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Thursday, 7 November 2019

Titus Groan - Mervyn Peake (1946)

Rating: Sublime

It's hard to know where to begin with this amazing novel, the first in the Gormenghast Trilogy, except to simply say that it is unlike anything else I've ever read, even though it is obvious just how influential Peake's novels have been. Gormenghast is the name given to the massive rambling city sized castle that is a world unto itself. Gormenghast houses the Groan family, whom have ruled for centuries and whose lives are governed by a multitude of rituals and rules, many of which are hilariously and inexplicably bizarre. Although powered along by multiple plot strands Titus Groan is a character based novel. Titus Groan is newly born at the beginning of the novel and therefore the adult characters dominate the narrative. These characters have fantastic Dickensian names such as, Swelter, Fray, Lord Sepulchrave, Nannie Slagg and the one and only Dr. Prunesquallor. Never have I been so enamored by what are essentially grotesque, vain and unsympathetic characters. The main protagonist is a classic anti-hero - Steerpike, a kitchen urchin who escapes the clutches of the obese chef, Swelter, to go on to hatch Machiavellian plots to advance his influence over Gormenghast.

Titus Groan is brimming with memorable scenes and world-building that is highly imaginative and strangely compelling. Peake's prose is beautifully ornate, erudite and highly descriptive without falling prey to pretension or rank excessiveness. It took me about one hundred pages to become used to Peake's prose style; often sentences required re-reading, but then after that I was re-reading them for the sheer pleasure of the beautiful language. The novel's Gothic sensibility is enriched by tragedy, deadly rivalries, intelligent humour, one hundred white cats and a strange sense of poignancy that pervades the shadowy rooms and corridors of Gormenghast. I have a beautiful illustrated edition (Peake was also an accomplished artist) published in 2011, featuring an introduction by China Mieville and containing the other two novels - Gormenghast (1950) and Titus Alone (1959). I'll be definitely reading these novels in the near future, but meanwhile it looks like Neil Gaiman will be involved in a new attempt at adapting the Gormenghast novels for a television series in the near future, which, for once, totally makes sense.


Monday, 21 October 2019

The Children's House - Alice Nelson (2018)

Rating: Admirable

Due to some leave from work it has been a while since I have had to read a novel for the library's book clubs, but the time came and The Children's House turned out to be almost tailor made for book club discussion. The novel features some serious themes; trauma - childhood trauma in particular, and its consequences, refugees, alienation and the healing and nurture that families can provide. The principle protagonist is Marina, an academic and writer whose life is shared with her husband, child psychologist Jacob and his son, Ben. Marina's life changes when it intersects with an African refugee, Constance and her young son, Gabriel. Constance is traumatized by the Rwandan genocides and is obviously incapable of looking after Gabriel. As the novel progresses the characters back-stories unfold, revealing families both torn apart by dysfunction and circumstance, but also united by their need to heal. The Children's House is undoubtedly a novel for our times

Despite its noble intentions The Children's House is a flawed novel, with a ponderous pace that causes reader concentration to flag and disinterest in the characters lives to creep in. Alternate chapters that swing back and forth in time add to the disjunction. There is a great deal of description and very little dialogue, resulting in the authors voice dominating in a way that makes it hard to connect with the characters and their stories. The narrative style is also quite self-conscious, making it obvious that every turn of phrase has been burnished for public consumption. Half way through an unkind thought entered my mind, that the novel was popular fiction masquerading as literary fiction, although this is unfair both to the author and popular fiction itself. However something happened in the last third of the novel that changed my mind, the writing seemed more deftly executed and the emotional undertow of the characters stories began to pay off. I also realised that despite the dominance of the author's voice Nelson had been showing, rather than telling the stories of the characters, and quite subtly too. Ultimately the novel was saved from a mediocre rating with its beautifully effecting denouement, in which the narrative's multiple stands are brought together in a sensitive and emotionally effecting manner. Essentially Alice Nelson has done what every novelist strives to do - win over the (cynical) reader and bring something of worth into their life, and for that I can't help but display a degree of admiration.

Monday, 7 October 2019

Vikings: A History - Neil Oliver (2012)

Rating: Admirable

I am an avowed fan of the History Network's Vikings series, which is apparently extending to a sixth and final season this year. I have often wondered how much of the series was based on what is known about the Viking era (quite a bit as it turns out...) and was looking for a succinct history, when I spied Oliver's book languishing on a table at Planet Books. Neil Oliver is an archeologist, historian and BBC presenter of shows such as Coast (2005), The History of Ancient Britain (2011) and Vikings (2012), from which this book is based. Oliver's writing style is very much like his TV presenting and you can certainly picture him looking rigorously Scottish whilst standing on a cliff-top discussing just how the Vikings came to strike fear into the hearts of Europeans between the eighth and eleventh centuries. Vikings is perfect if, like me, you want an easy to digest short history of the Viking era. Vikings is akin to an amiable but passionate historian holding forth with a class of wine in front of a roaring fire; you don't have to concentrate all that hard, but you can still feel like you are receiving a solid enough historical account.

Although the Vikings were a dynamic people, the first part of the book keeps you waiting around for quite a while for the real action to start. Oliver spends the first 100 pages of the book giving the back history of the northern European peoples who became the Vikings through the Mesolithic, Neolithic, Bronze, and Iron ages, as well as the wider historical context leading up to that first historically recorded Viking raid on Lindisfarne Abbey in 793. This is all very necessary, however I was left feeling that this part of the Vikings story could have done with some brevity, particularly as the book is not an extensively detailed history of the Vikings. Vikings contains maps, a list of principle Viking figures, colour plates and a timeline, all of which are very useful as Oliver takes you on a mostly chronological accounts of the viking era. Although not all of the most significant Viking historical events are contained within Oliver's book (I did some reading online as well...), there was enough to give you a rounded idea of who the Vikings were and just why they were significant part of European Medieval history. If you are interested in an exhaustive account of the Viking era (as I now am) Vikings can be viewed as an adequate entree to further reading.

Sunday, 15 September 2019

Sailor Twain or The Mermaid in the Hudson - Mark Siegel (2012)

Rating: Excellent

I don't read many graphic novels, but when Sailor Twain was gifted to me from a friend who works in another library (it was a 'weeded' library discard...) and I was told that it was considered to be one of the classics of the genre I made a mental note to give it a read. A year later and with the need for something easy to read whilst on holiday Sailor Twain turned out to be a beguiling distraction. In the late 1800s Captain Twain sails on a large steam-ship ferrying pleasure-seeking passengers up and down the Hudson River. The ship's owner, Jacques - Henri de Lafayette, has gone missing and his brother, Diedonne, has taken his place. Twain has an uneasy relationship with the mysterious womanizing Diedonne, but becomes embroiled in his own secrets when he rescues an injured mermaid and hides her in his cabin. Their ensuing relationship becomes central to the narrative and also a rich source of poignancy. Twain is an engaging every-man character, whose kindheartedness leads him into the literal and psychologically murky waters (yes...) of the beautiful mermaid of the Hudson River.

Sailor Twain works so well because the narrative is complex, with intriguing characters and allusions to literature, culture, history and myth. The story is satisfying on many levels and features an ending that is both final and ambiguous, which is difficult to achieve. The artwork is darkly beautiful and is responsible for much of the narrative tension, with most panels featuring a deep level of detail, both with the characters themselves and the settings.

Sailor Twain encourages slow and careful reading, with the artwork drawing (yes...) you into the narrative in enticing ways. I also took my time because I was enjoying it so much that I didn't want it to end. Siegel has a way of illustrating characters that seems simple and yet captures their essence perfectly. The atmosphere is shadowy, it always seems to be raining and the mermaid and the river have an almost Gothic allure that is addictive. Most of all it made me wish that mermaids were real, and perhaps they are...

Tuesday, 10 September 2019

The Stochastic Man - Robert Silverberg (1975)

Rating: Excellent

Robert Silverberg is one of those science fiction writers who has seemingly been around forever (born in 1935), and is legendary for his prolific writing; he began submitting short stories to science fiction magazines when he was a teenager and apparently at certain stages in his career wrote over a million words a year. Fortunately Silverberg is also a quality writer and I read quite a few of his novels when I was a teenager, enjoying them immensely. The Stochastic Man happens to be the last novel Silverberg wrote before 'retiring' from writing in 1975, before returning in 1980. The novel is set in 1999 and features a protagonist, Lew Nicholas, who has 'stochastic' skills that allow him to hone in on statistically probable future events. Into Lew's life comes Martin Carvajal, a man who can actually see the future. Precognition is an almost irresistible premise to the average science fiction fan and fortunately in this case The Stochastic Man does not disappoint.

Despite the fact that much of the narrative is politically focused, with Lew using his future wrangling skills to try and help the Kennedy-like presidential aspirant Mayor Quinn, the novel is taut and compelling. The Stochastic Man is also a fascinating glimpse into what Silverberg thought the future might be like, in New York at least. In the mid 1970's when the novel was written New York was in decline and Silverberg extrapolates from there, placing a wealthy elite in security protected buildings whilst the rest take their chances on the mean streets. Drugs are legal and are just another consumer product, sexual mores are loose to the extent that open relationships are the norm, but perhaps the most prescient future event is revealed when Lew wonders why the host of a party has the window screens shut on one side of his apartment. Lew realises it is to block the view of the ruined Statue of Liberty, destroyed by a terrorist attack - wrong building and a few years too early, but it still sent a shiver down my spine regardless. The primary reason why The Stochastic Man works so well is the range of sympathetic characters, in particular Lew Nicholas, whose life radically alters in challenging ways when he meets Martin Carvajal, the sad-eyed "destroyed" individual, haunted by his visions of the future. One can't help but feel sorry for both characters, but the novel ends on an unlikely positive note that strangely made me feel a little better (but not for long...) about the current dysfunctional era we are living through, that it too will pass and better times may be ahead (but I doubt it...).

Friday, 30 August 2019

The Crying of Lot 49 - Thomas Pynchon (1966)

Rating: Admirable

Thomas Pynchon is perhaps the most famous cult author, not just because of his unorthodox work, but also because of his purported reclusiveness. Pynchon offers up a heady combination in the context of Western post-war culture where everything is viewed as being justifiably up for grabs. I'm kind of ashamed to admit it, but The Crying of Lot 49 is the first Pynchon novel I have ever read. I do have Gravity's Rainbow (1973) on my shelf, but opted for this novel because of its refreshing brevity. Unfortunately despite Pynchon's reputation I have been left underwhelmed and wondering whether the novel is a brilliantly complex post-modern puzzle or a now passe mundane indulgence (it is probably a bit of both). The novel's Wikipedia entry notes that The Crying of Lot 49 can be viewed as an example of post-modernism and perhaps also a satire of post-modernism itself, a technique that  ironically lies at the heart of post-modernism in any case. Reading the Wikipedia entry was, in some ways, more entertaining than the novel itself; perhaps this could become the new way to read novels, just read other people's interpretations, don't go to all the trouble of reading the actual novel itself, no need to ponder all the obscure cultural and historical references, the clever word-play and biting satire....

Sorry, what was I on about? Who knows - anyway, back to the review. The Crying Lot of 49's main protagonist, Oedipa Maas, is named as executor of the estate of a former lover and therefore becomes exposed to the supposed existence to an alternative postal service that goes back centuries - originating in Europe and still operating in a clandestine manner in 1960s California. The novel is brimming with unusual situations and strange characters, but despite this The Crying Lot of 49 was mostly mundane rather than intriguing. Perhaps it is due to an overexposure to post-modern techniques that really hit the mainstream in the 1990's in cinema and television in particular. In fact Pynchon himself appeared (well, his voice at least...) in The Simpsons as himself, satirizing his reputation as a weird recluse. Despite my mild disappointment the novel was worth reading and I did enjoy the satirizing of conspiracy theories in general, which I believe is the main theme of the novel; it was published three years after the assassination of Kennedy after all, which became one of the most prevalent conspiracy theories of them all. Sorry about the lukewarm review Mr Pynchon (if you ever read this...), but I promise I'll still get around to reading Gravity's Rainbow one day, or maybe I'll just read about it...

Monday, 5 August 2019

Helliconia Summer - Brian Aldiss (1983)

Rating: Excellent

Helliconia Summer, the second volume in the Helliconia trilogy, is superb old-school science fiction. The novel is superior to Helliconia Spring (1982), partly because the world it depicts is far richer in summer than it was in its emergent state in spring. The novel also contains much more detail about humanity's observational satellite - Avernus, in orbit around the planet, as well as Helliconia's stellar and biological history. The novel's world-building is splendidly detailed, fascinating and ultimately entirely satisfying. During summer the planet's human-like life forms are dominant and their civilization is akin to that of Earth's late middle ages. The planet's other intelligent inhabitants, the Phagors (as pictured on the book cover) are much more passive during summer, surviving and biding their time until winter returns. The Phagors are curiously compelling aliens, despite being mostly impassive and enigmatic. Although Phagor culture is less sophisticated than that of the 'humans' they make them seem childish and vain in comparison.

Part of what makes Helliconia Summer so satisfying is the weave of complex multiple plot strands that also feature well rounded and believable characters. The characters are generally dynamic and relatably human in both their motivations and flaws. I couldn't help but get caught up in the characters individual stories as they struggled to cope with the planet's continual cultural and geographical shifts. Like the first novel there are long sections detailing particular narrative threads, however there is much more dynamism to the narrative in general, making it far more compelling than the first novel. Despite being nearly 600 pages in length I really did not want Helliconia Summer to end, it was thoroughly enjoyable and I couldn't help but wonder why it has never been made into a series akin to something like Game of Thrones; it certainly has the complexity and scope to satisfy most modern viewers, even those who failed to understand Game of Thrones denouement.