Saturday 29 May 2010

"The Waste Land" by Simon Acland

As I have said before on this blog, to produce a good piece of historical fiction requires a delicate balancing act between credible period colour and going gloriously over the top. In The Waste Land, Simon Acland pulls this off brilliantly.

The premise is simple. An obscure researcher at an Oxbridge college discovers a first hand account of the First Crusade which appears to ante-date Chretien de Troyes. Desperate for money after some unwise investments, the college enlists the help of one of its alumni, a successful author, to turn the chronicle into a best-seller. Incidentally, this allows the story of a contemporary drama of academic intrigue, jealously and attempted murder to play itself out interspersed with the chapters of the proposed best-seller. This switching between past and present reminded me a little of Josephine Tey's Daughter of Time.

I happen to know quite a lot about this period, as I have written the first two in a series of books about the Plantagenets, and Acland's grasp of period detail is perfect. I would imagine that one of his main problems was knowing what to leave out, since the First Crusade is potentially such a huge story. For example, there is no Robert of Normandy, one of medieval history's most intriguing characters, nor Stephen of Blois who would go on to seize the throne of England. However, there is talk of a sequel, so perhaps the writer is saving these aspects for later.

Acland writes well, with strongly drawn characters and impressive description, while a great deal of action keeps events moving at a cracking pace. I found myself genuinely reluctant to put the book down, and actually finished it in just two sessions.

I thoroughly recommend this book, which is published by Charlwood Books under ISBN 978-0-9561472-0-2

Thursday 20 May 2010

J.G. Farrell wins "lost" Booker

Good news that J.G. Farrell, one of my favourite authors, and a shockingly neglected one, has won the "lost" Booker retrospectively for Troubles, published in 1970, a year that mysteriously slipped through a gap into the void of infinity when the Booker changed from a prior year to a current year basis in 1971. Had this decision been made then, he would have been the first person to win the Booker twice.

Troubles was apparently Farrell's personal favourite, chiming as it did so closely with his political views and love of his native Ireland, and it is indeed a fine work. Personally, though, I prefer The Singapore Grip, much of the research for which was funded by the Booker prize money which he won for The Siege of Krishnapur, a work which featured in my own Christmas quiz this year.

Disgracefully, two of his early books, The Lung and Girl in the Head are out of print, and the former all but forgotten. Perhaps this posthumous award will shame at least one publisher into seeking to bring them back into the light of day. The former is loosely based upon his own experience of having to spend several months in an iron lung after suffering a near-fatal attack of polio while a promising rugby player at university, of which you can read more in the fine biography of him, The Making of a Writer, by Lavinia Geacen.

Tuesday 18 May 2010

"The Jam Fruit Tree" by Karl Muller

Karl Muller is a Sri Lankan Burgher writer and this novel is set in the Burgher community during the 1930s. A community inhabited by Eurasians, with subtle gradations of social standing depending on (1) how pale your skin is, (2) how well educated you are and (3) whether you can trace your lineage to a pure blooded Dutch family.

They are a people who, as the writer puts it "think Dutch but speak English", resulting in the curious form of language in which the whole book is written. They have huge families, the men are much given to gambling and alcohol, and males and females alike constantly think of and practise (with gusto) sex, mostly heterosexual and only partly incestuous.

Muller creates a cast of truly believeable characters, yet most of whom would seem larger than life in any more conventional setting, including the pugnacious Sonnaboy, the deceitful Elva and the matriarch Maudiegirl. This is a rambling family story told over two generations, in which passion, lust, prejudice and petty snobbery are never far away. Above all, the Burghers love any excuse for a party, and it seems that where parties are concerned they are world champions.

Yet the book does not shy away from the bleaker aspects of Burgher life. With the coming of independence comes a political shift away from all things British, as well as an opening up of all the jobs which were traditionally reserved for them, leaving them politically and socially isolated. When Singhalese is made the official language many Burghers, who can only speak English, take the hint and leave, establishing Burgher communities around the English-speaking world, most notably in Melbourne.

This is a fine book, alternately funny and touching. I really enjoyed reading it and have no hesitation in recommending it.

Thursday 13 May 2010

"The Gaudy" and "Young Patullo" by J.I.M. Stewart

John Innes MacKintosh Stewart was a career academic who was better known as Michael Innes, as whom he wrote a number of very fine detective stories featuring Appleby of Scotland Yard. These are as good as anything one may come across in the genre. Not quite Sayers or Marsh, perhaps, but definitely well up there with someone such as Allingham.

Under his own name he was a serious novelist and I have long wanted to try his work. I finally managed to retrieve from the bowels of Camden libraries' reserve collection the first two of a series of novels he wrote featuring a character called Duncan Pattullo, who becomes a playwright after he leaves Oxford.

I so wanted to enjoy these books and be able to recommend them that it comes as a great disappointment to relate that I cannot. They are stilted and formal and could have been written at least thirty years earlier (i.e. in the 40s rather than the 70s). Both the settings and the characters have a strongly institutional feel to them, and the storylines are slow-moving to say the least. A pity, since I am a great admirer of the Appleby books, which are written with a much lighter touch, a degree of wry humour, and move along at a cracking pace.

The writer who comes most strongly to mind when reading this Staircase in Surrey sequence is C.P. Snow, stylistically at least. They pale into insignificance alongside Simon Raven, who populated his college settings with larger than life characters and surreal events to produce two series (really just one long one) which are truly memorable: Alms for Oblivion and First Born of Egypt.

Life is full of disappointments. Back to the reserve collection will these two books go, where, it may be said, they richly deserve to stay.

Sunday 9 May 2010

Book-Bloggers' Get-Together (with an apostrophe)

Many thanks to Simon of Stuck-in-a-Book for organising this very enjoyable event in London last night. It was great being able to meet so many bibliophiles in the flesh rather than just reading their posts.

I picked up Rosamond Lehmann's Dusty Answer in the book dip, on which I promise to post something soon.

Saturday 8 May 2010

Election News

Perhaps the saddest news of the election from my point of view was that the voters of Hampstead failed to oust Glenda Jackson as their local MP - she hung on by less than 50 votes, partly due to the Lib Dems running a very strong local campaign. They had high hopes of winning this seat, but ended up coming in a (close) third.

Something the significance of which seems to have escaped many is that if those people who voted UKIP (just about all of whom are presumably natural Conservative voters making a protest about one single huge issue) had voted Conservative instead, then the result would have been different, and this must be true of other very marginal constituencies up and down the country.

So, there's a message there for David Cameron should he wish to learn it. I think breaking his promise about holding a referndum on the Lisbon Treaty hurt him a lot more than he realises.