Originally published on my blog here in October 1999.
The front cover of this edition bears an endorsement from Orson Scott Card comparing Barnes to Ro...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 1999.
The front cover of this edition bears an endorsement from Orson Scott Card comparing Barnes to Robert A. Heinlein. On the basis of earlier Barnes novels, the John Brunner-like Mother of Storms and the brutal Kaleidoscope Century, this may seem rather a strange comparison to make. Yet Orbital Resonance is distinctly reminiscent of the best of Heinlein's books for teenagers, a tradition to which Card's own Ender's Game perhaps also belongs. (Orbital Resonance has a low-gravity game which is quite similar to that battle room in Ender's Game.
Set on a space station designed to aid the colonisation of Mars, the background to Orbital Resonance is a ruined Earth in only a few decades time. The satellite is the last bastion of the civilisation of mankind; there a group of gifted children are being conditioned to become the new elite of the human race. The novel takes the form of the journal of one of these children, Melpomene Murray, as they approach adulthood and a crisis in the form of a new arrival from Earth in their class.
Barnes also makes points about the way that the West lives today, by looking at how the relatively affluent children on the satellite see the lives of those remaining on Earth's surface, a place of continual famine and desperate want. Part of the school curriculum is a subject intended to enhance the children's understanding of and empathy for what is going on, yet they are virtually unaffected by the video footage, merely making such callous and stupid comments as "why don't they just grow more food?". They may be gifted, but they find it exceptionally difficult to understand any point of view different from the culture conditioned on them; another example is the complete incomprehension the narrator has as to why her word processor might possibly query the use of the word "clitoris" as "audience-inappropriate" (after all, girls on Earth must have them too).
Like Heinlein, Barnes manages to write convincingly as a bright teenage girl. (As a man in his thirties, I may not be the best judge of this, but he at least convinced me.) The sentimentality of Heinlein is absent, and Melpomene's crushing discovery of the years of manipulation at the hands of her parents is strongly handled.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in June 2001.
The two quotations that everyone remembers from this novel come at the very beginning ("It was the b...moreOriginally published on my blog here in June 2001.
The two quotations that everyone remembers from this novel come at the very beginning ("It was the best of times, it was the worst of times...") and at the very end ("It is a far far better thing..."). There are other memorable phrases ("Recalled to life", for example), and plenty of memorable scenes as Dickens depicts the arrogance of the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century and the turmoil of the revolution.
But A Tale of Two Cities is not just about memorable phrases and scenes. It is the Dickens novel which is most clearly plotted as a whole, where events flow from one to another and melodramatic coincidences are at a minimum. (The obvious example of the resemblance between Charles Darnay and Sydney Carton is long established by the time it is needed.) The novel is one of Dickens' shortest, and that may be a reason why it is better plotted, but it also lacks the wonderful casts of minor characters which fill most of his writing.
Having said that, the most memorable characters are the Defarges, particularly Madame, who has a disturbing malevolence. They are not as central to the plot as they are to the atmosphere in the Paris set sections of the novel, as it moves from sullen resentment of the aristocracy to the tyranny of the Terror. Dickens' handling of the history is closely based on Carlyle's account, and is even-handedly against injustice, portraying a terrible picture of the actions of both sides. We shouldn't forget, of course, that when Dickens was writing this novel, the French Revolution was comparatively recent history, as much as the Second World War is today, and well within living memory.
The story is one of personal heroism in a world gone mad, and Dickens' novel is a plea for humanity. It remains immensely powerful, perhaps more so than some of his works which campaign with a specific target, now long attained. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in January 2000.
In the life of Ngaio Marsh, there are three major themes: her New Zealand background, her love of...moreOriginally published on my blog here in January 2000.
In the life of Ngaio Marsh, there are three major themes: her New Zealand background, her love of the theatre, and her writing of detective novels. Her autobiography, first published in the sixties and revised a few years before her death, concentrates on the first two to the virtual exclusion of the third. More is said of the journalism which began her writing career than of the Alleyn series. There are many possible reasons why she might do this, but I suspect that it is mainly that writing is not a spectacularly interesting activity to write about. Once a writer has answered the questions "Where do you get your ideas from?" and "Are your characters based on real people?" there isn't much to say. Marsh doesn't really answer the first question, but the answer to the second is definitely yes.The reader is introduced to the Lampreys, close friends of Marsh only marginally less irritating than their fictional versions.
The major interest in the autobiography is the story of Marsh's involvement in the theatre. Her contributions to the development of New Zealand based theatre were important enough for them to be the reason she was awarded the DBE rather than her writing. She was an actress, but was best known for her direction, especially of Shakespeare. Shakespeare was considered too difficult for New Zealand audiences, but British touring companies had some success, and so did Marsh with companies made up principally of students. It always seems that a good production of Shakespeare can be understood and enjoyed by any audience; it is the way that he is taught in schools and the immensity of his reputation that put people off.
In the end, this is not an autobiography which reveals much about its subject; it tells us little that cannot be picked up from the detective stories - the love of theatre and of her country of origin comes across quite strongly in several of them.(less)
Originally published on my blog here& in August 2000.
The Maltese Falcon is one of those novels which it is difficult to disentangle from an incred...moreOriginally published on my blog here& in August 2000.
The Maltese Falcon is one of those novels which it is difficult to disentangle from an incredibly famous film version, like (for example) The Postman Always Rings Twice. The film in this case conveys the atmosphere of the book extremely well, with the casting in particular being very apt with the exception of Humphrey Bogart, who, while he gives a wonderful performance as Sam Spade, is not like the character depicted in the novel.
In the novel, almost the only things the reader can be sure of are, firstly, that the major characters are looking out for themselves alone and, secondly, that they are not concerned about the immorality or criminality of what they do for their own benefit, whether it is lying or murder. The tale is about the falling out of thieves, and there is certainly no honour among them.
Although one of the classics of crime fiction, The Maltese Falcon is more a thriller in tone rather than a whodunit. The tension as Spade becomes more involved in the shady dealings surrounding the falcon is exceptionally well handled, and even though the reader almost forgets the question of who killed Miles Archer (Spade's partner), Hammett does not and reveals everything at the end in classic whodunit style. This puzzle, which is quite subtle, is only a minor part of the novel, and this nod in the direction of the whodunit is one of the reasons it is a classic.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in April 2004.
The small number of books that I would consider my favourite serious fantasy novels (E.R. Eddison's...moreOriginally published on my blog here in April 2004.
The small number of books that I would consider my favourite serious fantasy novels (E.R. Eddison's Mistress of Mistresses, Michael Moorcock's The Dancers at the End of Time series, Jack Vance's Lyonesse, John Crowley's Little, Big) share one important quality - atmosphere. There are other novels with similar power that I don't actually like very much, notably China Miéville's Perdido Street Station, and at least one series that I suspect would join the list if I got round to reading it, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy. Now The Light Ages has to join the list; it will surely also establish itself as one of the classics of the genre.
The setting of The Light Ages is an alternative industrial England, a place where the essence of magic, a mineral named aether, is mined alongside iron and coal. It is the story of a man born in a Yorkshire town which is a centre of aether mining, and how he travels to London and becomes part of a train of events which threaten the power of the Guildsmen who are the magnates of the Age, the Third Age of Industry that many think is coming to its end.
This background is itself enough to make The Light Ages stand out as an original fantasy novel. Alternate histories are almost always fit better into the science fiction genre than fantasy, with a special version of the "What if..." question that is the core of the genre. It is almost commonplace to ask questions like "What might have happened if Nazi Germany and Japan had wone the Second World War?" (Philip K. Dick's The Man in the High Castle) or "What might England be like if the Reformation had never happened?" (Keith Roberts' Pavane). But almost always these are straight extrapolations from the science and technology of the time, without the extra magical dimension used here. Where magic is interpolated into the real world, or a background as clearly related to the real world, it tends to be at the fringes, "beyond the fields we know" or in an unseen world underpinning the everyday, as in Neil Gaiman's novels. The Light Ages is pretty much unique as an alternate history which seriously looks at how things might be different if magic is real. (The only novel I can think of comparable in terms of the use of magic in an alternative reality is The Wolves of Willoughby Chase - a children's classic in the genre.) The Light Ages is also one of only a small number of fantasy novels in which magic is an industrial raw material used in processes which produce pollution. (Saruman's industrialisation in The Lord of the Rings is easily the best known example, though there and in The Second Chronicles of Thomas Covenant it is the misuse of magic which pollutes. Holly Lisle has also set her novels in a world contaminated by fallout from an ancient war between wizards.)
The England portrayed in The Light Ages is very much the polluted, industrial and worker-exploiting England of the Victorian era, Dickensian in inspiration though MacLeod is able to be more explicit in his depiction of squalor than Dickens ever did. While the quality of his evocation in places approaches Dickens, its attention to the industrial poor and radical politics is more akin to the writing of Elizabeth Gaskell. This fantasy novel is one of the best ever written, and any reader of the genre would be well advised to pick it up. They may find that it's too slow for their tastes, but I just found it magical.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in December 2001.
One of Doctorow's more experimental novels, Loon Lake presents a bewildering collection of diffe...moreOriginally published on my blog here in December 2001.
One of Doctorow's more experimental novels, Loon Lake presents a bewildering collection of different techniques: traditional narratives, stream of consciousness, poetry. It is also a novel which continually reminds the reader of others, possibly an easy way for an author to put himself in the tradition of the great American novel; among those which are brought to mind are The Grapes of Wrath and the U.S.A. trilogy.
Loon Lake, a retreat for millionaire industrialist F.W. Bennett in the 1920s, is the central setting of the novel. Young hobo Joe turns up there, entranced by a woman seen through the windows of a private railway carriage. There too is poet Warren Penfield, Bennett's pensioner; as the novel follows Joe's path after he meets Bennett and leaves Loon Lake, so too in parallel it describes Penfield's journey there. (The mixed up chronology contributes to the experimental feeling of the novel.)
A difficult read, with even the most traditional parts of the narrative flipping between first and third person, Loon Lake is also atmospheric and interesting for a reader prepared to make the effort.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 2002.
Redemption Ark is far more closely linked to Reynold's first novel, Revelation Space than is his...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 2002.
Redemption Ark is far more closely linked to Reynold's first novel, Revelation Space than is his second, even though all three are set in the same vision of the future. The actions of Sylveste in that novel have awakened an ancient horror in the galaxy; he has unknowingly made the signal that calls it to action. This is a culture of machines, which has the purpose of keeping intelligent life in check to guard against a future catastrophe. This is the reason that human explorers have found the galaxy full of the archaeological remains of extinct alien cultures, but none surviving. Sylveste has for the first time used a technology proving the existence of a new race of intelligent beings with an interstellar cultures, and this has made the Inhibitors swing into action once again.
There are others who notice the use of these tools, for they are doomsday weapons so fearful that not only have they never been used, but the technology used to create them was deliberately forgotten. They were made by the Conjoiners, a faction of humanity which has used mechanical aids to brain function to create a hive mind; and they want them back.
Being the third novel set in this universe, Redemption Ark lacks the "wow factor" experienced in reading the first two. It settles down a bit more to character, and in doing so reveals more definitely that Reynolds is from the same school as Iain M. Banks' Culture novels. There is more hard science (particularly nanotechnology) and less humour, but there are many similarities. The major difference, that Banks' novels are far less interconnected, imparts strengths and weaknesses to each writer's work. The ending of Redemption Ark really calls out for a sequel; it is nothing like as definite as those of Revelation Space and Chasm City. More additions to this series are, I hope, inevitable. Reynolds is one of the finds of twenty-first century science fiction, amply confirming the promise of his debut.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in September 2001.
The novels in the original Spellsinger series make up a continuous narrative much more than mos...moreOriginally published on my blog here in September 2001.
The novels in the original Spellsinger series make up a continuous narrative much more than most fantasy sagas do. This, the second, concerns preparations to resist the plans of the Plated Folk (insects) to overrun the Warmlands, where most of the animals of the alien world on which Johntom found himself stranded in Spellsinger live.
The Hour of the Gate is the least humorous novel in the series, and this exposes some shortcomings despite the clearly professional way in which the novel is put together. This is particularly the case with the description of the trip into the territory of the Weavers, where the companions encounter strange, almost allegorical monsters, which they relate to the causes of nightmares. The tone in this passage is different, the creatures are unconvincing, and Jontom's companions indulge in superficial philosophising.
Things improve towards the end, and there are some shocks in store for the first time reader. However, the end itself is a let down. Like the rest of this series, re-reading The Hour of the Gate has proved something of a disappointment.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in March 2004.
This collection of short stories is the only one published by Deighton; I don't know of other, unco...moreOriginally published on my blog here in March 2004.
This collection of short stories is the only one published by Deighton; I don't know of other, uncollected tales, so this seems to be something of an experiment in his output (as were several other books he published in the early seventies). As the title suggests, they are all war stories, though all of them have something a little unusual about them. (view spoiler)[The little twists include such ideas as having a story of air combat in the First World War, very much apparently in the style of W.E. Johns, turn out to be about the Germans. (This particular trick is repeated in another story as well, with the added element that student unrest in the thirties is used to evoke the student agitation of the late sixties.) (hide spoiler)]
The stories are all very short, and they are constructed so that the twist is the most important aspect of every one of them (something more commonly considered a feature of science fiction than other genres - though writers like Frederick Forsyth do this frequently in the thriller). All that most of the stories do is set up the situation, then reveal the twist. This makes them a little short of space for characterisation and so they are filled with stereotypes.
The best story in the collection is the first one, It Must Have Been Two Other Fellows, which has a premise rather similar to the song I Remember It Well. Two men meet in a garage where one is working on his car in his spare time after the Second World War, and they recognise each other - they were together in a tank action in North Africa. Or were they? As they reminisce about it, it becomes clear that their memories of what happened are mutually contradictory. So the reader is left guessing whether they are remembering different, yet similar, events, their mutual recognition being a mistake; or whether the War was a time that neither remembers clearly, even its most exciting moments.
Generally, though, these stories are fun to read once and individually. They do pall a bit read all in one go, even though, as no prior publication details are given, the assumption is that they were intended to form part of this collection from their conception. They are too similar to feel inventive to anyone who reads all the way through, and I was left, as someone who has now read them twice, feeling that Deighton is a novelist trying a little too hard at the unfamiliar craft of short story writing. ["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>(less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 1998.
When the Music Stops is Norman Lebrecht's notorious attack on the classical music business and wh...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 1998.
When the Music Stops is Norman Lebrecht's notorious attack on the classical music business and what he views as its virtually terminal decline. As music critic for the Daily Telegraph he is in a good position to know the current state of the industry, and he is not afraid to be critical or to name names. Condemned by many when it came out - particularly those with an interest in the kind of activities he criticises - When the Music Stops is vitriolic and extremely entertaining.
Lebrecht's thesis is basically twofold. The large agencies gained too great a share in the market for musicians, leading to corruption ("If you want such and such a star, the rest of your opera cast must also be my clients"), particularly as these agencies were also connected with broadcasting, recording and performance venues. The concurrent concentration on a few star names has led to overpriced big fee performers, and this means lower wages for other musicians and an inability on the part of venues and recordings to make a profit. Many artists and managers come in for criticism along the way, but Lebrecht seems to want to reserve his strongest criticism for Herbert von Karajan, with his dubious Nazi past and demand for ever greater control in his autocracies of the Salzburg festival and the Berlin Philharmonic.
There is certainly some truth in the generalities of what Lebrecht says; large fees do not guarantee a good performance. Not even perfection does that; Karajan turned in many soulless performances on record in which not a wrong note could be heard. (I don't really like Karajan's conducting myself either.) It is difficult for one outside the music profession to have a complete enough picture to be able to judge how one-sided Lebrecht's view of things actually is. As he himself points out, there are record labels doing good things and even making money - Lebrecht cites Nimbus and Hyperion among others.
No matter whether or not you agree with his argument, When the Music Stops is great fun to read, as it dissects the music business fearlessly, from the time of Mozart to the present.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in January 2004.
The fourth Harry Palmer novel (in which he is still an unnamed narrator; the name was given him f...moreOriginally published on my blog here in January 2004.
The fourth Harry Palmer novel (in which he is still an unnamed narrator; the name was given him for the films) is the most dated of all of them. It relies on a plot device straight from James Bond or even The Man From UNCLE - the network of agents run by a computer. The novel begins with a Finnish journalist making waves when he starts investigating what he thinks is a massive British Secret Service operation in Finland - but there isn't one, so Palmer and his superiors want to find out just what he has stumbled across. The trail leads to a private army, assembled by a rabidly anti-Communist American billionaire, whose technicians have built the computer (in typical sixties style, one which fills several floors of a large building) to run the group's operations.
In the end, the computer is relatively unimportant, but it certainly does mark out Billion-Dollar Brain as a product of its time. As a spy thriller, though, the novel is something of a let-down for other reasons, which may well be why Deighton abandoned his Palmer character at this point. Indeed, it seems as though he has already, because almost all the quirkiness which marks the earlier novels is by now missing. By comparison with the earlier writing, it fails to be more than a run of the mill spy thriller. While still of the opinion that this is Deighton's poorest novel, it doesn't seem as bad this time around as I remember it (the computer plays a smaller part than I recalled, which may be part of the reason that this is the case). Nevertheless, it is still at least as good as its forgotten contemporaries - of which it would probably have been one without Deighton's name attached. (less)
Originally published on my blog here in September 2000.
Like Anne Perry's Victorian novels, but not to the same exaggerated extent, The Duke's Agent pr...moreOriginally published on my blog here in September 2000.
Like Anne Perry's Victorian novels, but not to the same exaggerated extent, The Duke's Agent presents something of the disreputable side of a historical period, in this case Georgian England. Here we have absentee landlords, dishonest magistrates, and the unpleasant tallyman, who was basically an unscrupulous debt collector who preyed on the poor.
When his steward there dies, the Duke of Penrith orders an audit into the estates he owns in the North East of England. He sends his remote kinsman Raif Jarrett, who soon discovers that something dishonest has been going on, though he cannot work out what as the account books have been stolen. A young woman is killed, and a fairly clumsy attempt is made to frame him for murder (though it is nearly good enough to make Jarrett the victim of a lynch mob). Thus he ends up trying to discover what happened to Sal Grundy as well as sorting out the Duke's affairs.
Basically a competent if not particularly complex detective story, The Duke's Agent has interesting characters and a well realised background. It is a pity that the publisher seems to feel that Rebecca Jenkins needs to be sold by mentioning her famous relatives - she is the daughter of that Bishop of Durham who notoriously denied the virgin birth of Christ - as The Duke's Agent is a strong enough novel to be allowed to stand on its own merits.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in November 1998.
The fourth of Michael Jecks' medieval Devonshire mysteries has a sombre tone, particularly as i...moreOriginally published on my blog here in November 1998.
The fourth of Michael Jecks' medieval Devonshire mysteries has a sombre tone, particularly as it starts with one of the major series characters, Simon Puttock, and his wife mourning the death of their young son. Throughout the novel, the bulk of the detection falls on the other major character, Sir Baldwin Furnshill; Simon is much less able to maintain an equal partnership as he mourns - a realistic touch which really helps deepen his character. (The lack of a third dimension to the series characters has so far been a bit of a problem for Jecks.)
The mystery itself is straightforward enough. A troop of mercenaries, led by the false knight (false in that he pretends to have been knighted) Sir Hector de Gorsenne, are staying in the small town of Crediton on their way from Edward II's Scottish wars to the south coast and France. They take over an entire tavern, and one of the tavern wenches, obsessed by dreams of a rich husband, ignores the warnings of the owner of the tavern that mercenaries are dangerous. From the first moment she appears on the scene, it is obvious that she will be a murder victim. Her character doesn't work so well; surely no woman in a tavern in the fourteenth century could have been stupid enough to believe that a mercenary possessed the virtues of one of the knights of the Round Table?
So, for a change, the series characters are more convincing and the medieval background less so. Jecks has now shown that he can manage to write both well; all he has to do is succeed with both at the same time. (Mind you, Ellis Peters managed to be hugely successful with the Cadfael series, which managed to do neither as far as I was concerned.)(less)
Originally published on my blog here in March 2000.
It is inevitable that any novel written about the British navy in the eighteenth or early nineteent...moreOriginally published on my blog here in March 2000.
It is inevitable that any novel written about the British navy in the eighteenth or early nineteenth century will be compared to C.S. Forester's Hornblower novels, to such an extent that endorsements of a novel saying that its hero rivals Hornblower are virtually meaningless. The genre is quite a narrow one, and Forester dominates it overwhelmingly.
Of the better known practitioners of this genre, Alexander Kent is perhaps the most like Forester and his hero Bolitho most like Hornblower. Patrick O'Brien has brought in a twist with the espionage in his novels; Dudley Pope has lightened the Ramage novels to the point of triviality. Bolitho is more heroic than Hornblower, yet his strengths to the modern reader are similar. Like Hornblower, for example, he finds the harsh punishments of the Navy at this time abhorrent; he possesses the ability to make brilliant strategic plans far beyond the grasp of his superiors and those around him; he rises quickly through the ranks despite the disapproval and incomprehension of hidebound superiors; he has the knack of inspiring devotion among those who server under him.
The tone is a little lighter than Hornblower, and Bolitho has an easier time of things (this may not be the case in the novel preceding this one, in which his beloved wife dies, but I have not read it). Worth reading if you like that sort of thing, Kent does not quite match up to the standard of Forester.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in December 2001.
This latest Pern novel reads as though it is meant to round off the series. It is one of the mos...moreOriginally published on my blog here in December 2001.
This latest Pern novel reads as though it is meant to round off the series. It is one of the most successful series of novels in science fiction, both long running and consistently high selling. The general trend has been for the novels to become more like soap opera episodes as time passes - a trend matched by the way that all of McCaffrey's output has become more homogeneous and unchallengingly predictable.
There are two main aspects to the story. The major dramatic event is a comet impact in Pern's oceans, a massive disaster. This is of course something inspired by the Schumacher-Levy impact on Jupiter, and is a dramatic yet extremely unlikely event. McCaffrey cites impressive technical assistance with the impact description, including oceanographic analysis of tsunami patterns based on the geography of Pern. The sort of panic this event can generate is shown by the way that governments have financed research to try to prevent it happening on Earth, while less dramatic but far more likely scenarios are much less sexy ways to spend money. (To be fair, it is relatively easy to see how to attack the problem of astronomical impacts, compared to, say, making the world's roads safe, or persuading Americans that spending a few minutes going through airport security is a worthwhile precaution.)
The other theme, continued from .The Masterharper of Pern, is the attacks of the Abominators, violent opponents of the changes brought by the information stored in Aivas, the computer which had survived from the original colonisation of Pern. People oppose technological advances for all kinds of reasons, but in her simplistic depiction of these Luddites as not too bright traditionalists, McCaffrey is going against the trends of the modern world. Rather than feeling that all advances are, by definition, evil, current unease about technology is partly due to the perception of past failures to correctly forecast and allow for the results of new applications of science (such as the link between increased burning of fossil fuels and global warning), and also apprehension at the dangers inherent in what we can do now or will soon be able to do, given the human race's past lack of restraint - I'm thinking of nuclear weapons and developments in genetics and biotechnology. It seems to me that fear for the future is a perfectly reasonable - and, indeed, intelligent - emotion to feel, especially as the sort of leaders the world has are not really such as to inspire much confidence.
This is, of course unlike the situation on Pern. There, rather unrealistically, de facto world rulers F'lar and Lessa have managed to be right in every crisis through the entire series of novels; their opponents have always turned out to be too wedded to tradition or to have their own agendas which are usually about personal power rather than the good of people generally, the motive of the two dragonriders. This is the sort of thing which makes this series less significant than it might be; easy to read, but not very deep(less)
Originally published on my blog here in April 1998.
This is an unusual member of Allingham's Campion series, as it is told in the first person from Cam...moreOriginally published on my blog here in April 1998.
This is an unusual member of Allingham's Campion series, as it is told in the first person from Campion's point of view. This, to me, makes it immediately more successful than some others in the series, by avoiding what I consider to be Campion's most annoying fault. In many of the books, I find there is too great a credibility gap between Campion's silly-ass public persona and the true, intelligent crime fighter underneath. ("Mild mannered janitor by day, Hong Kong Fuey...")
Campion receives a cryptic anonymous note which invites him to the funeral of a man he knew from school (and disliked), R.I. Peters, known as "Pig". (Few other writers would name the corpse in a detective novel with the initials RIP - this is before the days of Reginald Iolanthe Perrin.) He attends the funeral, intrigued by the note.
A few months later, Campion receives another note, and then is asked by a friend to go to the village of Kepesake where a man has been murdered. The corpse turns out to be Pig, who is already dead. So Campion has to work out how he was buried the first time round, how he came back to life, and why he died again. And then the corpse goes missing...(less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 1998.
A Touch of Mortality is another of Ann Granger's well-written Mitchell and Markby crime novels, i...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 1998.
A Touch of Mortality is another of Ann Granger's well-written Mitchell and Markby crime novels, in much the same vein as the others in the series. It's basically a case of like one, like all. By this point in the series, the relationship between the protagonists is well-established, so there is less about that here and more to establish the puzzle.
Like the others, A Touch of Mortality is a village murder, a successor to those Miss Marple mysteries which were actually set in St Mary Mead. The village setting here is not the gentry and vicars world of Agatha Christie's novels, but a nineties village with modern problems of rural poverty, overspill housing estates and resented outsiders with money.
The central characters in this novel are Sally Caswell and her husband Liam. They have moved from London into the country for peace and quiet for Liam to write a book. She works in an auction house in a local town and he is a biologist at an institute of Oxford University. Because of (now finished) experiments on animals, Liam starts receiving threatening letters from animal rights activists, but it is not until Sally opens a parcel that turns out to be a letter bomb that they involve the police in the person of Alan Markby.
Other than an over-reliance on coincidence common in crime novel series - it's incredibly dangerous to be a friend of Meredith Mitchell - there is nothing to really criticise in this well-written novel.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in March 2003.
It is not surprising that a high proportion of the science fiction novels which enjoy a high litera...moreOriginally published on my blog here in March 2003.
It is not surprising that a high proportion of the science fiction novels which enjoy a high literary reputation outside the genre are dystopias. The fundamental reason for this regard is that the form enables the writer to make comments about their own time, more clearly and unambiguously than almost any other, by exaggerating certain trends to criticise the aspects of current society and culture. For this reason, they also tend to attract writers who have built up a reputation outside the genre, and it is a sad fact that mainstream literary recognition is still easier to receive if you are not perceived as a genre writer. The Handmaid's Tale follows in the tradition of Orwell and Huxley, and is an attack on the growth of fundamentalist American Christianity, particularly on its treatment of women.
After a coup, rights are quiclky removed from American women - their bank accounts are frozen and their employers forced to sack them, for example. They are re-educated to fit into the limited range of occupations permitted to women in the new state of Gilead, such as Marthas (household servants). The narrator of The Handmaid's Tale takes on a role based on the Biblical story of Jacob's wives; when they failed to conceive, he fathered children by their handmaids. In a world in which the fertility of both sexes has dropped dramatically, it is the role for which young women who have demonstrated their ability to bear children are destined, rather to the chagrin of the Wives who have to house them.
It is 1984 with which The Handmaid's Tale has most in common; in both novels, a totalitarian regime has reduced life to a constant dreary drabness against which the narrator, who can remember what it was like beforehand, longs to rebel. Offred (whose original name has been taken away; her identity is just as 'property of Fred') is given the opportunity to do so by the imperfections of those around her, by their failure to live up to the rules. (This is partly a device for Atwood to reveal more about Gilead's culture than Offred's closely confined existence should allow.) Many details are close relatives of their Orwellian equivalents - the exhibition of former traitors, the cathartic ceremonies intended to bind people together - but many, of course, like Orwell's versions, have been derived from the activities of real totalitarian regimes. The major difference between Offred's world and that of 1984 is that Big Brother's regime is asexual (at least on the surface), with little differentiation being made between men and women, while in the world of The Handmaid's Tale the subordinate role of women is of fundamental importance to the way in which things work.
While The Handmaid's Tale is an impressive undertaking, it does not rise to the level of the other dystopias I have mentioned, 1984 and Brave New World being among the greatest works of twentieth century literature. Too much of the mechanism by which Atwood reveals Gilead to the reader is apparent, which is a sign of a writer inexperienced in the genre (compare the dystopias of John Brunner, for example). The novel is also spoilt by a very poor postscript, a little parody of a presentation at an academic conference. On the other hand, The Handmaid's Tale has many strengths. In particular, it conveys the drabness of the regime in Gilead quite excellently (and it is up with Solzhenitsyn and Orwell in this respect) and easily makes its feminist and anti-fundamentalist points. It is not an enjoyable read (and it's not meant to be), and its literary reputation is perhaps over inflated, but it is a successful Orwellian dystopia.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in January 2002.
The relationship between Henry II and Backet is a fascinating one, particularly with the way that...moreOriginally published on my blog here in January 2002.
The relationship between Henry II and Backet is a fascinating one, particularly with the way that it changed once Becket was ordained and became Archbishop of Canterbury. Though more accessible, Anouilh's version of the story is probably less well known in English than Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. It consists of a series of scenes from the lives of the two men, which are bookended by Henry, naked before the cathedral altar performing penance for Becket's death.
Anouilh isn't particularly interested in historical accuracy, and there are a number of errors, such as Henry referring to his father as a king. More seriously, since it plays an important part in the play, is making Becket's background Saxon rather than Norman. (One of the themes which interests Anouilh is the relationship between conquerors and conquered.)
Henry is presented more sympathetically than Becket, who is made clever but cold, obsessed with the idea of honour (not his own, but first the King's and then God's, and meaning not something chivalric but the preservation and extension of their rights). Henry, on the other hand, is passionate and entranced by the man who has shown him that there is more to life than the interests of his bestial barons: food and drink, fighting and sex. The combination of their characters - which does bear some relation to the medieval sources even if these were unlikely to think in such terms - was inevitably to prove explosive once Becket transferred his loyalty to the church.
This change of heart, the big mystery about Becket's life story, is still really left unexplained by Anouilh, though he clearly connects it to the oaths sworn on ordination. It is Henry who is the memorable and convincing character of the two even if Becket is the nominal centre of the play.(less)
Originally published on my blog here& in August 2000.
We used to have Speech Days at the school which I attended, days on which prizes were given o...moreOriginally published on my blog here& in August 2000.
We used to have Speech Days at the school which I attended, days on which prizes were given out and the boys and parents had to endure some of the most boring speeches imaginable. (The one in my final year, which I did not attend because of university entrance interviews, was easily the most lively: the headmaster unexpectedly declared that with government interference it was no longer possible for the school to offer a good education, and effectively resigned.) At Castrevenford, where this novel is set, the event is just as dull, and also contains a play and a sports demonstration.
Speech day in the year in which Gervase Fen, Professor of English at Oxford and amateur detective, gave the prizes was of course (this being a crime novel) distinguished by the murder of two teachers at the school and the disappearance of a pupil from the girls' school connected to Castrevenford. (One of the dead teachers is named Love; hence - partly - the title of the novel.)
Love Lies Bleeding is typical of Crispin's detective novels, with a complex puzzle combined with knowing and ironic use of the conventions of the genre. (This goes right up to the point of declaring that events chronicled would not make a good detective novel.) To some readers, Fen may seem rather tiresome, and he is certainly unbelievably secretive. His refusal to tell the police what he has worked out almost allows the murderer to escape, and it has no motive other than his own vanity. (The real reason, of course, is to inform the reader that they now have the clues needed to work out the solution without giving it away before the very end of the novel.) Nevertheless, the novels have a unique place in the genre and a charm of their own which makes them well worth reading.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in July 2002.
Tau Zero is about a space ship carrying fifty people to a nearby star; massive acceleration to close...moreOriginally published on my blog here in July 2002.
Tau Zero is about a space ship carrying fifty people to a nearby star; massive acceleration to close to the speed of light and relativistic time distortion mean that the journey will take decades rather than centuries, at least as far as the crew and passengers are concerned. On this voyage, there are even veterans of previous trips to other stars.
What makes this particular jouney of interest is a disaster which occurs about half way through. The plan was to accelerate for half the trip, and decelerate for the rest; but at just about the mid way mark, an encounter with a comparatively dense region of gas damages the ship, making deceleration impossible until repairs can be carried out. Tau Zero is about how the crew of the Leonora Christina cope with the disaster - and in fact it is a science fiction equivalent of the disaster movie.
The physical measurement called tau by Anderson is incredibly important in the theory of relativity. (It was not given a name like this in the lectures I had on the subject as a student; the letter tau was used to indicate a time parameter.) It is a measure of the difference between an object's velocity and the speed of light, and is 1 at rest and approaches 0 at the speed of light. Its vital importance in this particular novel is shown not just by the title but because Anderson makes the extremely unusual step of putting the mathematical formula defining tau in the text. It describes the distortion of various measurements at high: length, time, mass.
In Tau Zero, Anderson has managed to combine hard science fiction with a study of character - not something for which the subgenre is known. It is also unusual because most of the science described in the novel is well-understood, unlike the speculations of writers like Niven and Forward. It is hard science fiction at its very best, presenting the science in an entertaining way as part of a real story. It is not surprising that Tau Zero has become one of the most famous of all novels in the genre.(less)
Originally published on my blog here in October 2001.
Now sadly out of date, Bernard Lovell's wonderful popular science book was an inspiration to me i...moreOriginally published on my blog here in October 2001.
Now sadly out of date, Bernard Lovell's wonderful popular science book was an inspiration to me in my teens. It tells a familiar story, the history of human understanding of the cosmos and our species' place in it, but stands out because of the excellence of Lovell's writing and a slightly unusual viewpoint.
Most popular science books seek to make the reader wonder at the marvels of the universe, particularly the paradox that the best descriptions currently available are not intuitively obvious. There is a subtext to this, though, which is that science is wonderful for having discovered so much out about the universe and for describing things in such a subtle way.
Lovell is interested in the wonders of the universe, but he is also concerned with the way in which changing perceptions of the universe have affected our species' view of itself. A considerable proportion of the book, including the whole last chapter, is about morality, something which it has become fashionable for scientists to ignore completely with the argument that scientific research is morally neutral. The problem with this is that the application of research is not neutral, and there is certainly some scientific work which is so tightly tied to a particular application that it can itself hardly be termed neutral (biological weapons work, for example).
The foregoing perhaps overstates the importance of this aspect of In the Centre of Immensities. It is this, though, which makes it different from most histories of cosmological speculation, and it is this which made it such an important book to me. (less)
This novel marks something of a change in the Saint saga. It is set in different circumstances, after...moreOriginally published on my blog here in May 2001.
This novel marks something of a change in the Saint saga. It is set in different circumstances, after the end of the war, and is more serious in tone than much of Charteris' writing. Simon Templar investigates the nightclub Cookie's Cellar in New York and its seedier dockside version, run by Cookie (a massively fat singer of bawdier songs) as, she says, a charitable gesture to the heroism of merchant sailors. There is far less banter than usual, and Simon gets himself involved in a serious relationship. This has happened before, notably in The Saint In New York, which is possibly the best novel in the entire series.
The Saint Sees It Through succeeds as a pure thriller, but lacks the humour and bravado which is one of the most treasurable characteristics of the series. It is not typical, but loses something by this.(less)