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)
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)
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)
Gulliver's first journey, to Lilliput, is the most well known and colourful, but perhaps the least reflective. Next comes Brobdingnag, a land of giant...moreGulliver's first journey, to Lilliput, is the most well known and colourful, but perhaps the least reflective. Next comes Brobdingnag, a land of giants, whose area must be of - well - Brobdingnagian proportions! Then the flying island of Laputa, whose high-blown intellectuals employ 'flappers' to tickle their ears and mouths when their minds drift off into maths and music. Finally, the land of the Houyhnhnms, rational and civilised horses who use humans (Yahoos) as beasts of burden.
There is constant interest in our pleasant narrator's (and, separately, our cynical author's) observations on human nature, brought out by contrast and comparison with the strange societies Gulliver encounters. Swift's satire is witty and dry - very eighteenth-century. The writing often raised a smirk on your humble reviewer's face. Here our hero explains the unknown concept of soldiering to a Houyhnhnm:
For these reasons, the trade of a soldier is held the most honourable of all others; because a soldier is a Yahoo hired to kill, in cold blood, as many of his own species, who have never offended him, as possibly he can.
Unhinted at in the numerous adaptations misguidedly aimed at children is the author's scatological bent - as when Lemuel extinguishes a fire in the palace of the Lilliputian queen by urinating on it. In any case, the book's reflections on politics, academia, war and so forth, would likely bore most young readers. (I would have welcomed the odd car chase myself.)
But for the grown-up, Swift's barbs sting even as they amuse, and I found myself drawn into empathising with our narrator's unhappiness when he must ultimately leave behind the one place he has found true civilisation, to return to us Philistines. Fella has a point.(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)
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)
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)
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 behind this short graphic novel is an alternate history in which it was Britain that scooped up all Germany's Peenemunde rocket scientists...moreThe schtick behind this short graphic novel is an alternate history in which it was Britain that scooped up all Germany's Peenemunde rocket scientists at the end of WWII. With funds from an obscure source, the Ministry Of Space rushed ahead, creating a 50s-flavoured, British RAF-looking space programme that builds space stations, goes to the Moon, and eventually sends a fleet to Mars. At the centre of all this 'progress' is a ruthless air officer full of secrets.
The triumphal adventures in space and the application of the technology on Earth keep Britain at the top of the world's superpowers for 50 years, and the social change we experienced in reality is here perceived as born of a necessity that doesn't apply in this wealthy and bold alternate Britain. Consequently the English idyll endures and grows stagnant, even as the Empire expands to new worlds.
It's a cunning piece of social commentary, told with admirable concision and imagination. But on top of that, the artwork is absolutely splendid - both in line and colour. (The colourist is the least mentioned contributor in the intro and afterword, but every frame is so vivid and alive that it leaps off the page.) The thing took much longer to read than the story required, because the images were magnetic. Great stuff.(less)
This is a science fiction novel so on the edge of now that it was sadly out of date even by the time it was published! Spinrad projected forward a few...moreThis is a science fiction novel so on the edge of now that it was sadly out of date even by the time it was published! Spinrad projected forward a few decades of Russian, US and European space programmes on the (mistaken!) assumption that the Soviet Union would continue. He depicts USSR moving into capitalism without crumbling.
Apart from having the rug pulled out from under it by history, this is a splendid SF novel. We follow a number of characters, but principally a top-flight engineer who works on designing spacecraft. His dream, of course, is to one day get up there himself, but this seems frankly impossible. Disillusioned and prickly, he shuffles between the space programmes of different continents, struggling between idealism and compromise.
There's lots more going on, in terms of politics, social liberation (a hippy president!) and romance; but ultimately the novel soars above itself into that fabled sense of wonder that people read SF to find. It's an optimistic vision of a future we've already pissed away...(less)
A near-future science fiction novel whose protagonist is a semiotic detective: he doesn't look for clues, he reads cultural signs. That such a profess...moreA near-future science fiction novel whose protagonist is a semiotic detective: he doesn't look for clues, he reads cultural signs. That such a profession could ever come about is absurd, but the conceit makes for an interesting novel. As well as falling for a dame (naturally), our hero also solves an intricate political crime.
What makes this tale notable is the author's commitment to the idea. Everything is about the significance of forms: sports fixtures are ultimately won or lost by the quality and cut of the team's uniforms; a complimentary bottle of wine is scrutinised for layers of meaning; even the hero's romance is conducted as a dance of ritual. It's a stylish novel about style.(less)