Tuesday, 22 September 2009

"The Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell

Click here for a guest piece on the Alexandria Quartet on Norman Geras's blog.

Friday, 18 September 2009

"Stranger Than Fiction" by Jim Murdoch

This is the first time that I have reviewed the same author twice, apart only from Philip K. Dick, and both he and Jim Murdoch are very fine writers indeed.

Regular visitors to this blog will remember that I gave his Living with the Truth (reviewed December 2008) rave notices as it was quite the most stylish, thoughtful and dowright original novel I had read for a long time. I remember wondering at the time how Murdich was going to follow it though, not least because there was talk of a sequel yet the hero (using the word only in its literary sense - there is nothing heroic about Jonathan Payne) actually died at the end of it.

Constructing a whole new novel around a character who died in a previous one may seem a tall order, yet Murdoch pulls it off brilliantly. The universe, it appears, has ground to a halt, and not for the first time either. God is seriously hacked off by this, and Truth and his colleagues are under strict orders to track back through an infinite number of chains of events try try to find out what went wrong, so that the same mistake can be avoided in future. I will not spoil the plot by describing things any further.

This highly imaginative device allows Murdoch to work all manners of conjuring tricks, even appearing himself at one point, and with a respectful nod to Puckoon to boot. He even contrives yet another twist at the end, which leaves the way open for a third novel in the sequence, which I very much hope he will write.

Like its predecessor (no pun intended), the book is shot through with wry humour and off-hand allusions to all manner of people from Kafka to Einstein. I particularly liked this, which is followed, believe it or not, by a reference to Frankie Howard:

Everyone is unprepared for the future. It is undiscovered, but do we discover it or does it find us, yelling "No, not yet! It's not time. I'm not ready. Come back tomorrow."? Everyone knows, though, that tomorrow never comes, and that's where they keep all the jam.

Another wonderful moment was the discovery that Truth's counterpart, Reality, knocks back a regular cocktail of mind-altering drugs. Truth goes on to explain that there is actually no such thing as absolute reality, but only the concoction of perceptions and expectations with which we surround ourselves. In effect, we each create our own "reality". Just like writing a novel, really.

It is difficult to describe Murdoch's prose and do it full justice. You really have to experience it for yourself, and I sincerely hope you will. Go out and buy Stranger Than Fiction. You won't be disappointed. There is a link here to a special offer.

Stranger Than Fiction is published by Fandango Virtual under ISBN 978-0-9550636-2-6

Friday, 4 September 2009

Time to post the answers to the quiz. To save you having to switch between posts I will repeat the questions as well.

1. In which book does the reader first make the acquaintance of Peter Duck’s cave?
"Swallowdale", Arthur Ransome. Most people got Ransome, though some guessed either "Swallows and Amazons" or (perhaps unsurprisingly) "Peter Duck". One lone individualist suggested Beatrix Potter ...

2. These two doomed lovers unwittingly drink a love potion, with tragic consequences since the woman is about to marry another man. What are their names?
Tristan and Isolde (or Tristram and Iseult). "Morte d'Arthur", Thomas Malory. Not Romeo and Juliet as some people thought.

3. A chance encounter at a railway station leads to the hero being entrusted with a magical device which can produce, among other things, armies of miniature soldiers. What was it, and what was his name?
A magic box, Kay Harker. "Box of Delights", John Masefield

4. What does Justine lead us into, and what is unusual about the story which follows?
"Justine" is the first volume of the "Alexandria Quartet" by Lawrence Durrell. Much of the story which follows is told not sequentially as one might expect, but looks repeatedly at the same events from the viewpoint of different characters.

5. Who rings a long and complicated peal of bells at short notice one New Year’s Eve, and how does a subsequent flood help him solve a deadly mystery?
Peter Wimsey. "The Nine Tailors", Dorothy L. Sayers. Subsequently taking refuge from a flood in the bell tower, he realises that the dead man was in fact killed by the sound of the bells.

6. Which former army officer, who at one time advertised himself in “The Times” as being ready to resort to crime “if of a comparatively humorous description”, plays a key role in suppressing a plot to manufacture synthetic diamonds?
Bulldog Drummond. "The Third Round", Sapper. Raffles was a popular choice here, but the give-away is in the wording of the newspaper advertisement if you know your snobbery with violence.

7. Who proposes marriage to the wrong sister on an impulse, and finally seeks to undo his mistake by committing arson?
Mr Polly. "The History of Mr Polly", H.G. Wells.

8. Which book opens with a celebrated author in bed with his catamite when visited by an archbishop in honour of his 81st birthday?
"Earthly Powers", Anthony Burgess

9. Who bribes a milkman to lend him his uniform in order to run away to Scotland, leaving a stabbed corpse in his flat upstairs?
Richard Hannay, "The Thirty-Nine Steps", John Buchan. This was the only question that everybody got right!

10. Which two young men use the severed covers of a bible to brush a swarm of insects off the body of a naked English lady?
Harry and Fleury. "The Siege of Krishnapur", J.G. Farrell. Only one person got this right and since she's my wife and knows my bookshelves almost as well as I do, I'm not sure she counts. Shame on the rest of you, since this won the Booker Prize.

(Trumpets off. Enter a herald, booted.) I always loved that stage direction. When I first read it at the age of about ten I assumed it meant somebody was kicked onto the stage. Anyway ...

Absolutely nobody got maximum points. Nor did anyone get the name of all ten books. Perhaps my selection of reading matter was too eccentric. Closest by far was the novelist Jim Murdoch, whose own book blog, The Truth About Lies is well worth a visit. One of Jim's books is reviewed on my blog already, with another to follow shortly.

Thank you to everyone who responded. I will try another quiz later in the year.