Shades of Grey, by Michael Cargill

May 30, 2012 at 12:00 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Horror, Poorly Rated Books, Thriller, War and Politics) (, , )

3/10

Shades of Grey is a brief and distractingly violent collection of short stories, including one rather good but frustratingly truncated espionage story, a bland wartime correspondence and a rather ghastly horror story. It will be clear to any reader that Cargill is not an experienced writer, and as such although some of his premises and starting points hold a certain attraction, he simply is unable to keep them afloat, and they quickly begin to drag.

“There was no official state of war declared, and strictly speaking he wasn’t part of any official military or intelligence organisation. He worked for the Guv’nor.”

-Shades of Grey

The best of a beginner’s lot is the story the anthology is named for, the spy story. In it, Cargill experiments with a little stream-of-consciousness, some character development, and gratuitous violence. Speaking plainly, if something can be considered gratuitous (either in its violence, its sexuality, its language or any other content) then it is shocking for the sake of being shocking, and of no further use on that front. On the other hand, Cargill’s attempts to build his characters do not fall completely flat, and the chief criticism to be levelled here is that he is a little clumsy and heavy-handed in doing so.

A bold attempt prematurely published, and an interesting insight into the development of a young author, but it would be difficult to describe this book as entertaining, and harder still to describe it as especially meaningful. In its favour, it’s almost certainly better than the similarly-named series by E.L. James.

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From October to Brest-Litovsk, by Leon Trotsky

May 27, 2012 at 22:18 (Book Reviews, Historical, Mediocre Books, Politics, Twentieth Century, War) (, , )

4/10

Trotsky’s apologetic regarding one of the least popular pieces of Bolshevik policy is at times ludicrous, at times deeply compelling, at times simpering, but almost always rather dull. For all the man’s attested energy and rhetorical gymnastic ability, he wrote this pamphlet as an intellectual exercise aimed at his allies and enemies in the byzantine tangle of the fledgling Bolshevik government, not for the workers whose rights he constantly trumpets.

“…appealing to all the workers, soldiers and peasants. In this appeal we declared that under no circumstances would we permit our army to shed its blood under the club of the foreign bourgeouise.”

-From October to Brest-Litovsk

Consequently, the argument is convoluted and lumbering. A common ideological base is taken for granted, and as Trotsky attempts to defend an indefensible treaty, it is possible to see him tip-toeing through his precepts and conclusions, almost as if feeling his way as he goes, wary of stepping upon the wrong tail.

His recapitulation of the October Revolution is the most ponderous section of this treatise, and the hardest to wrestle through. Either in an attempt to honour his allies, or else tar his enemies with whatever brush they might use on him, he is positively promiscuous in his scattering of names through his account. Fascinating as an insight into the miasma of Bolshevik politics perhaps, but not thrilling reading. The account picks up considerably towards the end, and there are some genuinely fascinating windows into the three-way diplomatic tug-of-war between the Central Powers, the Triple-Entente, and the Russians; as well as the various puppets of each.

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The Man Who Knew Too Much, by G.K. Chesterton

May 23, 2012 at 22:34 (Book Reviews, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Mystery) (, , , )

8/10

Chesterton wears the persona of theologian to the literate everyman very well, and The Man Who Knew Too Much is a magnificent example of his unmatchable ability to walk the tightrope of Christian exposition above the frothy waters of eloquent skill, without making an ass of himself. This book is perhaps a perfect example of what a good piece of fiction written by a Christian ought to be like.

In spite of the ominous title, this is a glorified mystery story: or, more accurately, a compendium of a half dozen or so short mysteries. Each blends the trademark Chesterton tropes expertly, including the quasi-mystic and his man-of-the-world companion and friend, the constant suggestion of something diabolically sinister underlying all, the brooding edge of the supernatural, and an inimitable atmosphere of nineteenth century style and sophistication hanging like cigar smoke over the whole.

In fact, it is only as the final mystery in the volume begins to pick up pace that Chesterton seems almost to break out from behind the fourth wall and address the reader directly, in the only slightly uncomfortable moment in the book. The final mystery is just a little bit forced, and is plainly not the main issue in that particular story. Instead, the reader is cornered for a few brief speeches transplanted a little awkwardly from Chesterton’s mouth into the mouth of Horne Fisher.

“‘…to the schoolboy you add the sceptic, who is generally a sort of stunted schoolboy. You said just now that things might be done with religious mania. Have you ever heard of irreligious mania? I assure you it exists very violently, especially in men who like showing up magicians in India.'”

-The Man Who Knew Too Much

Readers familiar with Chesterton’s style will not find anything peculiar about this. “After all,” they will ask, “is that not something the fellow does time and time again?” And indeed, The Man Who Knew Too Much is replete with moments where the author unashamedly uses his characters as props in a parable, or a particular object lesson. The quote included to the left is one such instance. But in the final mystery of the set, the sermon overtakes the story, and is deucedly awkward, even for Chesterton.

This one hiccup aside, the book is a sheer delight. It is much lighter reading that The Man Who Was Thursday, and is as witty, charming, urbane and clever as any reader familiar with either the author or the genre might wish for.

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The Pearls of Lutra, by Brian Jacques

May 20, 2012 at 18:40 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fantasy, Fiction, Highly Rated Books) (, , , )

9/10

In this excellent novel Brian Jacques served up a very different flavour of Redwall book, demonstrating that the winning formula he devised was robust enough to experiment with. Gone is the usual vermin horde pressing hungrily around the sandstone abbey walls; and instead piracy, desertion, tropical tyrants, and exotic heroes and villains alike. At the same time, The Pearls of Lutra maintains enough of Redwall’s classic hallmarks, with one of Jacques’ best-written riddle quests, his best female protagonist since Mariel, and a truly excellent pair of buddy-adventurers in Clecky and Gerul.

“Far across the heaving deeps of restless ocean, some say even beyond the place where the sun sinks in the west, there lies the Isle of Sampetra…rotten as a flyblown carcass…haven to the flotsam of the high seas.”

-The Pearls of Lutra

Brian Jacques has always been willing to sacrifice even beloved characters on the altar of emotive storytelling (some extreme examples include Martin the Warrior and The Outcast of Redwall), and without needlessly elaborating,The Pearls of Lutra contains some of his thickest pathos of all, with some parts truly harrowing.

There is something fresh in the storytelling that has only a little to do with the novelty of the creatures and locations in this book, and something more akin to the swashbuckling adventures of Treasure Island or The Three Musketeers; a feeling that Jacques is perhaps for the first time writing really good children’s literature. There is a real sense of setting off into the unknown, and the freedom and danger that entails. This book demonstrates the best of Brian Jacques, without necessarily seeming like Brian Jacques.

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The Metamorphosis, by Franz Kafka

May 16, 2012 at 11:34 (Book Reviews, Classic Literature, Fiction, Horror, Literature, Magic Realism, Mediocre Books) (, , , )

6/10

Whatever creature or vermin Gregor Samsa was truly transformed into in this dark and dragging novel, the stamina demonstrated by Kafka in pinning the entire story so claustrophobically inside the one location, in stolidly sticking with his sole absurd obsession and subject, was both an impressive feat and also a painful conceit. Just as Samsa’s nameless father dreads the room, so the reader grows to dread the pages of the book that offers little relief from the initial terrific premise.

It is a curious thing that when reading works of literature like this, even novice readers are expected to glean some meaning from the story (in contrast to the scorn that would be readily available for any reader trying to analyse a pulp novel, for instance). This sort of expectation can easily grow tiresome, and distracting. A first question ought not be “what was it about”, but “was it any good”. After all, newspapers are about some very interesting things, but are seldom any good. And The Metamorphosis? Certainly it had little of the breadth that The Trial offered, nor did it even offer the reader as much in the way of sympathy or false hope; but authors should hardly be compared only to themselves, and it would not be wise to compare this book too closely with any of his other books.

“Must the manager himself come, and in the process must it be demonstrated to the entire innocent family that the investigation of this suspicious circumstance could be entrusted only to the intelligence of the manager?”

-The Metamorphosis

Perhaps the real triumph of this book is that it is truly never dull, in spite of its inertia. Although it is not long, it is darkly brooding and fixed in one place, and the characters flow through the story like sand through an hourglass, once gone never to return. There is little that is familiar or gripping, except for the pen of Kafka himself (and of course his capable translators). This book is filled with entertaining and delightful interior monologues, which act beautifully as a showcase for Kafka’s poetic side, as well as his true acquaintance with the hopes and private turmoil of his hero. It might be said that this is a very good book, if not a very good story. Certainly worth reading, and fortunately not very difficult to manage. Kafka’s prose is its own reward, and his bleakness its own punishment.

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Knight’s Fee, by Rosemary Sutcliff

May 12, 2012 at 08:38 (Adventure, Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Highly Rated Books, Historical Fiction) (, , , )

9/10

The old stories retold are always the best, and just as Sutcliff turned her hand to the magnificent retelling of the legend of Tristan and Iseult, so now she turns to a recasting that is mostly David and Jonathan, and partly Roland and Oliver. Leaving behind her beloved Roman Britain, there is nonetheless a golden thread wending its way from The Eagle of the Ninth, following the emerald ring through Marcus’ family and into the Arthur legend and The Shield Ring; and now, by virtue of a Saxon protagonist being remade amongst the Normans into an Englishman, landing solidly in the Middle Ages.

Almost certainly because of the sudden abundance of historical record from which to draw on, this novel will appeal to the serious historian much more than the fantastical Eagle of the Ninth; its verisimilitude is infinitely more convincing, and there begins to be something recognisably English in her peerless and intimately warm reconstruction of the south of Britain. Probably partly due to this new commitment to historical accuracy, the first few chapters are unfortunately a little dull. Now, Sutcliff has always been an author to take her time in the stories she is telling. Spurning the traditional story arc of equalibrium shattered by crisis quest, followed by failure, followed by success, she tends always to begin with a rambling and intertwined mixture of equalibrium mixed with tragic failure, before beginning on the pith of her story as late as halfway through the book. Almost all of her characters suffer this lingering doom early in their stories: Marcus has his wound, Phaedrus his death sentence, Aquila his slavery, Justin and his cousin their disgrace. Knight’s Fee is much the same, but unlike some of her other books its brevity does call into question the wisdom of lingering so long in the passing of seasons and the building of two young men.

“‘Checkmate, Sir Thiebaut’…’No, only stalemate,’ he said, very, very gently. ‘And I think that one day you shall weep blood for this day’s work, my kennel-bred squire.'”

-Knight’s Fee

In fact, Sutcliff might well be accused here of writing not an adventure novel, but a character study. Certainly Bevis and Randal are two of the strongest and most appealing characters she has written, and her writing has not suffered for an abrupt switch of era. Although shocking twists have never been a trademark of her books, it is a little disappointing that the chapter headings themselves give away so much of the plot, and a discerning reader will avoid them inasmuch as this is possible.

A careful verdict will hardly judge this brief story as among Sutcliff’s best, but it does show her perhaps at her most mature, and is a thrilling look at an era of history that those who tire of King Arthur or terrible Tudors will devour gladly. There is a slight feel of artificial sanitisation about Sutcliff’s Norman writing, but not enough to taint the beauty and fragility of the story. To borrow her style, it is a precious and slight thing, that might be cupped in one’s hands to preserve it. A story that one will look back at the end of with fond nostalgia. Those are the very best kinds of stories.

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The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters, by Enid Blyton

May 3, 2012 at 01:39 (Book Reviews, Children's Books, Fiction, Mystery, Poorly Rated Books) (, , , )

3/10

The Five Find-Outers series is a light-hearted and frequently outrageously funny and slapstick mystery romp. How disturbing, then, to find elements of real tragedy within the pages. In several volumes, the villain will typically mention some misfortune or woe that mitigates his or her crimes, but in Blyton’s world of upper-middle class postwar England, things are generally very simple. Greed and cruelty are the gateway drugs to lawbreaking and gaol; and honest hardworking folk live honest and superficially trouble-free lives.

“‘There’s something wrong I once did that I’m ashamed of now, see?'”

-The Mystery of the Spiteful Letters

The Spiteful Letters of the title are startling for their sheer venom, but more so for the sudden intrusion into the lives of relative innocents. Gladys, for instance, whose crime the eponymous letters trumpet is the crime of having a difficult upbringing. The focus on bigotry and blackmail, on shame and ostracism, marks a surprisingly adult turn in these mostly carefree books.

This is not to say that children’s books ought not have tragic adult themes in them. But it is the sudden change in direction–without either warning or explanation–that makes this book less fun to read than several of the others in the series. The plot is heavily recycled in the much later Five Find-Outers book, The Mystery of the Strange Messages, which takes the poison-pen theme in a much lighter and funnier direction. Some sentences are lifted verbatim from one book to the other, so that it is impossible not to wonder whether Blyton herself wished to revisit and rewrite this darker early mystery.

The Spiteful Letters is difficult to enjoy, although Blyton’s description of idyllic village life is warm and charming as usual. As the fourth book in the series, the group’s dynamic has settled down a little (with the election of Fatty as leader in the previous book) and many of the series’ teething problems have petered out. A transitional effort, then, with the formula of the series more or less settled, but with the tone still an uncertain quantity.

Related reviews:
The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage
The Mystery of Holly Lane
 

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