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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Review — “A Wrinkle in the Skin” — John Christopher

A Wrinkle in the SkinA Wrinkle in the Skin by John Christopher
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is another enjoyable slab of post-apocalyptic cosy catastrophe from John Christopher.

Earlier in the year, I read Christopher’s The Death of Grass. That was lean, taut, and gripping, with a particular grey bleakness. This book follows a similar pattern — ordinary people surviving a catastrophe — but here the catastrophe has a more unlikely cause: worldwide earthquakes that cause severe damage and disruption. Of course, the book was written in the early 1960s, when much less was known about plate tectonics, so colossal earthquakes perhaps had some plausibility.

Ultimately, though, the science is irrelevant, and to place post-apocalyptic novels in the science-fiction genre is perhaps mistaken. Because after the initiating disaster, such books inevitably become about people, about society and human relationships, about what makes state and society.

There is much to fear in the post-apocalytic world — rape, pillage, murder, illness, death. That much is made plain, and Christopher does not shy away from it. And in a lovely Ballardian moment involving a stranded cargo ship, there is madness and defiance too. In some ways, this is a novel that sits between the apocalyptic niche Ballard carved out in books such as The Drowned World and The Wind from Nowhere and the very British catastrophes of John Wyndham.

The prose is as clean and lean as in The Death of Grass. It has a kind of traditional, British style I associate with Orwell, Greene and Somerset Maugham, a style I find myself favouring at the moment.

This novel is, in in the end, less desolate, less gloomy than The Death of Grass. Its conclusion offers some optimism amid the devastation and wildness. There is, in the end, a kind of hope that, however hard it might be at that moment, in the future a good, just and fair society can be rebuilt.

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Book Review: Profiles Of The Future

Profiles Of The FutureProfiles Of The Future by Arthur C. Clarke

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An easy read, but a little dull. It avoided the usual problem of extrapolating and prophesying – being quickly proved wrong – by mainly discussing ideas and concepts Clarke located so far into the future they have still to come to pass. The book was written in the 60s, updated in the 70s, and last printed in the early 80s – so it is of course already old hat, and Clarke knew little about the future development of microprocessors, genetic engineering, and so on. Nonetheless, one of the entertainments of reading old books prognosticating about the future is seeing where, and how soon, projections diverge from reality. By being very vague and long-sighted, both the amusement of bad prophecy and, as somebody with an interest in futurology, the humbling realisation that nearly all prediction (especially about the future) is doomed to failure was denied to me. There is at least, at the back of the book, a table in which Clarke actually does attempt to pin down, with dates, when we would colonize planets, or when there would be a World Brain, or when we would control weather, and so on. At last, I could again be reminded that even those lauded as technological prophets are doomed to prophetic failure.

The main reason for this failure is because, as usual, everything happens too soon. Extrapolations from current technology tend toward exponentiality. For example, it is easy to look at advances in genetics in 1970s and posit replicants in 2019 (Blade Runner). Similarly, for Clarke, the space race of the 1960s is a harbinger of planetary colonization in the 2020s, and space-mining in the 2030s.

There are occasional hits; the “World Library” by 2010 sounds a lot like Project Gutenberg, or Google, or Wikipedia. However, the mode of delivery is completely different, relying on satellite-based communications rather than the internet. Network-based computing is absent, as are pocket-sized computers. A form of GPS is foreseen, however.

Still, this is an easy enough read. It also contains one of the best explanations I’ve read about how difficult interstellar travel would be in terms of time and communication (even at near light speeds); and how it is likely that, as humans spread among the stars, each area of colonisation would be so remote from Earth it would soon develop independently, and perhaps over time, lose connection with the ancestral planet.

If you do have an interest in futurology and scientific prophecy, if you find this lying around a second-hand bookshop, it’s worth picking up.

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Book Review – Conversations on Truth

Conversations on TruthConversations on Truth by Mick Gordon My rating: 3 of 5 stars This book is a series of conversations (edited into readable format) with various people who have an interest in the idea of “truth” from a variety of viewpoints — such as philosophers, ethicists, journalists and evolutionary psychologists. The conversations were initiated by a pair of journalist/theatre directors who were attempting to find a way into the production of some form of drama through which notions of truth might be explored.

There are fifteen conversations, and although the conversations are edited, and they begin from a set of predefined questions, the interviewers allow the direction of conversation to suggest other directions the conversations might take. Sometimes, this ends up in diversions not necessarily to do with “truth” per se. And as commentators from various fields have been brought into the conversations, there are areas that might be of more interest to readers than others. Certainly, I was much more interested in what philosophers had to say than, say, journalists. And the evolutionary psychologist opened up an interesting area by suggesting that there might be evolutionary benefits to lying. Additionally, given the discursive nature of the conversations, areas in which I wanted more depth were sometimes glossed over – this is not an academic treatise.

The book is, then, something of a curate’s egg — hence the three-star rating. Nonetheless, as an introduction to truth, and the definitional, ethical, philosophical and cultural issues surrounding the concept, I thought this was a very useful book. View all my reviews

Review: Crome Yellow

Crome Yellow
Crome Yellow by Aldous Huxley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Much to my surprise, I enjoyed Crome Yellow a lot more than I expected to. I’m not one for humour in books, so if it was funny in a 1920s-style, that passed me by. Nothing much happens in the novel, and what passes for plot is slight. That it satirises and lightly mocks the world that Huxley moved in at that time is well-known: the Bloomsbury set, the Garsington crowd. And Huxley is self-knowing enough to realise that he is one of those people. It is tempting to see the protagonist Denis as Huxley himself; the young, slightly naif poet, moving among older, wiser, talented people, searching for something, but somewhat callow and innocent — many of the people Huxley mingled with at Garsington — Bell, Middleton Murray, Lawrence, Russell — were ten or more years older than he.

The crisis at the end is faintly ridiculous, but at the same time oddly true — for who else but a naif to whom nothing had happened would contemplate such an action?

Also of passing interest were hints of topics that would interest Huxley in his later books. Obviously, satirising intellectuals and the pre-occupations of a certain class would continue through Point Counter Point and Eyeless in Gaza; but, for example, one of the characters in Crome Yellow discusses an ideal society in which children are selected at birth for particular roles and educated so that those roles become their prescribed path through life — a prefiguration of the social rankings in Brave New World, of course.

Ultimately, Crome Yellow was light and frothy. It was a delight. A charm.

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Review: A Burnt Out Case

A Burnt Out Case
A Burnt Out Case by Graham Greene
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A quick review of A Burnt Out Case.

A fine read. Well-crafted and honed. A novel in which the oppositions of faith and apostasy, religion and irreligion, belief and atheism are discussed and played with, without seeming preachy, heavy or tedious.

The well-paced plot skilfully reveals the life of the protagonist Querry, and why and how he has ended up in deepest Africa, at a mission and hospital for lepers. The denouement was a surprise, and well-crafted; though surprising, it seemed a natural way for the story to conclude.

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