypts and sewers beneath London.
The gothic yarn, itself a dark labyrinth, is narrated by Collins, who does not emerge well in this portrait: the reader sees an envious, vain, misogynistic and drug-addled little man, seething in Dickens' shadow. (If you've seen Amadeus, Collins plays Salieri to Dickens' Mozart.) Dickens too is presented warts and all, but since everything is seen through the laudanum-drenched and gout-ridden eyes of Collins, the reader must be careful in judgement. Indeed, atop the unreliability of the self-serving narrator are layers of hallucination and hearsay, opium and mesmerism: the reader is aware that the narrative can't be trusted, but it is fiendishly difficult to tease apart the fiction and the phantasms, both deftly woven in amongst the facts of these two writers' latter years.
Simmons' fulsome research here suffuses the book without hobbling it, as has sometimes happened in some of his earlier novels. The narrative voice of Wilkie Collins, self-revealing yet blind to his own faults, is an excellent piece of mischief, and Simmons ingeniously provides for the reader a denouement that neither of his protagonists can fully understand. For all its colourful horrors, intricate thrills and wild delirium, this is finally a book about writers - artists - enslaved by their work: the burden of genius, and the tragedy of knowing you aren't one. It's a treat for fans of either writer, and among Simmons' best.(less)