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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Review: I Am Lazarus: Stories — Anna Kavan

I Am Lazarus: StoriesI Am Lazarus: Stories by Anna Kavan
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I’ve read various novellas by Anna Kavan over the years — IceSleep Has His House, and Who Are You? The first two I read a very long time ago, and can remember little about them, although I know they intrigued me enough to continue exploring her work. The last I read only recently, and while it was enjoyable enough, it wasn’t particularly memorable. Still, Kavan continues to interest me, so I thought I’d try this collection of short stories.

The stories reflect in part Kavan’s time in London during World War II, and her work at a psychiatric hospital for soldiers. The stories tend therefore tend to the dark with neurotic. As is often the case with short story collections, some stories are enjoyable, some not so much. In particular, I found this collection slow to start, and it wasn’t until about thirty pages in, with the story “The Blackout”, that I found myself becoming engaged.

Some of the stories are very short, and feel as if they were notes or experiments for her longer works. And certainly, a couple of the stories have thematic similarities — dealing with a shadowy bureaucracy and a delayed and confusing “trial”, reminiscent of The Trial — and I felt these in particular were experiments towards a novel; I was unsurprised therefore to find that her posthumously published Guilty involves “a Kafkaesque bureaucracy”.

These short stories are, then, probably not the best introduction to Kavan; they might instead provide, for those already familiar with her work, insight into the obsessions and interests that inform Ice or Sleep Has His House. Indeed, it is those novels I would suggest to those interested in exploring Kavan.

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Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang – Kate Wilhelm — Review

Where Late the Sweet Birds SangWhere Late the Sweet Birds Sang by Kate Wilhelm
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This the first Kate Wilhelm  novel I’ve read, and I rather enjoyed it.This is, of course, her acknowledged classic, the winner of awards, and an entry in the Gollancz Masterworks series.

When a family of entrepreneurs and farmers see the apocalypse coming, they make plans — long-term plans — to protect the future of their family, and the future of humanity. The nature of the apocalypse has effected human fertility, so cloning will be required, and luckily, distributed around the inter-connected families, are large areas of farmland, wealth, technical know-how, and expertise in reproductive sciences. After much experimentation, human cloning is finally mastered — but there are limits to the technique. Cloned children look alike and, as with popular notions about twins, they think and feel alike. They become lonely when they are not together, even their sexual relationships revolve around each other. There are, however, especially among the first clones, some who learn or retain individuality. Such people cause problems for the gestalt experience of the clones; yet such individuality is required to explore the post-apocalyptic world. Clones who attempt to explore that world away from their brood siblings ultimately breakdown. The novel becomes, then, an exploration of the individual versus the group.

As so often, a work of science fiction, set in the future, about a future technology (cloning), seems beneath the surface to be a comment about the society and culture in which it is written. The main character of the second-half of the book, Mark, has a well-developed sense of individuality. Mark carves in wood and stone, he paints. He can track people through the woods. He wears moccasins and jackets of leather. He can use a canoe on the river. He loves the woods and being alone. He talks to trees. He is the very model of a rugged frontiersman, the kind of individualist who built America. And while we understand the reasons why the cloning technique was developed, and feel some sympathy for the clones, still the clones are weak in their togetherness, too much the same, and their empathy and sympathy for each other makes them fragile.

One can’t help wondering then, if this is, however indirectly, and however unexpectedly, a comment on a society that looks on its members with too much sympathy and empathy and provides them with too much, and on people who expect the state to provide; a criticism of societal control by elites; and ultimately a paean to the rugged individualist, liberal (in the European sense), anarchic, free-thinking and artistic.

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