Saturday, 17 October 2009

"The Hidden" by Tobias Hill

I read and enjoyed Hill's 2003 (I think) novel The Cryptographer, which I thought was a quite dazzling work, taking what seemed to be starting out as a straight up and down thriller and moving it into totally new territory.

It was cultured and cheeky. The central character was a billionaire called John Law, who did not (as many believe) invent paper money, but did invent securitisation and destroy the French economy in the process. There were knowledgeable references to The Wasteland, particularly the lines about banks.

It also suggested that it was possible to move seamlessly between the worlds of humans and computers. There was mention of a computer virus that could kill humans, for example.

It was a book that is impossible to classify. Serious novel? Thriller? Science fiction? In truth, probably a combination of all three. I remember being left in no doubt that here was a truly original voice.

The Hidden is a different sort of novel entirely. Telling the story of a young man who goes to Greece and finds himself getting drawn into some strange goings-on involving two attractive but mysterious women, I was reminded very strongly of The Magus. I don't know whether this was a conscious influence on Hill, but it kept coming back to me as I read this book.

Like The Magus, this is a novel which keeps you constantly guessing on what level reality is operating, and just what might be "reality" after all. Certainly poor old Ben, the central character, always seems to be at least one step behind.

This is a much more intimate novel than The Cryptographer, or at least operates on a more initimate level. The book is well written, though I found the revolutionary punctuation unsettling. I thought that perhaps I would get used to this as the book progressed, but I never did, and I think it spoilt it a little for me. It was also puzzling, as it did not seem to add anything. What does the author have against direct speech? Unless there is a very good reason for doing so, I cannot see any good reason to depart from accepted norms; it just gets in the way of the reader losing themself in the book.

Tobias Hill is clearly a very fine writer, and I did enjoy this book. I thought the ending in particular worked very well, and would work perhaps even better as a film. I do urge you to read this book, despite the strange punctuation.

"The Hidden" is published by Faber and Faber under ISBN 9780571218387

Friday, 16 October 2009

"The Best of Men" by Claire Letemendia

A looming deadline for my own next book has meant that I have not been as active as I should have been in book postings. I actually read this book some time ago but read it through again quickly yesterday to refresh myself.

As the name suggests ("our best of men" refers to Oliver Cromwell and was used by Antonia Fraser as the title of her well-known biography) this is work of historical fiction set around the English Civil War. I liked the fact that Beaumont, the central character, had been off fighting in various European wars. This did actually happen, and quite a few of the Englishmen who ended up fighting out of principle against their fellow countrymen had actually been fighting for money as mercenaries but shortly before.

It is difficult to say very much about the story without giving away the plot, but Beaumont becomes involved with a plan to assassinate Charles I, and there are some nice twists and turns.

One of the central problems with any historical fiction is just how much period detail you should go for. Costumes, surroundings and background events are essential, and you need to get them right, but what about speech? P.G. Wodehouse memorably starts a chapter in one his Jeeves and Wooster books by saying "I'm never sure how much scenery to chuck in", and these sentiments could surely hold true of dialogue too. Nothing is more sudden death to a novel than a surfeit of the "Gadzooks, Madam, but I'll slit the scoundrel's gizzard" type of thing. I know this is a contentious area but I personally believe Daphne du Maurier ruined various of her books in this way. Patrick O'Brien, on the other hand, got it just right, I feel.

Letemendia deals with this problem largely by ignoring it and using more or less modern dialogue throughout. After the first few pages, this works surprisingly well , but there are times when it goes a little too far. I could not really suspend my disbelief to the extent of accepting that a seventeenth century person would say "I suppose ...". This is not even English, but American. Even today an English person would say "I suppose so"; only an American would say "I suppose", or "I guess". Back then they probably said something like "perchance", or "very like" in much the same way that in Yorkshire even today they say "happen", or rather " 'appen".

However, this is a minor quibble. This is a very well crafted story which rattles along at a fine pace and is set against what seems to be a very accurate historical background. I know this period pretty well as I studied it for A-level, and I did not spot a single real blunder.

"The Best of Men" is published by Random House under ISBN 978-0-224-08937-1

Sunday, 4 October 2009

"Autumn Sowing" by E.F. Benson

Yes, all right, it was inevitable that I would feature "Fred" Benson on the blog sooner or later, but the catalyst has turned out to be a very special book indeed, one that might even have to change our views about that nice Mr Benson who wrote the witty and captivating Mapp and Lucia books.

I found Autumn Sowing a little while ago, but have been holding off reading it for as long as possible. Incidentally, while finding it I also made a wonderful discovery that would surely have appealed to Fred himself; there is another writer called George Benson - no relation - who wrote a book on the law and practice of flogging, this esoteric tome nestling alphabetically beside a volume of Rambles and Reflections by Fred's brother, Arthur. A delicious irony this, as their father, a decidedly odd character who became Archbishop of Canterbury but who also groomed a very young teenage girl and might well have ended up on the child sex offenders' register had he been alive today, had a reputation for being a compulsive flogger during his days as headmaster of Wellington.

For those who are already aficionados of the Mapp and Lucia books, Autumn Sowing sets us down initially in very familiar territory. There is baby talk, and bibelots, and a mayor, oh and even a hospital in need of a new wing. There is the same deliciously waspish wit too. We learn that the mother-in-law of Thomas Keeling, the central character, enjoyed "admirable health, and the keen, spiteful temper which gives its possessor so indignant and absorbing an interest in life."

Yet, before long, strange new notes begin to break in discordantly on these harmonious scenes of visiting clergymen, Beethoven slow movements and Sunday lunch. Redolent of Barbara Pym, we discover that Keeling's daughter Alice is in love with a Georgie Pillson type young vicar whose own interests, despite him shamelessly encouraging her to adore him, lie elsewhere and whose only object of devotion is probably himself. With Barabara Pym these facts would be calmly noted and the narrative would then move sedately on. With Benson, usually, a deliciously catty observation would completely explode the vicar in our eyes, while a second would comfort us that Alice's passion was in reality but a passing fancy, and that no real harm had been done to anybody.

"Usually", but not here. Benson walks us late on in the book into a full frontal description of Alice's despair which is real enough to make one flinch from reading it. Even this is nothing, however, compared to what he has in store for Thomas Keeling who, we are led to believe in the opening chapters, is a stock figure from a social comedy, yet who is then taken on a roller coaster ride of powerful emotions which leave him devastated, drained, and changed for ever.

Keeling is a stock character in one respect. He is the middle aged man who has never known love, and when it strikes it hits him with all the viciousness of an emotion which has been pent up and unused for thirty years or so. This is a book of raw passion; not lust, but something much more dangerous - that idealised love which is made overwhelmingly powerful by the object's unattainability being part of that very perfection which triggers the feeling in the first place. An all consuming urge which makes thought of anything else - everyday business affairs, for example - all but impossible. A hopeless bubble of desire which, when it bursts, reduces every other aspect of life to insignificance compared to the dread awfulness of having to accept that the only thing in the world you really want is the one thing you will never be able to have.

All of which prompts an obvious question: how on earth did Fred Benson come to write a book like this? There is no clue to anything like this in his other books which have survived more or less in print: Mrs Ames, Paying Guests, or (despite its name) Secret Lives, for example. Passion is markedly absent from his oeuvre. When marriages arise they are sparked either by bluff masculine enquiries, or discussed decorously over needlepoint. In one case it is even mischievously implied that a man proposes out of embarrassment at having forgotten to put his jacket on before entering the drawing room.

Writing about Autumn Sowing, John Julius Norwich suggests that the book simply ran away with Benson, who ended up shocked and not a little horrified at what had transpired. This is pure supposition, of course, but may not be wide of the mark. There is a sense of a false ending at the end of Chapter Ten which, if allowed to stand, would be very bleak indeed.

The world had ceased spinning for him as he walked back. He lifted heavy feet as if he was going up some steep, interminable hill ...

Instead, it is as if Benson suddenly pulls himself together and tries to make the best fist he can of the mess he has created. While he is unable to lift the blackness which we know will hang over Keeling's life from now on, Benson does allow him a redemption of sorts in the shape of a reconciliation with his daughter, whose feelings, them both having loved and lost, he can now understand for the first time. "I never knew you before tonight", she says.

That is almost the last word, but not quite. The actual ending is almost too cruel for words. Without giving away too much of the plot, Keeling has enjoyed a figurative Secret Garden (yes, yet another Mapp and Lucia allusion) which has brought him his only real source of comfort. We are left in no doubt on the last page that this has now been tainted for ever because of its associations with his doomed love, and as the book closes he literally locks it away for ever and hangs the key upon a hook. Redemption of a sort, then, but no mercy.

"Poor father", Alice says. "I'm sorry, whatever it is."

Friday, 2 October 2009

"The Wonder of Whiffling" by Adam Jacot de Boinod

One of my favourite authors is Douglas Adams, inventor of the immortal "trilogy in five parts", The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Such was my devotion to the Adams canon that while at university I attempted to create my own version of the Pangalactic Gargleblaster, allegedly the strongest drink in the universe. My memories of the only occasion on which it was launched on an unsuspecting public are at best hazy, but I do dimly recollect that it contained rather a lot of aquavit, and that one of my sister's friends disappeared while drinking it and was subsequently found unconscious under a hedge three front gardens away. Sadly, my attempts to recreate the legendary technology which could spontaneously move a woman's underwear six feet to the left were markedly less successful.

One of Adams's lasting contributions to the cause of writing generally was The Meaning of Liff, in which he created words for all those things which really deserved to be specifically described in the English language, but weren't. So, for example, "budby" is defined as a nipple clearly identifiable through flimsy or wet material, though lengthy research for the purposes of this post reveals (so to speak) that the term does not seem yet to have been adopted by those internet sites which specialise in such material. Similarly, "epping" is the futile movement of fingers employed in a restaurant in an attempt to attract the attention of a waiter.

AJB has gone a stage further. In The Meaning of Tingo, and its succesor Toujours Tingo, he collected words from various foreign languages which may not come instantly to mind, but which nonetheless may come in useful, much in the same way as the celebrated "my postillion has been struck by lightning" used to be prominently featured in English/French phrase books.

I must point out an uncanny connection here, since I am probably one of the few people other than the author actually to know that the Albanian language has over twenty words for different types of moustache (some of which I believe apply only to Albanian women), and did in fact use this fact in my own first book (the catchy and addictive Multi-Asset Class Investment Strategy) to astound and amaze a whole generation of business school students. There is much more on offer, though. We learn, for example, to slip the Persian word "nakhur" (a camel that gives no milk until her nostrils are tickled) into everyday conversation, while who could be without the Japanese "tsuji-giri", meaning "to try out a new sword on passers-by"?

Now, in The Wonder of Whiffling, he performs the same invaluable service for our own rich English langauge, in a way not seen (or, rather, heard) since the immortal days of rambling Sid Rumbold on Round the Horne. For example, in Yorkshire a stridewallop is a tall and ungainly woman, while in Canada, a cougar is an older woman on the hunt for a younger man. (In Britain they are called bridge players.)

This is clearly an invaluable work of scholarship without which no bookshelf may be considered complete.

The Wonder of Wiffling has just been published by Particular Books under ISBN 978-0140515855

Thursday, 1 October 2009

"The Shadow of a Smile" by Kachi Ozumba

African Novels is a supposedly commercially attractive pigeon-hole into which publishers have been lobbing books hopefully on a regular basis over the last few years, and I have been unlucky enough to have had to read a few of them, particularly for judging and reviewing purposes. A mistake in most cases, because it takes more than a bit of local colour to make a good novel, and nothing I have read to date has come close to The Famished Road, which for me set the gold standard.

On the back cover of The Shadow of a Smile there is the by now inevitable comparison with Ben Okri, but for once the blurb does not lie, for this is a very fine novel indeed. There are in fact publisher's references to various writers, but perhaps the most appropriate one does not figure at all, for this book reminded me more than anything of Kafka's The Trial. Like the unfortunate hero of that book (Josef K), Zuba finds day to day issues escalating nightmarishly into a legal minefield, and imprisonment.

The Shadow of a Smile is a very different novel to The Famished Road. For one thing, whereas Okri convincingly shows us the world through the eyes, and using the language, of a fairly naive child, Ozumba's protagonist is an educated and sophisticated young man of good family. This introduces us to a subtle shading of moral ambiguity, for it emerges that Zuba's father has been an establishment figure and part of a (presumably) corrupt previous regime. It is thus entirely possible that his father's colleagues subjected others to exactly the same privations which Zuba is now forced to suffer.

Much of the narrative is bleak, for we need little convincing to believe that Nigeria is not the best place in the world to be imprisoned, but Ozumba's achievement is to take such potentially harrowing surroundings and find in them not only sympathy and occasional acts of kindness, but even humour.

This is presumably Ozumba's first novel, since no previous ones are credited, and it is a deeply impressive debut. Incidentally, the title is a quotation from Anna Akhmatova, the persecuted Russian poet, on whom see a fascinating essay by Clive James in Cultural Amnesia, and refers obliquely to the expression on a fellow sufferer's face when she realises that her story will be told one day after all.

The Shadow of a Smile is published by Alma Books under ISBN 978-1-84688-089-6