Book Review: By Gaslight – Steven Price (Oneworld Publications – 2016)

By Gaslight is the newest novel of Canadian poet Steven Price and it’s a prodigious work. At 730 pages I could have done with a portable lectern to hold it whilst reading it. Once I had picked it up I was captivated. The characters, story and settings are vivid, sympathetic, well-formed and enthralling. If I did not already know that Steven Price was an acclaimed poet by the bio that accompanied the book I would have guessed as much after a few pages.  
The story concerns William Pinkerton, son of Allan Pinkerton founder of the Pinkerton detective agency. Pinkerton, a hulking Civil War veteran, is stalking the streets of Victorian London looking for a lady called Charlotte Reckitt, who he believes is the key to finding one Edward Shade and elusive and some believe mythical master criminal. Allan Pinkerton was obsessed with Shade and went to his grave having failed to apprehend him. William inherits his father’s mania and becomes fixated on finding out what happened between Shade and his father. Some of Pinkerton’s friends and associates think that Shade did not exist, that he was a made-up person or a cover for a criminal gang.

The descriptions of Victorian London are vivid and poetic. Smoke, fog, smog, grime, dirt, soot and effluent are in abundance. People and buildings appear dimly in orange or brown lights and are then lost as the smog closes around them.  

Price’s writing style is measured and allows readers to get to grips with characters and plot themselves without being spoon-fed. There are slow-burning introductions to characters. Unusually, no speech marks are used but it does not affect the reading experience, I quite liked it.

Pinkerton is not the only person interested in Charlotte Reckitt. Adam Foole, an ageing entrepreneur, gambler and criminal has travelled to Liverpool from the U.S. after receiving a letter from Reckitt. Foole is accompanied by a young girl named Molly and a gigantic shaggy man named Japheth Fludd to whom he is friend, boss and family.  

For his part, Pinkerton is assisted by his father’s old associates and Scotland Yard detectives. One of my favourite characters was Inspector Blackwell, a diligent detective with a love of puns. Moments of dark humour light up the grimy London atmosphere. On examining a decapitated head and dismembered torso at a mortuary, Pinkerton’s asks ‘What happened to her hair?’

The story rolls backwards and forwards between Pinkerton’s present investigation and his past life as a Union soldier and young detective assisting his father’s business. We are also given insights into Adam Foole’s early life and relationship with Charlotte Reckitt. The scenes switch from London to take in the U.S and South Africa. All feel vivid and real.  

Pinkerton and Foole’s mutual interest in Charlotte Reckitt brings them in contact with each other and their relationship is at turns one of common interest and mutual mistrust. Foole’s shady dealings are the antithesis of what Pinkerton represents but it is Pinkerton who often appears as a bully who uses suspect methods to persecute those who stand in his way of discovering Edward Shade.  

Some of the main themes of the book are obsession, the treatment of children and women, loyalty, betrayal, revenge, how much we can know people and how much they really know themselves.  

Criticisms? None of note. A comb of parlour matches is described in the early pages but I suspect they would not have existed in Victorian England at this time. After landing in Liverpool, there is talk of ‘travelling up to London’ but I would think that ‘travelling down’ would be more appropriate. However, these are of no consequence. 

 By Gaslight is an exceptional, compelling and very satisfying novel that I would recommend highly.  

 

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Book Review:  The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle – by Haruki Murakami (Vintage:2003)

After reading this book our book-club was asked to sum it up in one word.  The results were:

Disparate

Layered

Overwhelming

Strange

Pointless

Surreal

Fanciful

Endless

Convoluted

The book tells a chapter in the life of Toru Okada, a polite and generally mild-mannered man who has no job and seems to drift by on good luck and the kindness of others.  Toru’s cat disappears and later so does his wife Kumiko.  In attempting to find them, Toru is helped and hindered by an odd cast of characters.  An old soldier who can see the future, two sisters who profess to have psychic powers, a teenage girl who takes risks and has a thing about wigs, a cold, dismissive, possibly evil brother in law and a fashion designer whose services to the phenomenally wealthy entail more than clothes.

There is a focus on the minutiae of Toru’s life, interspersed with events and reminiscences that are at turns bizarre, gruesome or dreamlike.  Symbols abound and I found myself getting a bit bogged down trying to work out their meaning rather than just enjoying the story.  

Some of the themes in the book include, free will versus fate, how well we know each other and ourselves and what it means to have no role or function in society.

Periods of contemplative calm are broken by odd events but the plot feels thin.  Everything happens but nothing happens.  I felt as though Murakami could have just gone on writing, adding to this book chapter by chapter for the rest of his life.  It’s that kind of book.  When I finished it, my head remained full of the strange episodes, it felt akin to waking from a disturbing dream.  

I didn’t dislike this book but neither would I say it was a great read.

Book Review: Killing & Dying – Adrian Tomine (Faber and Faber 2015)

Books like this make me wish I had interesting, creative and meaningful ideas and artistic talent.  Quite frankly, I’m jealous of Adrian Tomine.

The bookseller at Foyle’s in Birmingham told me how good this book was as I was paying for it.  It was a nice piece of decision reinforcement; a bit of a pat on the back and a cry of ‘good taste fella.’

Tomine’s graphic novel/comic contains six diverse stories with unusual plots or settings.  The book examines the relationships between fascinating and sometimes flawed characters.  It draws the reader in.

The first story, perhaps my favourite, is ‘A brief History of the Art Form Known as “Hortisculpture.”  Gardener Harold combines the disparate world’s of horticulture and fine art to create some truly ugly living sculptures.  Harold meets resistance and derision from neighbours, friends, family and the existing clients of his gardening business.  His attempts to sell his idea and the various ways people attempt to avoid telling him that it is rubbish are highly comical. The comic is presented as a series of 6 ‘four frame’ stories in black and white followed by a nine frame colour piece.  It’s as if it was taken from the pages of a daily newspaper with the colour page featuring as a special in the Sunday edition.

Amber Sweet tells the awkward tale of a girl who receives unwanted attention due to the fact that she looks like a famous porn star (the Amber Sweet of the title).  The girl’s life and relationships with men and women are ruined by the misunderstanding. The girl gets little sympathy, even from her female friends, but a chance meeting with Amber Sweet allow her to make sense of things.  This is a thoughtful piece on pornography and the objectification of women.

‘Go Owls’ sees two baseball fans hook up after an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.  Dennis Barry is a prematurely aged minor drug dealer and general ‘waster’.  The lady in the story is not named but simply referred to by Dennis as ‘Babe’.  At an obvious low point in her life she perhaps sees the chance of support, companionship and love but suffers a series of blows, both mental and physical.  We can laugh at Dennis, who is one of life’s losers, but his treatment of his ‘Babe’ is creepy and wrong.  This is not a hard-boiled tale of domestic abuse by any means.  It is a contemplative account of a man’s manipulation of a woman.

The next story, ‘Translated from the Japanese’ is a short but beautiful example of Adrian Tomine’s artwork.  We never see the lady who narrates the story.  Instead we see a journey she takes through her eyes.  Casual observations of everyday surroundings are impeccably rendered.  The story is short and enigmatic; definitely one to ponder over.  

‘Killing and Dying’ refers to two things that a comedian can experience on stage.  This is the tale of a teenage girl who wants to be a standup comedian and her relationship with her parents who want to be supportive but struggle somewhat to see comedy as a great career path.  The story is told in pages of 20 frames and each is a stamp-sized study of expression and emotion.  

The final tale, called ‘Intruders’ follows a US war veteran struggling to reintegrate on his return home.  By a strange coincidence he has the opportunity to hang out in his old family home during the day when the current owners are out at work.  It’s a peculiar set-up but quite an effective piece on alienation.  

This is a brilliant book – one to read, enjoy and think about again and again.  Highly recommended. 

Book Review:  A Red Sun Also Rises – Mark Hodder (Del Rey 2012)

I stumbled across this book in a pound shop.  The front cover highlights that the author was a winner of the Philip K. Dick award.  Might be a cheap hidden gem, I thought.  Wrong!

Don’t judge a book by its cover, but perhaps you may be able to make some useful assumptions based on the establishment that is stocking it.

The cover and the hyperbole on the back suggested a steampunk novel.  The initial tale of a rather weak Victorian country vicar, named Aiden Fleischer, seemed reasonably interesting.  Fliescher takes pity on Clarissa Stark, a lady whose body has been badly damaged in an accident leaving her in constant pain with twisted limbs.  Ms Stark wears very dark, leather bound goggles – one of the few nods to steampunk in the novel.

Fleischer’s fondness for a local young lady, leads to him being blackmailed.  He decides to flee by becoming a missionary and travels with Stark to a remote tropical island. Whilst on the island, Fleischer and Stark fall through an apparent rip in ‘space-time’ to another planet.  I really should have stopped reading there but I carried on like a fool.  

Life is too short to go into too much details but the remainder of the book was filled with some painfully melodramatic and cringeworthy dialogue, aliens with crazy names and a very tenuous grip on understanding their own life-cycle and improbable triple-stage metamorphosis.  

Fleischer undergoes an amazing transformation from a craven man of the cloth to a muscle-bound sword-wielding agnostic warrior.  If this book were ever to be filmed (saints preserve us!) this section would be a montage.

Somehow references to Jack the Ripper are shoehorned into the book, I suspect to remind the reader that it’s set in the Victorian era.

This being nominally steampunk, there is, of course, an airship.  

The plot was needlessly convoluted and when the resolution came I scarcely cared.  My eyes and brain felt tortured by the horror of this ludicrous shambles.  

As a final twis of the knife, the final chapter manages to shunt in a time-lapse, the Second World War and the Bermuda Triangle.  This just left me feeling angry and insulted.

I have read this book so you never have to.  

Book Review:  The Rosie Project – Graeme Simsion (Penguin – 2014)

This is our book club’s latest selection and chosen as something a bit less challenging than the Man Booker winner we read last month.

Graeme Simsion’s book tells of a chapter in the life of Professor Don Tillman, geneticist.  Don is highly intelligent, incredibly organised, efficient, productive and totally devoid of social skills.  Having said that, he is not uncaring or unfeeling.  Don has only two friends, Gene the womanising head of his department and Gene’s wife Claudia.  Don consoles himself with the thought that he has four friends if he included Gene and Claudia’s children, one of whom is called Eugenie.  ‘Gene’, ‘Eugenie’?  Do you think some point is being made here?

Don’s failure to read social situations and people’s emotions, even if they are very overt, are highly comical.  Criticism, sarcasm and even offers of casual sex are wasted on him.  

Tired of being alone, Don sets up ‘The Wife Project’ and develops an ingenious questionnaire, which he combines with more regular dating methods to find his ideal life partner.  Don helpfully tells one poor lady that his method has been refined so that he can eliminate most non-suitable candidates in less than 40 seconds.  

Don meets Rosie, a friend of Gene’s.  According to Don’s questionnaire, Rosie is unsuitable as a candidate to be his wife in many, many ways.  Despite this, Don finds he enjoys being with her and decides that he will continue to see Rosie for intellectual stimulation until Miss Right comes along.

Anyone familiar with Mr Logic in adult-humour comic ‘Viz’ may view Don as his kindred spirit, albeit in a less openly annoying way.

Don’s relationship with Rosie, and his offer to help her find her real father is a funny and often quite touching read.  A fast read and very enjoyable. 

More Penguin Science Fiction – Edited by Brian Aldiss (Penguin Books 1963)

Another lovely old Penguin paperback. This one has a nice painting by Kandinsky on the cover and a superb, but slightly startling photo of Brian Aldiss on the back cover. Used to more recent photos I was a little surprised to see he looked a little like the Verger from Dad’s Army in the past.

Short story collections are often hit and miss, hopefully more good stories than clunkers. I did wonder at the outset whether the passage of time would affect my appreciation of the stories. I shouldn’t open a book with apprehension but it is difficult not to do so with vintage science fiction.

Brian Aldiss’ introduction to the book is entertaining. He points out that many of the tales deal with the extinction of humanity and that science fiction has domesticated the appalling. He also makes the reader question whether they are real or living some false Matrix existence. “When you hold this book, you are not feeling the paper that came from the Penguin establishment in Harmondsworth, you are feeling the neural response to what your fingers touch. A work of interpretation has been carried out between head and brain. An identical work of interpretation might be carried out if the hand were made of a silicon-based substance or the brain an affair of printed circuits and electronic scanners”. I suppose the lesson from that is, if you don’t like what I write, remember that I may be silicon based life-form.

Brian Aldiss mentions the writers of each story in his introduction. He is quite brief on the first story, The Monkey Wrench by Gordon R Dickson. I too do not have a lot to say other than the twist at the end is entirely predictable and the irritation caused by the pompous, melodramatic characters and the tortuous histrionics they subjected me to in getting to the end was not worth the effort.

The First Man by Howard Fast (writer of Spartacus) is much better. The story begins with a series of letters between a brother and a sister as they search for children displaying the characteristics of genius so they can be nurtured to become übermensch, the next stage of human evolution. The exchange of letter format works well and it’s a pity it wasn’t used throughout. The attempt to inject tension right at the end of the story was not really necessary.

Counterfeit by Alan E Nourse (you’ve got to have a middle initial to write sci-fi) kicks off with “The spaceship plunged through the black starways towards the orbit of the third planet. It’s trip had been long. It was homeward bound”. It does not really recover from this dreadful start and the story about a shape-shifting alien is the stuff of bad B movies. I almost stopped reading at this point in the book.

Tom Godwin’s The Greater Thing reads like a Western. A man and a woman are pursued through a ghost town by a bunch of bad cops. Only, in this town there is a sentient being spawned by a nuclear blast that learns to distinguish between right and wrong. Again, it’s not great but it is readable.

The next story, Build up Logically by Howard Schoenfeld is one of the strongest in the book. It is a clever, funny and strange tale in which the main character is also the writer, determining the events that affect him as a character in the book as he goes along. A time machine is introduced which moves the entire universe through time so everything remains the same. The writer finds himself in the position of being invented by one of his characters. This was a delight to read.

William Tenn’s the Liberation of Earth is. An extremely tongue in cheek, witty tale of several liberationist of Earth by two warring alien races. Tenn’s understated, dry humour is superb. Humankind’s collective ego is destroyed as they are caught between two seemingly benign and heavily armed alien races.

An Alien Agony by Harry Harrison is another good tale in which a human trader on an alien planet inhabited with intelligent but over-trusting aliens, is dismayed by arrival of a religious missionary from home. The result is a stand off between science and religion. The aliens, called Weskers, try to find the truth by attempting to apply logic to the missionary’s claims leading to a grisly result. I suspect most readers will have some sympathy with the Weskers and their questioning of faith.

The Tunnel under the World by Frederik Pohl feels of its time, even though it is set in the far future. Guy Burckhardt, the main character and his wife Mary feel as if they have been cut from the cover of the Saturday Evening Post. The story, however gets quite strange and has a bizarre Philip K Dick quality to it at times. Guy Burckhardt is not what, or who, he thinks he is and the big reveal at the end was unexpected and brought to mind Scale by Will Self.

Robert Sheckley’s The Store of the Worlds is one of the shortest storeies, but also one of the best. A man called Tompkins has discovered a way to extract a person’s consciousness and inject it into any of the infinite alternate realities that exist. We see a timid man, Mr Wayne, approach cautiously. He wants to undergo the procedure but is scared and worried about the high price and consequential reduction in life expectancy. Mr Wayne’s choices are surprising and at the end we see why he is willing to consider such a high price. This story may make readers reassess their view of their own lives.

Jokester by Isaac Asimov sees him pursue his love of the groan inducing gag
in a story where we find one of the basic human creative activities Isis actually the result of experiments by outside entities. It’s not a brilliant story but, being Asimov, it’s enjoyable.

Pyramid by Robert Abernathy is an ecological disaster story where man, inevitably, is the cause but the scene of the crisis is another planet entirely. I enjoyed this story very much. The main character, Zilli, is a highly intelligent academic from an alien culture that values the ecological balance above all else. Her attempts to use humans to prevent one catastrophe has far reaching effects, which Zilli with her entirely logical and consistent philosophy does not see coming until it is too late. This story still has a lot to say today.

The final story The Forgotten Enemy by Arthur C Clarke is an environmental disaster tale and follows the lone endeavours of Professor Millward (they always seem to be professors or chief scientists in Clarke’s world) as he struggles through a London that appears to have entered the ice age. It’s very much a period piece.

After a poor start I ended up liking this collection. Whilst this book is no longer in print, you should be able to pick it up quite cheaply online, or maybe from a second-hand bookshop like me. Penguin Books won’t make any money out of it but maybe they will if you are tempted by other titles by the writers who contributed to this

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The Age of Miracles – Karen Thompson Walker (Simon & Schuster – 2013)

Some psychologists argue that humans are compelled by natural disasters because it triggers their deepest senses of empathy. I’d like to think it was this rather than a sense of schadenfreude that attracted me to this book, which revolves around an 11 year old girl called Julia at a time when the Earth’s rotation begins, inexplicably, to slow down.

Julia is an ordinary girl whose shyness, awkwardness and feelings of alienation will resonate with many. She has few close friends and those she has tend to drift away as their families react to the slowing of the Earth by searching for solace and answers within ‘end of days’ religious ideology or alternative communities.

I’m not sure that the author would want this novel to be described as science fiction but, at the least, it is scientifically speculative and, like a lot of good sci-fi, it explores the implications of changing one thing (albeit quite a big one) and then following through the consequences and implications. As the Earth slows, days and nights become longer, circadian rhythms are knocked out of kilter whilst animals and plant life start to suffer drastically.

Life continues, many people simply try to continue their lives as best they can but relationships are stretched and altered by the natural catastrophe. In an attempt to keep order, the government stipulates that people should continue to abide by the regular 24 hour clock. Some disregard this and seek to live a regular pattern of day/awake & night/asleep that sets them apart from their communities and eventually makes them the target of suspicion and bullying. This echoes Julia’s experiences of not belonging to the right crowd.

As the Earth continues to revolve more slowly, gravity seems to be affected as does the magnetic field resulting in the northern lights being seen in California. Significantly higher radiation in the atmosphere means that people must increasingly avoid daylight. Julia’s mother and others become ill with a new disease that becomes known as ‘the syndrome’.

In Julia and her family, the flora, fauna and Earth itself a deep fragility is displayed. Fragility of friendships, family ties, the ecosystem and the human mind. However this is no Eco-warrior allegory, humans are not to blame for their predicament.

Children must often endure as they have little control over their circumstances. Such powerlessness is written large in the novel, not only for Julia but for the human race.

I enjoyed this book and I think that most readers will be gripped by the over-arching disaster whilst feeling a strong sense of empathy with Julia.

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