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Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:17 (A review of Lamb)

Lamb, by Bernard Mac Laverty, is, at 150 pages, a short read, but its brevity serves only to provide a perfectly told story without padding or exposition. It follows the story of a young priest, Michael Lamb (or Brother Sebastian), who runs away from the Irish Borstal that he works in, takes a deprived boy named Owen Kane with him. But, as his money dwindles, news of the kidnapping closes in on them, and Lamb finds himself running out of ideas on how to save the boy’s life, leading to a dark climax borne of both necessity and love.

Beginning in the Borstal, aptly referred as “a finishing school for the sons of the Idle Poor” by its head, Brother Benedict, Lamb observes this to be an accurate statement as he believes it finishes their lives, providing them with little hope for the future. Upon inheriting money from his father’s death Lamb resolves to rescue Owen, a misunderstood - and epileptic - boy, often made an example of due his stubborn nature, and give him the life he deserves. They break for London, and spend their time exploring the city and discovering each other, until the time comes when they have so few options that Lamb is required to make the decision that will affect their lives, but he believes to be right.

The characters, throughout, are developed sufficiently to create your own impression of them; although Owen’s character could have done with further expansion with regards to his life before Borstal. Lamb, especially, as you would expect a title character, is well conceived and his decisions, at all times, appear believable. Brother Benedict, a sadist at heart, claims that he “was belted black and blue myself what harm did it do me?” without realising that it turned him into the one now administering beatings. Even the fringe characters: conmen, housekeepers, and perverts have enough splashes of colour to make them plausible.

The writing, while not being flowery, is engaging enough to spin the narrative on, making it a book you are not likely to put down until completion. It’s a thrill to read as the escapes bond with each other, but watching as their world of opportunity caves in around them. The underlying meanings and symbols that make the book special, the many inferences of the book’s title, for example, raise the scope of the novel, adding further richness to it.

Lamb, for its length, covers a number of topics, but the theme that stands out, for me, is love; that, and the things you would do for it. Sometimes, you don’t even know you are doing it, Lamb discovers while trying to understand the fugues of Owen’s epilepsy. But it’s the grim denouement of the novel that questions how far one would really go, and it’s this that adds the pièce de résistance to a wonderful and haunting tale.

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The Da Vinci Code

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:15 (A review of The Da Vinci Code (Robert Langdon, Book 2))

The success of The Da Vinci Code is certainly a literary anomaly. Both unexpected and unexplainable, the sheer volume of sales is surprising as the book is not, in my opinion, well written, intelligent, or original.

It begins in Le Louvre, Paris, with some of the clumsiest writing I've ever seen. Classics such as describing the eyes and hair colour of a silhouette are par for the course here as a museum curator of considerable renown (and how many curators have you heard of?) is murdered. From there, enter our cardboard hero, Robert Langdon, who will solve the mystery armed only with a similarly cardboard French girl and the author's help. Off he goes solving puzzles you and I solved pages ago (sometimes even chapters) despite us laymen not being schooled in his esoteric field. Throw in a couple of lame baddies, a historical secret, and the 'thrill' of the chase and you have The Da Vinci Code.

The book is fast paced, its 500 plus pages are quickly digested, although this is because the author writes such short chapters that there's a lot of blank space when one chapter ends a few lines into the page. Throughout, it uses one plot device: the cliffhanger. Fair enough, it gets you reading through the book but the author could have used more literary tactics in order to develop his story.

There are a number of places, however, where the book falls down: the writing, the characters, and the history. At times, it seems, Brown has raided a factbook of dubious authenticity and tried to cram as much of its content into his book without even deliberating over its relevance to the story at hand.

Firstly, the writing: It's simple and unemotional. There are many clumsy instances where the author says something which is simply not possible (see the silhouette comments above) or jars i.e. 'Silas prayed for a miracle and little did he know that in two hours he would get one'. You are left wondering if the author is, in parallel to the dubious facts, trying to squeeze in as much content as possible from his Little Book of Bad Cliches.

The characters, despite travelling with them for the duration of the book, never developed. They 'ooh-ed and ah-ed' their way through the startling revelations and that's about it. Their dialogue was intolerable, at times, and there were occasions when you just couldn't believe what was coming out of their mouths: Englishman saying 'soccer', French girl saying 'spring break'. It's Americanism after Americanism with these people despite only one character being American; surely, if you do as much research as Dan Brown claims to have done, you would find out how your characters speak. Another ‘joy’ is the utter shock on one character's face - who has just been told a stream of pseudo-history wher she hardly flinched- as she learns that 'rose' is an anagram of 'Eros'.

It's the facts, however, that really let this book down. It claims from the start that a number of things (such as art, documents, locations) are accurate which, with the author's supposed research, you hope to believe. And then you are inundated with Paris the wrong way around, the wrong police forces running about, French cops commanding the British cops, England being the only country in Europe where they drive on the left (conveniently forgetting Scotland, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Wales, Cyprus, and Malta), and other such nonsense as British knights carrying ID cards which pronounce them above the law.

That's the errors but, as I've said before, there are times when you feel the author is just including stuff to pad the book. Common sentences are 'Robert Langdon was surprised how many people didn't actually know...this or that' or 'Robert Langdon often smiled when he thought about how few people knew...this or that'. Place descriptions don't fare much better, unfortunately, as they are out of the story's context and read like 'copy and pastes' from tourist websites.

The pace, I enjoyed. The book, I didn't. Foucault's Pendulum by Umberto Eco covered this topic back in the 1980s - it's nothing new. Brown is just recycling the poor The Holy Blood & The Holy Grail as fiction. Bad history meets bad fiction - it's a marriage made in Heaven.

If you want some no-brain beach reading - and haven't read this yet - then give it a try; it's airport tat! Don't, however, believe a word of it, as it is, for the most part, nonsense. If, however, you are looking for a great novel that deals with similar topics, and has a great reread potential, then read the aforementioned Foucault's Pendulum - it's superior in every way.

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The Line Of Beauty

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 17 November 2006 12:09 (A review of The Line of Beauty)

Alan Hollinghurst’s fourth novel, The Line of Beauty, follows the story of Nick Guest, a lodger of the wealthy Fedden family, through the landslide years of the Conservative government in the 1980s. A bildungsroman, split into three sections, it observes Nick over four years as he climbs the social ladder, led by his dreams of wealth, status, and beauty, which ultimately lead to his downfall.

Nick has engineered his rise by befriending, at university, the son of minor MP Gerald Fedden, Toby, to whom he is attracted. Post-Oxford, he has moved into the home of the Feddens, an invite from Toby. The tale follows Nick’s first romance with Leo, a black social worker, and then moves on to his relationship with a beautiful millionaire, before dwelling on his eventual downfall. Throughout these events, which make up the aforementioned sections, the author examines the 1980s socially, politically, and beautifully.

First, the language; The Line of Beauty’s prose is a homage to Henry James, and Hollinghurst has it perfect, his contemporary take allowing less ambiguity with description. And it’s the description that exemplifies this novel; long, sweeping sentences, realistic action, and colourful observations, of the players’ thoughts and expressions, all punctuated with enough dialogue to complete, without being indulgent, every scene. With such detail on display, the novel takes its time, but the gradually developing arena Hollinghurst is showing us becomes a world in its own right.

Throughout the narrative, running at an unhurried pace, the characters are exemplary. The aesthete Nick Guest, so aptly named, searches for beauty in everything around him while being less than perfect himself. The Fedden patriarch, Gerald, an MP and philistine, chases his ambitions of having the Prime Minister, referred to as ‘the Lady’, to his house, and having his likeness realised by satirical puppet show, Spitting Image. Nick’s lovers (Leo, comic; the millionaire, hedonistic) draw empathy, while all the others in his life, having their positives and negatives traits, walk confidently off the page. Even Toby’s sister, Catriona, fittingly nicknamed ‘the Cat’, being the black sheep of the family, is perfectly realised, from her early neurosis, passing her chemically induced crests and troughs, to her rebellion from the family and unerring desire to tell the truth.

And the 1980s, as a setting, provides a reflection on a depressing period in British history: unemployment is on the rise, the rich are getting richer, and AIDS is a grim shadow waiting to kill those who aren’t careful. Moving in closer, to the London locations, the novel is rife with upper class dwellings, in which airy rooms are decorated with striking aesthetics despite the ignorance, Nick being the exception, of the occupants. The art, vases, paintings, and furniture, in the Feddens’ house serves only to demonstrate status, something Gerald is always striving to improve.

When Hollinghurst won the 2004 Booker Prize for The Line of Beauty, it became the first piece of gay fiction to take receipt of the award. There are, as you may expect in such a book, some scenes of homosexual sex, but the author, with great skill, doesn’t delve too deeply into being graphic, ensuring a comfortable read, and, in doing so, reveals facets of gay life that, to many readers, may have been unknown before.

The Line of Beauty is a triumph for literature; its characters are complex and engaging, its setting real without being nostalgic, and its themes thoroughly explored. It takes no moral stance, allowing the reader to decide as to the motivations of its characters and to their comeuppance. Its set pieces are incredibly wrought, the scene with Nick, high on cocaine, dancing with Margaret Thatcher, when Feddens achieves one of his dreams, being of particular merit. The humour also, for it is incredibly witty, shines out from the events and the dialogue, and it gives that little bit of light to what is, in essence, a tragic novel. At just over five hundred pages, it is a long book, but taking the time to read it proves that each page is worth it; in fact, it’s a book of beauty.

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Perdido Street Station

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 10:38 (A review of Perdido Street Station (Bas-Lag))

I’m not one for fantasy, the thought of the genre immediately brings to mind hordes of orcs, objects with magical properties, and characters who are either good or evil with no middle ground; of course, for this, Tolkien has to shoulder some of the blame. So, it was, with much concern that I took on board the recommendation of China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station, a fantasy novel that breaks with the stereotypes and thrusts us into a bleak world where science and magic work inharmoniously together, mutants go about their daily lives, and cities are powerful autarchies where even the slightest whisper against the government may lead to you joining the desaparecidos.

It begins with Isaac and Lin, a mixed species couple (he’s human and she’s khepri, an insect hybrid) whose lives change when both receive contracts of work. Isaac is asked by a mysterious visitor to restore his power of flight, while Lin is employed by the local mafia boss to craft his sculpture, an artform in which insect sputum is her medium. As they work at their respective jobs Isaac unwittingly unleashes his research specimens upon the city of New Crobuzon, an event that affects him in a number of ways, and with his friends he sets out to right his wrong.

At 800 pages Perdido Street Station is no breeze, but one can’t help feel that it is drawn out, stuffed with adjectives, and as tedious a read as life in New Crobuzon. It would certainly have benefited from large quantities of editing, but there are some who would argue that it’s a homage to the style of Mervyn Peake. The story, for the first two hundred pages, was nicely taking form, but, when the slake-moths Isaac was researching escape, the novel slides downhill into a depressing chase, which, despite the implied timeframe and urgency, seemed leisurely and unexciting.

It was incredibly drawn out so that small spaces of time were dragged over pages which added nothing to the tension. The story, at the beginning, was shaping up nicely and when the slake-moths escaped the book just went downhill into a really depressing chase which, despite the implied timeframe and the importance, seemed leisurely as the narrative failed to excite.

Miéville shows us that New Crobuzon, a city in the world of Bas-Lag, is a dirty place; grimy windows, littered streets, and scores of nefarious characters. It’s a well realised setting, and not difficult to imagine its soaring towers, its crumbling buildings, the rusted train network, but, by the final two hundred pages, the author still takes many opportunities from the pressing narrative to remind us of the extreme filth and depressive air surrounding the place.

The prose is mediocre, although, having never read Peake, I can’t say whether the tribute is fitting. The author, at times, seems more interested in displaying his extensive vocabulary, but, in an attempt to do so, he finds himself repeating a number of words that actually limits his lexis; ‘extraordinary’, ‘onieric’, and all possibilities of ‘thaumaturgy’ making considerable appearances. And when Miéville wants to describe something as brown then, rather than say it’s brown, he uses the word dun – repeatedly.

The citizens of New Crobuzon are well-crafted and, like the city, utterly loathable. They are also, due to different species, mutations, and immigrants, extremely varied. Aside from the aforementioned humans and khepri, there are winged creatures called garuda, evolved cacti, which I could never visualise without reverting to caricature, and the Remade, those whose bodies have been reconfigured in imaginative ways by the use of controlled magic, are just a few of the types to be found wandering the streets, or, like any society, living ghettoised.

While Perdido Street Station starts well, it devolves into little more than a moth hunt, punctuated with Miéville’s own socialist politics. The climax takes place in the station of the title, the main thoroughfare of New Crobuzon, but it is hard to tell why the book is named after this construction as it only appears in the denouement for approximately fifty pages. All in all, Miéville isn’t a bad writer per se but he is by no means great. Should I wish to read another fantasy novel then I may approach his fiction again, but I will wait until he has a substantial body of work behind him and hope, that with each book, he improves on his craft.

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The People's Act Of Love

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 10:03 (A review of The People's Act of Love)

It was the intention of James Meek that his third novel, The People’s Act of Love, should be written in the manner of the great Russian novels. While I have little to no experience in this branch of literature there were enough idiosyncrasies within the book to believe that he has, at least, achieved this. And, having spent eight years living in Russia whilst following his career in journalism, Meek may be better qualified than most to write a modern take on the Russian novel .
Set in Yazyk, a remote village in the Siberian wilderness, the novel investigates the actions of a small group of people. There is Balashov, the leader of a bizarre Christian sect; Mutz, a Jewish soldier from Prague, who is one of a number of Czech soldiers on the losing side of the Russian Revolution; Anna Petrovna, a young war widow, who lives in the town with her son, Alyosha; and Samarin, an enigmatic escapee from a Siberian prison camp, who is just passing through, being followed, so he says, by another prisoner named the Mohican.

The People’s Act of Love is high on drama, and, as the action unfolds the death of a local shaman brings suspicion to Yazyk. Samarin, being the stranger with an unverifiable story, becomes the prime suspect and is imprisoned. When he tells his story to a makeshift court, a long painful narrative about life in a hellhole called the White Garden, he garners sympathy and, at the request of the undersexed Anna Petrovna, goes to stay under her watchful eye.

As the events happen in Yazyk, further tension is added to the fears of the closeknit community by the knowledge that the Reds, winners of the Russian Revolution, are coming. A priority for them is to eliminate the Czech soldiers, men desperate to return home, and claim the town for the People. The leader of the Czech’s, a man named Matula, led his men in the massacre at Staraya Krepost for which the Reds want to exercise their own brand of justice.

Meek’s prose is wonderful, as fresh and crisp as the snow falling upon the land. In fact, the harsh temperatures of Siberia inform the prose: the description makes use of evocative words suggesting a locale lost in the emptiness of northern Asia. Characters trudge over ‘papery snow’, they wear two jackets, and even the trees are known to shudder.

Throughout the novel there are a number of scenes which are brutal but handled in such a way as to seem unimportant. A man is castrated; another is butchered and the separate parts of his body hung from a tree so that they may dry; while others are sentenced to death for no reason other than the Bolshevik ideal. Matula, also, shows his anti-Semite opinions in the way he talks to Mutz, always referring to him as ‘Yid’ and making light of his religion. It’s testament to Meek’s ability that he shows us such inhumanities without preaching and leaves it open to the reader to form their opinion on his characters.

Despite how bleak The People’s Act of Love gets, it is shot through with an underlying humour that serves some warmth to the frozen landscape. And while the jokes are old, or you know them in some incarnation, they are always spoken by the soldiers who, with their circumstances, can be forgiven as they try to maintain morale.

Another interesting slant, is the book’s passing regard to religious fundamentalism. The sect living in Yazyk are Christian but their methods and doctrines are far from standard Christianity. They are castrated to be more like angels and live without sin; a practice bewildering to some of the others living in the town. Not least of all, to Anna Petrovna, whose husband is Balashov, a soldier so devout that he gave up his wife, son, and member to be closer to God.

The main themes, however, are love and sacrifice. Anna Petrovna gives up her normal life to be with Balashov, a man she loves but can never love her again; Balashov’s love of God that he would forfeit his sexuality to be with Him; and Samarin, embodiment of the People, who would sacrifice parts of his nature so as to better prepare for the world ahead. In fact, the act of love referred to in the book’s title, comes from a conversation with him and Petrovna where he talks about eating a comrade for the greater good, beating off starvation to be able to change the world. Essentially, since the book is shot through with cannibalism references, Meek is asking if there is a right time to eat another human being.

The People’s Act of Love was longlisted for the Booker 2005 and, while I’ve not read all the books that made the eventual shortlist, I wonder if Meek may have missed out on a chance to become more of a public interest. His style is certainly enjoyable, his plotting tight, and his characters tinged with much humanity. I believe Meek’s earlier two novels were somewhat different to this book and, based on the change in direction he appears to have taken, we can look forward to an interesting voice for the future.

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Brave New World

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 10:01 (A review of Brave New World)

Reading Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World was inspired by realising that I hadn’t read any of a recent list stating the top twenty geek novels. Given that my impressions of geek literature being hardcore science fiction and adventures in elfworld it was pleasant to discover that this novel, over seventy years after its publication, is still fresh. I would tend to think, however, that its endurance is due to its satirical tone rather than any sort of geeky idolisation as, despite its futuristic setting, it deals more with its characters rather than the world around them.

Set in a dystopian society in 2540AD or, as the book calls it, AF632 (AF meaning After Ford) the novel presents an almost perfect society where war and poverty has been eliminated at the cost of family, culture, and religion. The whole world is considered to be a single state and the central tenets are those, as you would expect, of the industrialist Henry Ford. Fordism is the semi-religious doctrine that permeates this society: his sayings are gospel, his name is said in vain, the cross has been replaced by the ‘T’; indeed, in a motion similar to crossing oneself, the citizens make the sign of the ‘T’. An interesting idea, perhaps, but the incessant expletives (“for Ford’s sake!”, “oh my Ford!”, etc.) do lose some of their humour and power.

It begins, with little narrative, in the Central London Hatching and Conditioning Centre, a place where human beings are raised are ‘bottled’ (raised in test tubes) and then conditioned via radiation and Pavlovian techniques to become one of the five social castes of society (the independent Alphas through to the half-retarded Epsilons). Once fit for society the citizens are then ‘decanted’. The Director of this centre is giving a tour to a group and shows them the bottled embryos passing along a conveyor belt as they are treated with chemicals to determine the future intelligence and physical attributes of the embryo. He then shows them the nursery where some children are being conditioned to loathe, of all things, books and flowers.

Then, moving on, we meet one of the world’s controllers, a man named Mustapha Mond. He tells the touring children about the World State and the benefits that attempts to quash peoples’ emotions and relationships has made on society. Indeed, in this world, there is no marriage, grief, or joy – promiscuous sex is actively encouraged, death is no big deal, and games only serve to further the economy.

More characters, from here, are introduced into the narrative as Huxley’s world escapes the Hatchery and Conditioning Centre and goes further afield. The self-conscious Bernard Marx gets permission from the Director to visit a savage reservation in New Mexico; Lenina Crowne, attracted to him, accepts his offer to join him. Helmholm Watson, a hypnopaedia writer (slogans that are repeated and learnt whilst citizens sleep) shows discontent at his job feeling, as an Alpha, that he is capable of much more. And, in New Mexico, they meet John and his mother Linda, a pair of savages discontent with their world. Returning to London attempts are made to integrate John into society but, his world is shaped by Shakespeare (he found a copy of his complete works) and he disagrees with the dystopian World State, arguing with Mond until each character goes their own way (John to exile; Marx exiled.) and the final denouement.

Brave New World could have been better, there’s no doubt about that. The obvious hindrance was a narrative that never really centered on one character: one minute we were touring the hatchery, the next we’re following Bernard who, in turn, slinked into the shadows when John was introduced. Huxley has ideas, though, and amidst his obvious taste for neologisms (centrifugal Bumble-puppy!) gets his ideas across fairly well although this can be at the cost of the narrative as the climactic argument between John and Mond goes back and forward with neither being right. The World Controller argues that society is better off when nobody reflects on the past, when people aren’t given any time to themselves, and when there is nothing to be emotional about and that eliminated studies (history, religion, science) are wrongs that require control while John, in his misunderstanding of the World State, believes that people should have freedom of thought and be allowed to suffer emotions to make them human. Of course, in a world where people are made to order, made on Ford’s assembly line, he has little chance of ever making a point.

The writing in Brave New World is fine, if a tad verbose at times or scientific at others (dolichocephalic!) with, as previously mentioned, a world of neologistic commodities (pneumatic armchairs, for example). Dialogue is alright and serves to paint a more accurate picture of the characters but it is not entirely realistic and sometimes serves as device for infodumps. The characters, however, are hard to follow as they feature for little periods and, while you get an idea of what drives them, you don’t get a complete sense of their role within the story, especially as to their reactions by the novel’s close.

While I liked Brave New World one of the hardest things for me to do was imagine Huxley’s vision as it would be incarnate. When I think of future societies I am given to thoughts of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis but, when least expected, Huxley would throw in the countryside, savage reservations, and, unexpectedly, a lighthouse. I understand that these elements demonstrate a world that strives to be perfect but suffers from underlying problems (the people are kept happy by use of recreational drugs rather than any utopian positivity) that mean it is still a burgeoning dystopia rather than fully realised with its wheels completely greased. Overall, it’s an attractive novel, full of ideas, but one that suffers from a lack of organisation with them.

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Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 07:16 (A review of Oranges (Penguin Modern Classics))

First published in the 1960s, Oranges by twice Pulitzer winning journalist, John McPhee got a limited lease of life back in 2000 when Penguin reissued it as a modern classic. And while it’s an interesting little book covering pretty much everything to do with oranges, the reportage within doesn’t so much as ground the book in its time than date it

You may think that there is not much to say about fruit in general, never mind being specific. But that’s where you’d be wrong as, it turns out, the orange has a catalogue of facts literally bursting with juicy trivia. It begins with uses for the fruit around the world, covering methods of eating, seasoning, and even cleaning the floor and removing grease. It explores the etymology of both the fruit’s name, and it’s scientific name, Citrus Sinensis. Along the way, as it spouts nugget of information in quick succession, we see the orange in history as it began its two thousand year westward journey from China to the Americas until orange growing and juicing became a worldwide industry within itself.

Splitting up chapters of trivia, McPhee shares the outcomes of his meetings with orange barons, orange growers, and other assorted industry types. While interesting to read, the text is littered with anecdotes containing names that will mean nothing to anyone other than their immediate families. And, to top it off, there is a section whereby we learn of new methods being introduced to improve the industry that, even if you have no experience of it, you know has long since been superceded by methods. It doesn’t take a genius to know that in a world rife with technology and technological gains, that the huge workforce mentioned in Oranges has long since been made redundant or replaced by immigrant workers.

McPhee’s style is immensely readable, the way he dances from fact to fact a delight to read, and when he injects some humour to his catalogue of orange facts, you can’t help but raise a smile – at the joke and in appreciation of its wording. His anecdotes do drag, and I think it wouldn’t be uncommon to breath a sigh of relief once they conclude.

It’s a quick read and a quirky subject, and McPhee’s research is to be commended, although much of the journalistic writing –reading it forty years on from publication - has soured. That said, if you know nothing of the orange industry – and oranges in general – then Oranges is a fun little book that should quench that specific hole in your trivia.

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Summer Crossing

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 06:18 (A review of Summer Crossing (Penguin Classics))

After one failed attempt, I've finally got round to reading Truman Capote's long lost (well, unknown) novel, Summer Crossing, which was discovered when a bunch of Capote stuff was given to Sotheby's for auction in 2004. It's the first novel by the man that I've read and, despite it being a defective piece of writing as a whole, it's individual sentences sparkle enough for me to want - nay, need! - to read more from the man.

It follows the story of Grady McNeil, seventeen year old New York socialite who stays at home one summer when her family go sailing. There she falls in with the Jewish Clyde Manzer, a World War II veteran now working in a parking lot, although his mother still harbours the dream that he will one day become a famous lawyer:

"My Clyde will be a famous lawyer. Did she think he liked working in a parking lot? That he was doing it just to spite her, when all the time he could be a famous lawyer, a famous anything. Things happen, Mama."

Waiting in the wings is Peter Bell, a man of the same social standing as Grady and, in his love for her, assumes the perception of ownership despite never making his intentions known. But, with her parents away, Grady rebels and marries Clyde, something she tries to keep from her family which, as the truth outs itself, ends in disastrous circumstances for all involved.

The prose in Summer Crossing, as I've said before, is wonderful and there are many occasions that leave you smiling at a turn of phrase or a simile that you would never have thought to use before. Even the choice of a single word in the right place makes it a worthy reading exercise. But, at the same time, the story isn't a strong one and at one point the story, which was linear, branches off into an area lacking details; I suspect that perhaps parts of the novel remain lost. In the afterword, notes are made to confirm that punctuation - and sometimes whole words - have been added to complete the text.

While it's a good piece of writing, it's not the best of novels and would be best left to Capote completists and those who appreciate style; most others will find themselves disappointed. But, for me, it served its purpose as a brief and rather splendid introduction to the man - yet I can only assume the worst is behind me.

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Rashomon & Seventeen Other Stories

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 06:12 (A review of Rashomon and Seventeen Other Stories (Penguin Classics))

I bought the new Penguin Classic, Rashōmon and Seventeen Other Stories by Japanese author, Ryūnosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), with the intention of furthering my knowledge of Japanese fiction and its writers beyond Mishima and the spaghetti obsessed Murakami. What I found in this collection is an interesting mix of stories providing an adequate introduction to Akutagawa, but not enough, perhaps, to interest me further.

Preceded by a foreward by the aforementioned Haruki Murakami, the collection is split into four parts by translator Jay Rubin. This division is to differentiate the works between different parts of the author's short life much like Picasso's output can be pigeonholed into such periods as blue and rose. So, we have his early retelling of Japanese legends and anecdotes through to conflicts between native religion and Christianity missionaries, on to modern works highlighting both tragic and comic circumstances, before reaching his biographical work in which he showcased his own madness.

For me, the earlier stories of Akutagawa proved more interesting. Rashōmon, which provided the title for Akira Kurosawa's 1950 film, is followed by In A Bamboo Grove, the story upon which the film was based. The Nose, a comic tale of vanity, is followed by the great Dragon: A Potter's Tale, which in turn is followed by the wonderful, albeit predictable, Hell Screen, a story about an artist who requires to see his subject matter so that he may capture it on canvas; thus, when commissioned to paint Hell, he sets about having his vision of Hell recreated before him so that he may recreate it with measured strokes.

Of the later stories there are few standouts, although that may just be my preference for stories set in a highly romanticised medieval Japan than in a period (the 1920s) in which I know little of the nation. The stereotypical legends of samurai, peasants, and overlords sit far more comfortably with me than a beautiful history deeply influenced by western imports. One of the better stories is Horse Legs, a Kafkaesque tale in which a Japanese Gregor Samsa wakes to find that he has equine legs, complete with hooves, and there follows comic situations as he attempts to hide his secret from everyone, notably the wife whom he shares his bed. The Writer’s Craft was another story that sat well with me, a tale about how the appreciation of an author’s work is not determined by the time put in but by how others interpret it within their own lives.

The collection gathers together a blend of Akutagawa’s well known short pieces in addition to a bunch of stories translated to English for the first time. While some of these freshly translated stories appealed, I couldn’t help feel it was a cynical attempt to force a few new tales on those already initiated with the author’s work: one story, for example, is just a fragment of a longer unfinished piece.

Akutagawa’s writing, at least in translation, is certainly vibrant and his stories come at you from all manner of narrators, the most common seeming to be told from the point of view of someone who witnessed the events but was not integral to the plot. Later stories, such as The Life Of A Stupid Man, show interesting attempts at style but the narrative (a series of numbered paragraphs with individual titles) is so personal that it would seem to be only of interest to friends and family of the author, in addition to Akutagawa scholars.

All in, this book serves to give me an introduction to the author and, with the extensive footnotes, a further understanding of different periods in Japan’s history. But, given my indifference to many of the stories, especially Akutagawa’s more personal pieces, I doubt I’ll go in search of his previously translated works, although the occasional retelling of previous Japanese tales may be enough to pique my interest in much the same way a cookie may keep me satisfied until teatime.

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The Apple

Posted : 11 years, 7 months ago on 16 November 2006 06:05 (A review of The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories)

Usually when coming to the end of a book of brick-like proportions, it's good that the story is over. Not so, however, with Michel Faber's The Crimson Petal and the White, an 835 page blend of sheer enjoyment and frustration. Set in Victorian London and using postmodern techniques, the novel, I would like to think, is one of the best published this century. With the book ending the way it did, it left readers the world over to guess at what happens next. And it would seem that many didn't want to guess: they wanted to know; they wanted closure.

So now, to The Apple, a meagre collection of short stories from Faber that, four years later, returns to the world of The Crimson Petal and the White. In the foreword the author refers to letters from fans from all walks of life asking what happened next, only to have their questions subverted. There will be no sequel, Faber states, but he does offer this further set of tales which should shed some light on some of the characters.

Unfortunately, it would seem The Apple: New Crimson Petal Stories is more of a cashcow between novels for Faber than anything else. As such, it will probably be only of interest to devout fans of the original novel. Two of the stories (Christmas on Silver Street and Chocolate Hearts from the New World) have previously been published, with the remainder written especially for this collection.

There are two stories about Miss Sugar, the whore, both of which look at her past. Christmas on Silver Street shows her as a tart with a heart as she introduces Christopher, the son of a prostitute in the brother where they work, to Christmas. The other, The Apple, shows Sugar becoming annoyed by a missionary's treatment of her child, an event that inspires Sugar's later scribblings in The Crimson Petal and the White. Both of these stories are simple snapshots, and twee to boot. They say little for the character of Sugar, or for the collection.

Some of the minor characters from The Crimson Petal and the White also muscle in on some of the action. A young Emmeline Curlew (Emmeline Fox in the novel) writes to cotton farmers in America asking them to free their slaves in Chocolate Hearts From The New World, to which, quite by surprise, she receives a selection of confectionary with an accompanying letter in response. Mr Bodley, strangely separated from his lifelong friend, Mr.Ashwell, arrives at a brothel only to be preoccupied by the sight of a fly upon a prostitutes buttocks, which renders him quite impotent, in The Fly, and Its Effect Upon Mr Bodley. Like the Sugar stories, these tales serve only to bring the characters alive one more time; unfortunately, they have very little to say.

In Medicine, a portrait is given of William Rackham's life years after the novel ends; here it shows the decline of his business and of the man himself, in addition to his loveless second marriage. While an unsettling end for one of the novel's major characters, there is little substance to be wrought from the tale. Rackham's former employee, Clara, takes centre stage in Clara And The Rat Man. Since leaving Rackham's home, Clara has, like many women in London struggling to make ends meet, fallen into prostitution. One day a strange client offers her a shilling per week to grow one of her finger nails. For what purpose, it's best to read this story as it's one that nicely stands alone from the Crimson Petal canon and has much action and character to it.

The best story, however, is also the lengthiest, taking up more than a quarter of the pages: A Mighty Horde Of Women In Very Big Hats, Advancing. Where all the other stories play with events a few years before or after the events of the original novel, this story is set under the reign of a different monarch. Told as the reminiscences of Sophie Rackham's son, it hints at what happened at the end of the novel although doesn't deal so much with such events. Instead, the narrator recalls his mother in her thirties, a suffragette who, during a march, gets nostaligic for her past life. Although it gives as much information as one would need to get an idea of what happened after events in The Crimson Petal and the White, it ends in a similar manner - although this time we are promised more, but given less.

The best thing about this collection is, as always, Faber's writing: light, breezy, with never a word out of place. Or an incorrect word in place. He certainly has the measure of his characters, it's clear he is still in touch with their world. But with the novel ending with the call to let go, it feels like Faber should have taken his own advice. The Apple is a collection of well told stories but with little purpose; it's hardly worth the bite.

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