Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Felix Holt, by George Eliot

Anyone who takes a look at my bookshelves will know how much I love the Victorian novel. The nineteenth century was a period of huge social change; with the expansion of manufacturing towns and introduction of the railway, Britain’s population exploded and ’new money’ became a force to be reckoned with. It provides a backdrop for some of the most iconic English language writers: Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy and a personal favourite, George Eliot. Born Mary Ann (or Marian) Evans, the daughter of a farmer, she was lucky to receive an excellent education, largely because she was considered such an unattractive child she would never marry well. Her early life was respectable enough, taking over as her father’s house keeper at the age of 16 after her mother’s death; she remained with him until his death when she was thirty. At this stage her life takes a more unconventional turn; Evans moved to London, became a literary editor and fell in love with a married man. Although George Lewes was estranged from his wife, he was unable to divorce her, so Evans and he decided to live together openly as a couple. When she began to publish as an author Marian Evans adopted the male name George Eliot not just to avoid stereotyping as a female novelist, but also to avoid the scandal associated with her home life.

Many of Eliot’s novels are in fact historical novels, set during the years of her childhood, and Felix Holt is no exception. Set in 1832 this was an important year for British history, as it was the year the first Reform Bill was passed. This event forms a backdrop for much of the novel’s action. Before I had read George Eliot I had never heard of said bill, but it changed the electoral landscape of Britain dramatically. Way back in 1430 laws were passed establishing that male owners of land worth more than forty shillings were able to vote in county elections. Amazingly this rule did not change for four hundred years, until the passing of the Reform Bill, which increased the eligible voters by 50%. The Reform Bill also created new seats of parliament in the industrial towns such as Manchester. It is interesting stuff, but Eliot writing in 1866 assumes a level of familiarity with this history that I think most modern readers will struggle with. But that, in my opinion, is what Wikipedia was made for.

The political landscape of this novel may be dense, but her depiction of English country life and its people is as accessible as ever. The novel begins with a coach ride through southern rural England into the industrial midlands, depicting the shift from the agrarian lifestyle in tune with the earth to the smoky cities with workers up all night. The story itself begins at Transome Court, where a coach is expected. Eliot paints a picture of the whole estate in anticipation, but includes details that lead us to understand this is an estate in decline. We read a whole page before we are introduced to Mrs Transome, and two more before we learn it is her son, Harold Transome whom she awaits. Mrs Transome is a sad creature; she puts me in mind of Miss Havisham without the craziness, only the heartbreak. Eliot describes her beautifully with ‘She was far beyond fifty; and since her early gladness in this best-loved boy, the harvest of her life had been scanty.’. Harold has been overseas for fifteen years and has now returned to run the estate ruined by his now deceased elder brother. The Transomes represent the old families of England, clinging on to respectability and class, even though scandal is knocking at their door.

Into this we introduce Esther Lyon, adopted daughter of the local Dissenting minister. Esther is of humble origin, but has developed taste for the high life working as a governess in fashionable families. It would be easy for her to be a flighty Victorian female, but in the hands of Eliot, Esther is a rounded human being, aware of her faults, and capable of deep love and compassion. Esther’s father is friends with Felix Holt, a young craftsman of strong political opinion and high ideals. Holt is the least successful character in this novel; unusually for Eliot he never comes across as a person, only an idea, and unfortunately, a plot device.

Holt and Harold Transome are drawn together by the destabilising effects of the county elections. But it is in their love of Esther that they are truly rivals. Temptation lies in Esther’s way when she is invited to spend time at the Transome estate. This allows Elliot to explore a new relationship, that between Esther and Mrs Transome. The care that develops between the two is lightly depicted and believable. Mrs Transome is lonely and yearns for the affection Esther can give her; she haunts the manor like a living ghost. Esther on the other hand, in her youth and vitality, embodies a possible future for England, and in conjunction with Felix Holt, a new politically vocal middle class.

Eliot always writes convincing female characters and here she has succeeded again. Unlike many contemporary writers, Eliot can be unkind to her characters, allowing them to make bad marriages, so there is genuine tension as to whether Esther will end up like Mrs Transome. Some of the political machinations are convoluted but Eliot brings the rapid change Britain was experiencing to life within the scale of one village. While I enjoyed this book I would have to say it is probably of most interest to those who have already enjoyed George Eliot’s work. While it is a shorter novel than some, the plot meanders more. In short, it isn’t her best work. But, at the risk of sounding like a snob I think ‘not as good as Middlemarch’ is a criticism that can be made of every other novel ever written.

Thursday, 17 November 2011

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One, by Stanley Fish

Stanley Fish is an academic, and author, who really loves sentences. Not words on their own, though they can sound beautiful, but words ordered precisely so they create a meaningful sentence. He loves them so much he has written enough sentences about sentences to write a book, which I will now write a few sentences about in my most meta review yet.

How To Write A Sentence is both a tribute to skilful writing and a guide to what it is that writers are doing. The chapters are each about a different style of sentence, and how different authors have used them. He discusses how sentences can tell you what they are about by building themselves in a logical order, or by withholding crucial information make you wait until the end. He writes about first sentences, last sentences, and sentences from anywhere in the middle. He does this by using writing from many familiar writers: Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Martin Luther King for a few examples. His analysis of sentences is definitely interesting, although I would be wary of calling this a definitive approach.

What Fish does very well in this book is his explanation of structure over content. He uses some well known examples of famous sentences that are meaningless, yet structured as though they could make sense. One of these is Noam Chomsky’s famous line ‘colourless green ideas sleep furiously’. As Fish points out these words reordered would sound just like a list of words, but in this particular order we perceive there could be a sentence, and by replacing the words with ones grammatically the same, we can write a real sentence e.g. bright green parrots squawk furiously. Again though, reordered this would be a random group of words; without form content cannot emerge.

The book is full of sentences from other authors, some long, some short, but all beautiful in their own way, from John Updike’s description of a famous home run in baseball history ‘it was in the books while it was still in the sky’, to Agatha Christie’s wonderful, economic opening line ‘In the afternoons it was the custom of Miss Jane Marple to unfold her second newspaper’. The gems peppered throughout this book make it an enjoyable read. However, as much as Fish focuses on structure over meaning, both of the aforementioned sentences are beautiful largely in the ideas and information they impart. Sentence craft may be the backbone of writing, but one needs the flesh as well. Nevertheless, Fish’s approach to both writing and reading is interesting, while it may not convert non-readers to the joy of sentences, it may make the rest of us appreciate them just that wee bit more.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

The Sookie Stackhouse Series, by Charlaine Harris

You know how it’s all very well to go out to fine dining restaurants, but often what you would rather do is collapse on the couch with macaroni cheese? Or that documentaries are all very interesting, but most nights the closest you want to get is watching Mythbusters? As stacked with classical novels as my bookshelves may be, sometimes I like to sit in the sun, pour a coffee and devour a book in one (or possibly two) sittings. Lately a popular choice for these moods has been the Sookie Stackhouse series, known widely to most people through its television incarnation for HBO as True Blood.

Vampire fiction is one of the big sellers in modern mass market literature, but that is nothing new. Some of the biggest names in classical literature have published vampire tales: Goethe, Byron, and of course Bram Stoker. Vampires have had a healthy screen presence as well: Nosferatu, Christopher Lee in Dracula, and what would I have watched on TV as a teenager if not Buffy? It isn’t hard to see the appeal. Vampires are frightening and dangerous, but possess an element of glamour that is missing from other undead beings: it is hard to imagine a sexy zombie. Many books pick and choose their vampire mythology, do they possess an ability to transform into bats, can they stand the smell of garlic, or the sight of a crucifix, for example. This lends vampires a versatility, meaning they crop up in everything from comedy to pure horror.

Lately the media has been saturated with the Stephanie Meyer Twilight series. I’ll admit here, in print, just this once, I’ve read those. I think they were pretty bad, and the fourth book, Breaking Dawn - that was just plain weird. Charlaine Harris’s series began slightly earlier but didn’t become a big hit, as far as I am aware, until later. In many ways they are each others antithesis. Where Twilight shies away from the dark elements of a vampire’s nature, and appears to believe the only thing worse than being a serial killing vampire is sex before marriage, Harris’s is a much more adult read, soaked with blood, sex and murder. The premise of the series is that vampires have ‘come out’ to the public, after the manufacturing of synthetic blood; they present public faces as night dwellers who no longer rely on humans to survive. However the vampires in this series have a believable duality: as likeable as many of them are, they are also sexually predatory mass killers, who are essentially dead during daylight hours.

The books are set in the bible belt state of Louisiana, so Harris is able to explore some interesting ideas in the conflict of supernatural beings and religious fundamentalism. The titular character Sookie is not just human, but a telepath, something that allows her to empathise with the suspicion vampires and other supernatural beings, such as the shape shifters, are treated with. However Sookie has been raised with Christian values, and it is her conflict with her desire to lead a ‘good’ life and her involvement in the dark dealings of the vampire world, that give these novels an element of pathos. Some of the actions of the vampires, but also of the religious right, are truly horrific. Now in the eleventh book Sookie’s life has evolved into something she isn’t sure she likes, as she has become increasingly inured to violence.

While her books aren’t literary greats, or even terribly deep, Harris writes likeable characters with a lot of wit, which is often quite dark: in the most recent novel, Dead Reckoning, after a particularly bloody fight, a dazed Sookie sums up one minor vampire character with ‘noisy eater’. Some of the earlier books have a few editorial errors, and as the series continues some elements are beginning to feel a bit repetitive. However, overall, I find them to be a successful and entertaining addition to the vampire tradition.

Monday, 31 October 2011

The Island of Doctor Moreau, by H. G. Wells

After reading about fictional members of the Fabian Society I turned my thoughts to the fiction of a real life member; HG Wells was a radical thinker of his time, a socialist, Fabian, and eugenicist. He wrote many works of fiction and non-fiction, but is now mainly remembered for his science fiction works. The Island of Doctor Moreau is one of HG Wells’s most successful novels. It has been adapted many times into film versions with varying success. Like many early works of science fiction, and urban gothic novels such as Frankenstein, the ideas loom larger in public consciousness than the original text.

Shipwrecked on a remote island Edward Prendick finds himself in the company of Dr Moreau and his assistant Montgomery. At first he is happy to be offered their hospitality, but quickly develops a growing sense of unease over the mysterious happenings on the island, and the grotesque native inhabitants. He is provided with a room, which contains a mysterious locked door, from behind which emanates screams that torment Prendick. At first he believes it is a puma he can hear, but when the cries take on a more human aspect Prendick opens the door and discovers the truth: Dr Moreau is a vivisectionist. The island is inhabited by his experiments, animals that have been made into quasi-humans. With all memory of their animal past suppressed but not extinguished, Dr Moreau keeps his experiments in line with the Law, which dictates they cannot eat flesh, lap up water, or walk on all fours. Moreau is a godlike figure to them, who sees and hears all. However his experiments are all failures; in time the beast reasserts itself. Now a rebellious few have rediscovered the taste for meat. Moreau no longer has control over the inhabitants of his island..

The Island of Dr Moreau is narrated in first person by Prendick, in the form of a journal written at some later stage of his life. This was published by his nephew who found the documents after his death. It includes an introduction written by the nephew, informing us that the ship Prendick names was indeed wrecked, and that Prendick was found adrift at sea some eleven months after his disappearance. His initial ravings are dismissed as that of a man driven crazy, and subsequently he keeps quiet; the journal entry is the only explanation of this time Prendick has ventured. The nephew also confirms the existence of an island, later explored as uninhabited but populated by some unusual animals. This narrative style is common in books of the time; Frankenstein is narrated to a stranger who records the tale for his sister, Dracula is written in the form of diary entries and letters. By doing so the author conveys a sense of veracity: I do not make this up, I am merely the vehicle by which this strange and true tale is brought to you. In Doctor Moreau this style has another effect, as we know that Prendick escapes alive. We are never in suspense as to whether his life is seriously in jeopardy, therefore we are free to focus on the events themselves, and the ideas that are contained within them..

Doctor Moreau was published some forty years after The Origin of Species, and a little over twenty years after The Descent of Man. The idea of human evolution was still a recent and controversial idea. Indeed, some people still struggle with the concept. At a time when people still debated if different races were the same species, Wells published a novel exploring the bestial nature of humans. For that is what this book is truly about, not the failure of the animals to become human. Moreau himself is a nightmare, on the surface a civilised, rational, intelligent man, but he inflicts pain and terror on his creations, all in the pursuit of science. He states
‘I have never troubled about the ethics of the matter’.
However it is Moreau, in his contempt for his fellow human beings, who reveals the truth, ‘the mark of the beast’ that lives in all of us beneath the veneer of civilisation..

The novel reaches its climax in fighting between the animals and their creators, but as I have already said, we always know Prendick survives. The high point is the final chapter, where Wells finally explicitly reveals his theme: Prendick’s horror at finding himself in the company of humans again. In a few spine chilling paragraphs Wells deconstructs the societies we have created, asking the reader to question his own humanity, something that resonates now, but must have been truly shocking for its time. Like many of Wells’s books The Island of Doctor of Moreau is short, but the ideas are huge, and the prose clear and evocative. A deserved classic that should be remembered, and not as a silly Val Kilmer film.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

The Children's Book, by A.S. Byatt

The Children’s Book starts in what for readers of Possession will be familiar territory: Victorian England, artists and writers, families and love affairs. However it rapidly expands to encompass a large cast of characters and takes place over twenty years, chronicling a period of massive social change in Britain, ending in World War One. It lacks some of the features that made Possession such an enthralling read; where Possession was a focussed, intense novel with a tight narrative, The Children’s Book is sprawling, complicated and unsentimental. While it took me longer to get into the book, this ends up being its strength, as A.S. Byatt successfully brings both the period and the characters to life.

Olive Wellwood is a successful children’s author, born into a mining family she has married well, and lives with her husband Humphrey, sister Violet and her large brood of children at Todefright House in the Kent countryside. They are members of the Fabian society, a socialist movement that was popular amongst many literary figures of the day. They live a somewhat bohemian lifestyle at odds with that of Humphrey’s banker brother Basil and his German wife. At the novel’s start, Olive is visiting her friend, and admirer, Prosper Cain at his workplace The South Kensington Museum, which we now know as The Victoria & Albert. There they stumble upon a teenage Phillip Warren, a runaway from the industrial ceramics industry who nonetheless dreams of making his own pots. They help him to be apprenticed to Benedict Fludd, a ceramicist, with some dark secrets. All these characters attend the Wellwoods’ midsummer party where they are entertained by Anselm Stern, a German puppeteer. Still with me? That is only the adults; as the book continues we focus more on the younger generation. It is complicated but if you can get to grips with all the characters the pay-off is terrific.

Myth and fairytale are important themes running through this novel. As with the poets in Possession we get to read some of Olive’s stories, and many of Stern’s plays are familiar German fairytales. These are not sanitised Disney stories, but dark tales of sad children, sad parents, separation from family, and cruelty. The marionette performance at midsummer is Aschenputtel (Cinderella), wonderfully described by Byatt; we can imagine the performance, both the beauty of it, and the uncanniness, culminating in the rather gruesome image of the sister’s feet being hacked by a cleaver to fit inside the shoe. Byatt knows how to use metaphor well. Amongst the many metaphors running through the novel, the cuckoo is discussed by the Todefright children, leading us to question - who will be the cuckoo in this nest? The answer to this is more complicated than first expected, and will tie together the many characters in some interesting ways.

By having such a large and disparate group of characters Byatt is able to include differing views on many important events and movements of the time. The Boer war, the Fabians, Marxists and Anarchists all feature. Of particular importance is the growing Women’s liberation movement. One Wellwood daughter becomes a suffragette, and the right of women to sexual freedom is a recurring theme that involves many characters with varying consequences. The eldest Wellwood daughter, Dorothy, and her cousin Griselda both choose to educate themselves. Griselda is at Cambridge University, where she can attend classes and sit exams, but never graduate, and must live her life cloistered in college despite reaching adulthood. Dorothy becomes a doctor, even though she will only ever be allowed to work at a women’s hospital with female colleagues and patients. Their struggles with the disapproval from family and society, and the sacrifice of never having their own family or husband is very moving, and a stark reminder of the days when very few women where able to have any life outside the domestic sphere, and even then at great cost to themselves.

The book begins in 1895 and as time passes Byatt often steps aside from the plot to bring us up to date with historical context. These are useful passages, as the events of history filter down to the characters’ lives. However there were moments were she brings in historical figures to the periphery of the book, even quoting letters or poems, such as those of Cambridge contemporaries Virginia Wood and Rupert Brooke. At times I found these jarring. Of course it is realistic that they would meet these people if they were moving in the same spheres. But to an extent it reminded me that everyone else was fictional. I found the use of quotations particularly difficult. While I could accept on all-knowing narrator of fictional lives, giving access to a real person was a step too far for me.

The great strength of this book is the way it gave a real depiction of people’s lives. They are often complicated and messy; people make mistakes, people die, children are born. Byatt is unsentimental towards her characters. This is perhaps most strongly shown in the final act of the book, set during World War One. I don’t think it is a spoiler to say many characters die. Unflinching and thankfully brief, it is one of the most affecting depictions of war I have read. Byatt avoids any mawkish sentiment; war is impersonal and so is her depiction of it. And just as in real life, there is no neat ending here. Many survive World War One, but as we the reader know, looming on the horizon is World War Two. If you like books with neat, happy endings this may not be the one for you. I however found it to be moving without relying on sentiment, a satisfying and compelling read.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

Of Mice and Men, by John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck grew up in rural California and spent much of his early life working as a farm labourer. Many of his novels tell stories of the migrant labourers he worked alongside, especially those fleeing the dustbowl states of Oklahoma and Texas. Of Mice and Men is one of these stories.

This novella begins with two migrant workers, George and Lennie, who have travelled and worked together for many years, arriving at a new farm in Salinas, California. George has a dream that they will one day work up enough money to buy a small piece of land and farm for themselves. Lennie is a useful farm worker, due to his size and massive strength, but he is also a simpleton, reliant on George to find him work and keep him out of danger. There is also a small supporting cast of fellow labourers and a sole female character, a labourer's wife who is nameless. All these characters, trapped in tedious poverty, wish they were living the American dream, but there is no real sense of hope for their future. Inevitably Lennie's strength and lack of intelligence leads to trouble, and George must choose between Lennie and his dreams.

This novella is deliberately structured like a play. Steinbeck wrote it so that people could read it like a book, but it could be easily developed into a play by lifting the dialogue. The action takes place in a number of long scenes set in single locations: first a river bank, then the bunk house the labourers share, and so forth. Much of the exposition is done through dialogue; in particular Lennie wants George to tell the story of the plot of land they will farm together over and over again. Characters talk almost across each other, in long pieces of dialogue, as though they are on stage. Each chapter (act?) begins with a description of the setting; these could easily be the directions in italics in a script. Beautiful as the writing is, I couldn't shake the feeling I was reading a script. I didn't know until I read the introduction this was deliberate, but it was obvious, and slightly strange to read.

The final set piece is, frankly, a little unbelievable. Throughout the story Steinbeck has emphasised how strong Lennie is, and that he is unable to comprehend how strong he is due to his reduced mental capacity. Lennie has been accidently killing small animals, mainly mice but also a puppy, throughout the novella. When Lennie hurts a human, badly, it is hardly a surprise. Steinbeck is clearly exploring the issue of culpability rather than trying to keep us in suspense. While I can appreciate this, and feel a little for George in his dilemma, it just doesnt work for me. No matter how clearly Steinbeck tries to set up that Lennie is strong and stupid, I just cant quite believe he could be that strong and cause that much damage by accident. The way Steinbeck works so hard to set it up makes me think he always knew it was a hard sell.

Still, it is hard to argue with this book’s successful history. The prose is crisp and vividly conjures up a vision of early twentieth century America. The structure of this ‘playable novel’ has also been a success, with multiple films, Broadway plays, and even an opera. It has also been the subject of controversy, at times banned in various schools and libraries in America and throughout the world for vulgar (or some would say, accurate) dialogue. It is clear that Steinbeck has achieved what he set out to do, bringing the world of the labourers to life. However the novella is so constrained by its structure and themes that while it is a book I’m glad to have read, it ultimately left me a little cold.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, by Susanna Clarke

First published in 2004, it is a testament to this novel's popularity that I had to wait months for it to become available at the library, only to discover that due to demand it can only be taken out for two weeks at a time and it was approximately a thousand pages long. Luckily I am a fast reader and even though it is large, it is not a dense read. From start to finish it was an absolute pleasure. It isn't often I read a book of that size and feel I could instantly dive in and start it again.

Clarke sets her novel in an alternative England, blending the historically accurate with the fantastic. Magic was for centuries widely practised in England and reached its peak under the three hundred year reign of John Uskglass, the Northern King. By the early 19th century magic has died out and is solely the study of theoretical magicians. The novel centres around Mr Norrell, who astounds England by revealing he has the ability to practice magic, and Jonathan Strange, a younger man with magical abilities who becomes his pupil. Norrell and Strange have a complicated relationship that Clarke depicts very realistically; as the only two magicians in England they want to work together, but vanity and ego inevitably get in the way.

The depiction of England is very recognisable, with many historical episodes and people, such as a mad king on the throne, and the Duke of Wellington at the Battle of Waterloo. The prose is at times reminiscent of Jane Austen, with a wry tone creeping in. Clarke also uses old fashioned spelling of words familiar to readers of Austen, such as ‘chuse’ for ‘choose’. Dickens is also called to mind, largely through the pencil illustrations throughout the book. Footnotes are widely used throughout the novel, some as scholarly references explaining magical terms and theory. Others create the mythology of this version of England, with centuries old stories of Uskglass and his fairy cohorts. Often amusing, these footnotes are an effective tool for our understanding of this world.

For all the lightness of tone in this novel, magic is often depicted very darkly. The tales of Uskglass, like many of our own fairytales, often involve acts of cruelty. Magic leads Norrell and Strange down dangerous paths. The few times we get a glimpse into the fairy kingdom we see a cruel and menacing world. Early in the novel Norrell makes an unwise pact with a fairy, the Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair, to bring the young Lady Pole back to life. By his terms Lady Pole will live but spend half her life in the fairy kingdom. While Norrell believes she will appear to die after thirty years or so, in reality she is forced by the fairy to spend every night at balls in his castle, in the kingdom of Lost-Hope. Through her the fairy meets Stephen Black, her husband’s servant, and he too is enchanted. The fairy is attracted to beautiful people and things; the guests at his balls wear beautiful clothes, and he gifts Stephen priceless ornaments and treasure. For all this, his house is a cold, unwelcoming place. Unable to speak out and weary, Pole and Black can do nothing. The Gentleman with Thistle-down Hair is unable to understand they do not want to be there, that they do not want his gifts, that they find meaning in their human lives. He exists outside any human constructs of morality, and by extension so does the rest of the magical world. Norrell and Strange have opened England up to perilous forces.

The above subplot is the most major of many in this book; if any criticism can be made of this novel it is that Clarke does spend some time on events and characters that are not strictly necessary for the main thrust of the story. But it is such an enjoyable world to spend time in, and many of these diversions so entertaining in their own right, that it is a fairly minor quibble. The end brings many different storylines and details together neatly and smoothly; also I found it to be unexpectedly moving. I was left with a satisfying lump in my throat at a beautiful ending to a beautiful book.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

The Last Werewolf by Glen Duncan

The novel begins in modern day London with Jake Marlow, a two hundred year old werewolf. Jake has discovered he is the last living werewolf, the penultimate wolf having being beheaded by members of the World Organisation for the Control of Occult Phenomena (WOCOP). Jake is not only their final target, he is highly prized, having killed the father of WOCOP's leader some forty years ago. But Jake, educated, erudite and highly sexed, is tired of his existence and considers accepting species extinction by allowing WOCOP to find him at the next full moon - that is until he discovers something that gives him a reason to go on with life. With WOCOP hot on his tail (sorry), Jake goes on the run.

The novel is narrated by Jake and his tone of voice is very important. For the first third of the novel Jake speaks to us as the jaded, world-weary being that he is. Luckily he is intelligent and well informed enough that this isnt tiresome, and before we begin to find it tiresome anyway, Jakes life takes a dramatic twist and we get to go along for the ride. I did find some of the opening chapters a little overwritten for my taste. Sentences such as leaving him alone with his conscience was like leaving a child alone with a paedophile are, in my opinion, a bit silly. However the way it is written is so appropriate for the character, and lines like the aforementioned infrequent enough, that they didnt lessen my enjoyment of the book overall. The final acts are a rollicking read. Duncan leads you through many twists and turns without it getting so complicated you get lost, and it is a pleasure to read a book with twists you dont see coming that still make sense.

The world of the werewolf is fantastically realised. Jake is neither a man or a beast, but an awkward combination of both. He is a man most of the time, but his life is dominated by a monthly cycle culminating in the murder, and eating, of a human on the night of the full moon. As the moon waxes Jake feels the wolf growing inside him, phantom claws and muzzle itching to get out, joints popping, The Hunger (as he calls it) taking over his body so he stops eating, and his libido ramped up to absurd degrees. As a werewolf, The Hunger is overpowering. One of Duncans cleverest touches is Jake not only eats the flesh, he also consumes the life itself; psychically learning who they are, what they have done. His first victim, someone known to him, hovers in Jake; a tortuous reminder of what he has become. The only afterlife his victims get is inside him.

Jake lives as a human, with a human's conscience, yet he is a monster; every month a person dies so that he can continue to live. He carries on, accepting the fact of his monstrosity, because at heart the thing that unites all living creatures is a desire for survival. He is also alone. Werewolves are unable to reproduce, the bite having stopped working not long after Jake was turned. Jake looks at recent history, the holocaust, the atomic bomb, reality TV and wonders if this is because people no longer need monsters. We consume, survive, and others die. We are the monsters.

Although this is a horror book with a little more meat (sorry) than the standard fare, Duncan never allows the big metaphors to derail the narrative. If you are put off by blood or sex (did I mention there is a lot of sex) this may not be the one for you. I, however, enjoyed it very much. The final act had me absolutely hooked. I suspect we may see a sequel; Ill be reading it.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin

So much hype. So much publicity. So many, many pages. What better book to take on holiday than Game of Thrones, the first instalment of George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire. But did it live up to expectations? Well, I have already read the second book, and bought the third. So, yes.

This is a work of High Fantasy, set in a medieval, feudal world in which seasons last for years and the Stark family hold the northernmost lands in the kingdom. The novel begins in the ninth year of summer with King Roberts visit to Eddard Stark, a childhood friend, who was instrumental in fighting the war that ended with Robert on the Iron Throne. Robert, tired with everything that comes with being the King except for getting what he wants, needs Eddard to be his Hand. As the King eloquently puts it - what the King eats, the Hand shits. From here the novel spins out into a much wider world full of spies and subterfuge, where death is only a sudden sword stroke away. As the Stark family motto tells us, winter is coming, and as the season changes so too does the balance of power.
The novel is told in third person (he or she) but with a shifting character focus each chapter. Martin uses this well, narrating the same events from opposing sides. Sometimes, in building up to a crucial piece of the plot, it is only after you have read two or three chapters that you can put the pieces together. The Stark family take up the majority of chapters: Eddard, his wife Catelyn and the children - both his bastard son and the trueborn. Eddard is loyal, pious and kind; the classic hero every fantasy novel needs. However Martin does not keep things one sided. We also follow an exiled princess, and a personal favourite, Tyrion Lannister, devious brother-in-law of the King. While the Lannisters are the bad guys in this book, Tyrion is just enough of an outcast in his own family, and given such an intelligent and witty mind, that you can like him. Martin is adept at making you feel for characters who are not necessarily likable. Sansa the eldest Stark daughter is unbearably prim, but throughout the second novel I found myself reading her chapters with a sense of dread at the helpless position she is placed in.

Martin imbues the books with a sense of history. Events in the past are defining the loyalties in current politics. With so many characters and competing storylines, never mind the world building, these books are dense, but I think Martin does well to keep the narrative clear and easy to follow. But beware there is no neat ending. The fifth book has just been published and more are supposedly coming. My main concern is: Martin, don’t go all Robert Jordan on us. The books are large, but I think a fairly easy read for their size. However if they are too daunting, there is always the HBO series. Sean Bean is in it and that’s never going to hurt.

Monday, 12 September 2011

Jack Maggs by Peter Carey

One of Peter Carey’s prizewinning novels, Jack Maggs tells the story of a convict recently returned, under penalty of death, to England from New South Wales. Jack Maggs is in search of his son, an orphan boy whose advancement in life has been funded from the fortune he made in Australia. Sound familiar? As the title tells you this book is inspired by Great Expectations. Loosely. So loosely in fact that for the first three quarters I suspected it may have been a cynical ploy to garner attention. Towards the end the debt to Great Expectations, and the story of Pip and Jack Maggs, becomes more important. Perhaps Carey was genuinely inspired and thought it better to acknowledge it openly than attempt to be subtle and run the risk of copying accusations. Still, naming the book Jack Maggs is pretty obvious, you cant tell me the name recognition doesnt count for something on bookshelves. Cynical? Perhaps.

However call this a single stormy cloud on a wide Aussie sky because I thought it was a fabulous book.

Carey ties in the tale of an author, one Tobias Oates, who will one day write a novel about Jack Maggs. Oates is in his mid-twenties and already a successful novelist, as was Charles Dickens at that age. They both had difficult childhoods with fathers in prison (Oates) or debtors prison (Dickens). The parallels are many but subtle and if you knew nothing about Dickens (or indeed, Great Expectations) it would not impinge on your understanding if this novel. It does however illustrate the deftness with which Carey has woven together his story with both the book and its creator, something I think that only becomes apparent on reflection.

Maggs is a fantastic creation, a disturbed and dangerous mind, capable of violence but very human and very vulnerable. We learn much more about Maggs in the latter stages of the novel. However he remains opaque, while Oatess greed, ambition and sordid home life are laid bare for us. Oates sees Maggs as his meal ticket; he will steal the thiefs story and make it his great novel. This, however, will lead him into a power struggle with Maggs which he is never capable of winning. It is this potent combination of two very desperate men that lies at the heart of this novel. Careys character work sets him in good stead. It is this rather than clever inter-textual referencing that ultimately make this book shine.