Review – “The Drought” – J G Ballard

The DroughtThe Drought by J.G. Ballard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’ve marked it down a star on the second reading. I like it, but it’s not brilliant. Nowadays, I like characterisation in a novel far too much to truly enjoy a novel built on ciphers (a Ballardian word!) for characters. And too many of the many characters have too little to do. Quilter’s a bit odd. So? Mrs Quilter is his mum. So? Catherine Austen likes lions. So? There are some fish people… So? And so on. I also find some Ballardian metaphors and allusions… exaggerated? Overegged? For example I can’t imagine reading in somebody’s blanched face “an image of [Ransom’s] own future…” in which he “would have to create [a] sense of time out of landscape emerging around them”. That’s a lot to hang on a face…

Interestingly, there are hints of Crash in the novel: “It was as if her face already carried the injuries of an appalling motor-car accident that would happen somewhere in the future.”

So – it’s elliptical, and kind of plotless, drifting like dunes in the hot sun, and full of a sense of unrelieved foreboding and ennui. Yet, I still rather like it. Few people write like Ballard, and this kind of British New Wave science fiction was certainly of the time, and defined a moment in the genre — the exploration of inner space rather than outer space — that I enjoy. It will be interesting to revisit Ballard’s other early apocalyptic novels at some point.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

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Review – “Stranger in a Strange Land” – Robert Heinlein

Stranger In A Strange LandStranger In A Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

One of the books I’m reading this year that I first read over forty years ago that I still own in the same smoky edition I bought back in 1976.

I’m not going to write a long review, there will be plenty enough on Goodreads, Amazon and all over the Web. This is my second time reading it, and I still thought it was fun and interesting enough to get three stars. Yes, it’s sexist, and yes, its writing style is not “literature” – but then, it was written for teenage boys in the late 1950s and early 1960s, whose ideas of witty repartee would have been informed by 1940s detective movies on the television, gumshoes and newspaper men whose women knew their place.

And yet, there are enough ideas in the novel to turn a young boy’s (and girl’s) mind upside down and around about and set them all akimbo. Telepathy and telekinesis, and a man from Mars; older wiser, civilisations with mighty intellectual powers and wisdom; free love, and a lot of nakedness; criticism of religion while inventing a religion that is not a religion, and managing to confuse itself over the subject of religion, and whether God exists, whether there are immortal souls, and so on.

It’s not a great book, in the sense of great literature. But it’s fun, if a little tendentious, and perhaps a little preachy towards the end. However, there’s plenty there to set inquisitive young minds a-roaming, and more than enough that was, for the time, exciting, shocking and new.

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[One of the books being read this year on the basis of this post: Something for World Book Day]

Review — The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber & Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber & Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If this collection of short stories hadn’t been so short I might well have given up reading it. A sense of duty made me return to it each night. This was, after all, Angela Carter. And yet… Once upon a time — yikes, 35 years ago, as it turns out — I’d read another collection of her stories, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, and remembered little about it, such was the effect it had on me. And yet… I had once also found a second-hand copy of Love, her fifth novel, and read it with enjoyment. It was thus in the hope that I would find again what I had enjoyed about Love, while fearing that I would rediscover what I’d found in Fireworks, that I picked up The Bloody Chamber.

It was, unfortunately, another Fireworks I’d found. I wasn’t in the presence of stories, or characters, or, indeed interest. I was in the presence of a writer. I was in the middle of an explosion of beautifully-crafted, writerly sentences. I was eating a pudding laced with chocolate and brandy, smothered in double and whipped cream and custard. The taste was too heavy. The writing was so thick that it distanced me. In fact, I managed to read two pages of the final story, ‘Wolf Alice’ without really reading them — as if I’d been driving a car at night, listening to the radio, and found myself twelve miles up the road with no memory of driving them — because they felt simply like another wardrobe of extravagant finery. Two pages had gone into my eyes and whirled around my synapses, yet I had no idea what had happened in those pages — and I had no care to go back and find out. The story likely made as much sense without the two pages as it did with them. Wolves were involved.

I might try another Carter at some time, simply on the strength of Love. But if I do, I won’t be dipping into short stories again, and I suspect I will start with the earlier novels in the hope that the sauce isn’t quite as rich.

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Review — “The Fifth Voice” — Paul Connolly

The Fifth VoiceThe Fifth Voice by Paul Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second self-published novel I’ve read, and proves — if proof were needed — that there are many more story-tellers out there than the gatekeepers of traditional publishing allow through those gates. Although, at the same time, I understand that the gatekeepers only have towns of limited sizes, and can only nourish a certain population they hope will be productive (and I think I’ve strained that gatekeeper metaphor quite enough…).

Anyway, this is the simple tale of a barbershop quartet — yes, I said barbershop quartet — and of the lives and loves of the members of that quartet. The fifth voice of the title is a kind of supernumerary voice created by the perfect unison of the quartet members, but in the book becomes a metaphor for.. well.. many things. The plot and subplots are straightforward enough, with few twists and turns. It is a kind of lighthearted romcom/bromance about singing people. You aren’t going to be surprised where the plot goes, nor where the subplots end up.

But then, not every narrative needs, I feel, to include intricate webs of tangled threads and unusual weltbilds. If this is an ordinary tale about ordinary folk you or I might know, pursuing artistic fulfillment or self-actualisation through ordinary, if slightly unusual, hobbies, it is nonetheless interesting for that. As is often the case, a novel can be introduction to worlds unknown — in this case barbershop and a capella singing, and Lundy Island — and thus enrich a world.

Ultimately, this was an easy read, about people I might know, with problems I might understand, told in an entertaining an engaging way.

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Review – The Little Friend, Donna Tartt

The Little FriendThe Little Friend by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been sitting on my shelves for the last few years, taunting me. 555 pages long in my Bloomsbury edition, with narrow margins and tiny print, the first time I tried reading it I didn’t get much beyond page 50. But this is the year of attempting the big books; the year when I read many pages but few actual tomes as I work my through the neglected pile of “large, daunting books”.

I read The Secret History many years ago now, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t particularly memorable. I liked it and Tarrt’s style enough to want to explore any other books she might publish (and The Little Friend was the next), but couldn’t quite understand the reviews and plaudits Tartt had received.

I really enjoyed this book. Yes, there are a few longeurs — not so much tedious, as drifting slightly, Tartt caught up in her descriptions of her sensuous, well-realised world — but overall, the book kept up to its own slow, dreamy pace throughout. I was suprised, half-way through, to note a review on the cover saying the novel was “unputdownable”. I found it very putdownable. But also — and here’s the important point — easy enough to pick up again. I did want to return to that summer in Mississippi, somewhen in the 1970s, and settle down into the book’s ryhthms, wondering if young Harriet would avenge her brother’s murder or even know how to do that. Again, another review spoke of Tartt’s mastery of suspense; and again, I found myself surprised because the book never struck me as a novel of “suspense”. There are a few tense, gripping incidents, but over the course of nearly six hundred pages, suspense would be stretched far too thin, and the sensation would be lost. The book was better for having hard knots of action rather than tenuous “suspense”.

Tartt has a lovely way with language. It’s not my way, and I rather envy her for it; at the same time, were I to write like that, I’d be Tartt, and not me. She conjures a very rich world, a world thick with sight and sound and scents. And yet there lies the danger… Such evocations can spin away, and the language itself seems to become the point of paragraph after paragraph; it is during such flights that you might find yourself wishing for some of that promised suspense.

Nonetheless, the book was a qualified delight, and I shall now look forward to the equally daunting The Goldfinch with slightly less trepidation.

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Review — “Adrift in Soho” — Colin Wilson

Adrift in SohoAdrift in Soho by Colin Wilson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I’ve always had a soft spot for Colin Wilson’s fiction. Not all of it is good, and the science fiction/fantasy of
The Mind Parasites 
or The Philosopher’s Stone can be laboured and preachy, filled with characters constantly declaiming meaningfully about sensitive souls, and the meaningfulness of life, or action, or non-action, and so on. I am drawn more towards his crime novels, which — while also having a distressing tendency to contain characters who suddenly talk like extracts from philosophical popularisations — do have plots, and absorb these “intellectual” characters more ably into those plots. (It should also be noted that Wilson was extraordinarily prolific, and there are many more novels available than I have dared reading!).

Adrift in Soho is Wilson’s second novel (originally published in 1961 by Gollancz and republished in 2011 by New London Editions). The novel is set in the mid-1950s and feels like a roman à clef of sorts. The novel is written from the first person perspective of Harry Preston, who leaves the Midlands (as Wilson did) and moves to London (as Wilson did) in pursuit of a more “meaningful” existence (as Wilson did).

Once in London, Preston falls in with a bohemian crowd of artists and intellectuals as he attempts to live on the scant resources he has brought with him. The novel follows Preston’s adventures as he meets various bohemian and beatnik characters, largely centered around Soho; painters and philosophers and autodidacts and out-of-work actors. These characters are largely likable, although there is a large troupe of them, and we never get a chance to know all of them well. Several of them are, of course, simply mouthpieces for points of view that Wilson, or Harry Preston, can agree with or refute. The main characters of the book are, though, well-drawn, and stand out well enough in the zoo of minor characters to not become swamped by them.

Anybody who has read more than one of Wilson’s fiction or non-fiction books will recognise tropes, obsessions and concerns — will, freedom, the coming man, the sensitive man, artists of various types, the raising of consciousness, and Preston’s (Wilson’s) wavering between disgust and acceptance of the “ordinary man” and the “ordinary” life. And yet I find this all much easier to take dressed up in one of Wilson’s novels than in a more serious nonfiction work such as The Occult or The Outsider.

In the end, Harry Preston admits that though the people in this bohemian set interest him, he could never be a bohemian himself, as he is too bourgeois — which again reflects the reality of Wilson’s life. For although Wilson continued to think about “meaning” in life, and how humans would evolve towards some kind of “other” state, how their consciousness could be raised somewhere beyond the current mode of human existence, still he remained earthbound in Cornwall with a rambling house and a large library.

One attribute Wilson has always had — for me, at least — is an engaging, easy-flowing, writing style. It’s a little old-fashioned, perhaps, influenced by Somerset Maugham and Priestley, one feels; but I’m kind of old-fashioned in that way too. Adrift in Soho is, then, an entertaining, easy read that contains interesting characters and paints a picture of particular kinds of people in a particular location at a particular era — adrift between the end of the war and the dream-world to come in the 1960s.

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Review — “The New Girlfriend: And Other Stories” — Ruth Rendell

The New Girlfriend: And Other StoriesThe New Girlfriend: And Other Stories by Ruth Rendell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

An enjoyable selection of Ruth Rendell’s short stories. When deciding on the number of stars to give as a rating, I was minded to give three, as collections such as this often contain middling kinds of stories that are entertaining diversions without much to commend them, and there are perhaps one or such stories in this collection. In the end, though, I thought I’d go for four stars to match the best of the stories.

Of the stories here, “The New Girlfriend” is perhaps the most well-known, but in the end I found it quite slight. Of more interest were stories in which there was a feeling that a typical Rendellian psychological novella or short novel might have grown from the barer bones of the short story — into this category fell “The Orchard Walls” or “Fen Hall”. Other stories also tantalisingly hinted at themes, obsessions, interests, characters or locations in later novels — into this category fell “Fen Hall” (again) and “Father’s Day”.

The collection closed with “The Green Road to Quephanda”, a lovely surprise in that it was almost a metanarrative, a contemplation on genre and the roots (routes) of imagination.

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