Sunday 24 January 2010

"The Small Back Room" by Nigel Balchin

Like many writers, particularly those of the twentieth century, Nigel Balchin fought a long, losing battle with alcoholism and passed away in 1970 at the age of 61. Incidentally, he is buried in Hampstead Cemetery (which, despite its name, is not in Hampstead) close to the grave of another fine writer, Alan Moorehead, whose African Trilogy would probably feature on my list of desert island books.
Balchin is remembered chiefly for his two novels set during WWII, Darkness Falls From the Air and The Small Back Room, the latter of which I have just read for the first time, though of course I had seen the film. On the evidence of these two books he is a very good novelist and deserves to be better remembered (or, sadly, perhaps just remembered).
The central character in The Small Back Room is a first person narrator and he tells the story in the terse, clipped prose of the time. That is not to say that the book is dated, for it still reads very easily over half a century later, but simply a description of what to expect. He has, we learn at once, an artificial foot which occasionally hurts like hell, and he tells us in the opening scene that this is one of those times.
Perhaps with auto-biographical feeling, Balchin also has him pursue a somewhat over-enthusiastic approach to alcohol, partly because whisky (difficult to come by in wartime) is one of the few things he finds effective as a painkiller. This in turn increases the moods of black despair which frequently come upon him.
This is a bleak book, there is no doubt about it. The hero is intolerant of others, particularly those whom he considers of lesser intellect such as the military and civil servant types with whom he has to work. He is tormented by his foot. He struggles to understand how his girlfriend could want to be with someone like himself, and all these elements combine, with the alcohol, into downward spirals of depression.
The woman, incidentally, is of almost unbelievable goodness, in a Wagner / Schopenhauer sort of way, symbolising redemption through love. When regarded during his blacker moods, she adds sexual suspicion and jealousy to the mix.
Despite everything, the book is what the Americans call life affirming. There is no deus ex machina emerging suddenly to make everything all right, but there is an acknowledgement that life is what it is, not what you would like it to be, and that acceptance of this can bring peace, of a sort.
Balchin's books are out of print which, as I have said many times before, seems to have become one of the inevitable qualities of a fine writer, but please look out for them in second hand bookshops. They are both well worth reading.

Thursday 21 January 2010

2010 Reads - Corelli Barnett

My new, more organised approach to tracking what I read is already paying dividends. For the curious, it is 21 January and I have so far read 17 books, with another couple just waiting to be completed. More importantly, it has already taught me something about my reading habits, namely that many more of my books come from the library these days - no less than 13 out of 17 so far. Yes, it is a wrench reading a book and then not being able to keep it, but I have calculated that if I keep up this sort of ratio then my library membership might be saving me as much as £1,000 a year before tax.

In addition to the Bryant and May mysteries, which sadly I have now finished, I already have one outstanding book to recommend: The Collapse of British Power by Corelli Barnett. Despite the title, it has just as much relevance to Japan, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Canada, Germany, France and Italy, and is one of those very rare books that makes you look in a completely new and different way at a historical period which you thought you knew well. Excellent stuff - should be required reading in schools.

It is part of a series which continues with The Audit of War, but I would also particularly recommend his history of the Royal Navy during WWII, Engage The Enemy More Closely, which I have read several times and is one my desert island books.

Saturday 16 January 2010

Dame Maud Hackshaw

Thank you for all the emails. All I can say is that obviously none of you spend nearly enough time watching black and white films. Dame Maud Hackshaw is the St Trinians headmistress whom the girls quite understandably kidnap and leave locked in the clock tower while they go off on holiday.

By the way, I have disabled comments simply because this blog is very crowded already, but anyone is welcome to email me at any time through my profile page.

Wednesday 13 January 2010

The Bryant and May mysteries by Christopher Fowler

A few years ago I picked up a book by a writer I had never heard of before: Christopher Fowler. The book was called The Darkest Day and was by way of being a sort of combined horror story and murder mystery. I loved everything about it. Fowler has a unique and deeply compelling style of writing, which I will attempt to describe in a minute, and creates vivid images in various settings around London. The thing I loved most of all, however, was a pair of elderly detectives called Arthur Bryant and John May and yes, there are at least two deliberate in-jokes there.

Bryant and May have been working together for many years, we discover, and jointly head something called the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Though very different, they work extremely well together. Bryant is a curious mix of the traditional and the "alternative", constantly consulting witches, psychics and arcane books on everything from ancient religions to forgotten London landmarks. May is a modern man who likes his gadgets, takes trouble with his appearance and likes the ladies, sex seemingly having passed Bryant by at some stage over the years. I had not enjoyed anything so much for ages. I can remember feeling disappointed when the book came to an end, as I felt strongly that Bryant and May deserved a series of their own.

Imagine my pleasure, then, when I discovered that Fowler had evidently been of the same opinion, and had embarked upon a series of books featuring the pair. One of them, incidentally, is a re-write of The Darkest Day under a different name, which induced a strong sense of bewildered deja-vu until I read the author's note at the back. The book is much improved, by the way, as the supernatural elements, which I felt sat a little oddly in a detective story, have been removed.

One of the greatest joys in reading is to find someone who can write a gripping story that reads like a literary novel.

"In the deepening shadows, a young black girl had fallen asleep so soundly that she had died, her soul departing on respectful tiptoe, as quietly as the fading breeze."

If you like Vargas, Mankell and Perez-Reverte then you will love Fowler. His descriptions are darkly evocative, his characters are well rounded and, for the most part, hugely sympathetic. There is even humour, particularly in some incisive one-liners and little throwaway comments. There is also a constant stream of cultural allusions, some of them decidedly quirky. For example, in the book I have just finished there is a bit part for a character called Dame Maud Hackshaw ... (I did the same thing with a character in Major Benjy, but nobody seems to have noticed).

It is difficult to do justice to the job of explaining just how very superior these books are to many of today's offerings. My only regret is that I am rapidly approaching the end of the series. Start with Full Dark House and go on from there.

Monday 11 January 2010

"The Jacob Street Mystery" by Richard Austin Freeman

Richard Austin Freeman was an interesting character. Born in 1862 he qualified as both a physician and a surgeon. He also served in the colonial service in Africa, apparently being involved in some Richard Hannay type derring-do which earned the thanks of a grateful nation, only to be invalided out with recurrent fever. From 1919 until his death in 1943 he supported himself as a full time writer.

The first thing to note about Freeman's style is that does not feel at all dated. Not only is the writing itself easily accessible to a modern reader, but the content is also surprisingly (perhaps even daringly) so. There is open speculation, for example, at one point in The Jacob Street Mystery as to whether a particular couple are sexual partners rather than just good friends - especially daring considering that the woman in question is known to be married to someone else.

He was considered by many to be the inventor of the modern detective novel, though as his first book was not published until 1911 this may be open to question. He is also credited with having created the only really credible "scientific" investigator, in his protagonist, Dr John Thorndyke.

In The Jacob Street Mystery Thorndyke puts in a very late appearance, the story unfolding through the eyes of various narrators until the good doctor pops up towards the end and solves the mystery, which revolves around a question of identity.

This is a well written book, and a well crafted story. Sad to relate, Camden appear to have only one book by Freeman in their entire library system. "Sad" because Freeman is definitely a writer who leaves one wanting more. In particular, I am intrigued by the knowledge that he wrote a number of books in which the identity of the criminal is made known at the beginning, and the story then focuses on the investigation process. This is, of course, a truly "modern" concept.

He also wrote mainstream novels, travel books and social commentary, plus some short stories under the name Clifford Ashdown. One to look out for in second hand book shops.

Monday 4 January 2010

Quiz results!

The Pursewarden quiz was won once again by novelist and blogger Jim Murdoch. who managed to get every single question right - even one he allegedly guessed! An honourable mention goes to Morag Joss. Morag is also a writer (see my recent post on The Night Following) so it seems to prove that the old saying that good writers are usally also good readers is indeed correct.

1. The 1951 film Captain Horatio Hornblower was an adaptation of not one but three books. Can you name them, the author, and the actor who played Hornblower? The Happy Return, A Ship of the Line and Flying Colours. C.S. Forester. Gregory Peck.

2. An unpopular officer is persuaded by another to fake a duodenal ulcer in order to escape from sea-going duty. Bonus marks for the names of the two characters involved. The Cruel Sea, Nicholas Monsarrat. Lieutenants Bennett and Lockhart respectively.

3. Edmund Talbot lays a cunning plan to be alone with the woman of his desires, a plan involving an old naval tradition. For a bonus mark, what is it? To The Ends of the Earth, William Golding. The "crossing the line" ceremony.

4. One of the central characters is put in the pillory in the City of London after innocently but unwisely getting involved in a stock market scam, and then goes to sea in a privateer. For a bonus mark, who is the owner of the privateer? I would accept either (or both) The Reverse of the Medal or The Letter of Marque, both of course by Patrick O'Brian. Stephen Maturin.

5. Billy lives in dread of a visit from a one-legged man. When he dies in mysterious circumstances following a visit from a former shipmate, what the young hero finds in Billy's sea chest sparks a rollicking yarn. Treasure Isalnd, Robert Louis Stevenson. Everyone got this one!

Now how about some opening lines?

6. I have just returned from a visit to my landlord - the solitary neighbour that I shall be troubled with. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

7. There was absolutely no possibility of taking a walk that day. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

8. "Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents," grumbled X, lying on the rug. Little Women, Louisa M. Alcott. X is of course Jo.

9. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times ... A Tale of Two Cities, Charles Dickens

10. It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs ... The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath

Test your knowledge of author's lives. Only the name required here.

11. This writer lived in India but later in Rye, and was the subject of a poisoning attempt. Various books were made into films, including a very famous one starring Deborah Kerr. RUMER GODDEN

12. This writer won the Booker Prize and later ran BBC Radio. Most of his books are currently out of print! PHILIP NEWBY

13. Born in America, this writer came to live in England at the age of 2, subsequently returning to America. Originally a poet, he was to gain fame with a number of hard-boiled detective novels. His style is highly individual and has been much admired, copied and parodied. RAYMOND CHANDLER

14. This writer's early experiences as a rent collector and solicitor's clerk would prove hugely influential in the novels he wrote depicting a particular part of England. He lived for some years in Paris, where he was friendly with a young Somerset Maugham. ARNOLD BENNETT

15. Having attended Eton, which he described as "excellent preparation for vice of any kind", he had a bewildering array of casual jobs, including a lingerie salesman, international art smuggler, and vineyard labourer. In later life he would write a series of hugely under-rated crime novels, all of them very bleak, sometime known collectively as the Factory series. He has been described as the creator of English noir. He wrote under at least two different names, either of which will be accepted. DEREK RAYMOND who also wrote as ROBIN COOK

Finally, a few generalist questions. Again, the name of the book and the author are required.

16. Subtitled An Island Tale, this book tells the story of a man who falls in love with a traveling lady musician. Remarkable for having been written by someone who became a major novelist in their third language. Victory, Joseph Conrad

17. A Booker prize-winner, this rambling but magnificent novel tells the story of an admitted fantasist, and is said to tell the history of the country in question in parallel with that of the central character. The writer would later win the Booker again. Illywacker, Peter Carey. However, several people, including both Jim and Morag said The Life and Times of Michael K by J.M. Coetzee, and I realise that either could be a correct answer to this quetsion.

18. The words "you have been in Afghanistan, I perceive" launch a famous partnership on the reading public. A Study in Scarlet, Arthur Conan Doyle

19. This prize-winning novel describes the sad marriage of a police office in Africa. Written by an author who spent a lot of time in Capri. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene

20. The central character, who is described but not named in the title, achieves success in life, but is hiding a dark secret concerning a drunken episode at a country fair many years previously. When he later dies, disgraced and impoverished, his secret having been revealed, he asks that no sexton toll the bell for his passing. The Mayor of Casterbridge (Michael Henchard), Thomas Hardy.

Many thanks to all who took part, and congratulations to Jim Murdoch. I will try another later this year.

Book Review Blog Carnival

With thanks to Clark and Steven, this can be seen here.

Sunday 3 January 2010

New project for 2010

I have been impressed and shamed by other book bloggers reeling off their statistics for books read during the course of the year, since I am completely unable to do so myself. I do have a system of sorts, which consists of moving books from one room to another and from one part of a room to another, but this could hardly be described as scientific.

I have thus resolved to start a spreadsheet on which I will enter every book I read during 2010. I will differentiate between fiction and non-fiction, and new reads and re-reads. Predictions are always dangerous, but I'm guessing that the final tally will be somewhere between 250 and 300 and that roughly one third of them will be non-fiction, but let's see how well what I think of my reading habits matches reality.