Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Book review: The Twenty-Year Death

When I first heard about Ariel S. Winter's debut novel, The Twenty-Year Death, I felt it could've been subtitled 'A Book Written Specifically For People Like Joel'. Having now read it, that feeling was entirely justified - The Twenty-Year Death is imaginative, audacious, compelling and tremendous fun.

The Twenty-Year Death is effectively three separate but linked novels, one set in 1931, one in 1941, and the final in 1951. You could read one without the others without losing too much, but I don't know why anyone would do that. Each section - & here's where my interest hit new heights - is written in the style of a different crime novelist: Georges Simenon, Raymond Chandler and Jim Thompson, respectively. So, it's separate crime novels (check), which are also linked (check), set across decades & different locations (check), and also a clever act of literary mimicry (double check). In other words, a book I was bound to love...

Part one, Malniveau Prison, is set in a small French town. Chief Inspector Pelleter has come up from Paris to speak to a serial killer (whom he caught) held in the nearby prison. While there, though, he gets pulled into helping the small local police force investigate the town's first murder in many years - a former prisoner found beaten to death and left on the side of the road. Pelleter soon uncovers a deeper problem - a string of not just unsolved but unacknowledged murders. He also encounters a local couple - American novelist Shem Rosenkrantz and his young French wife Clotilde. This couple becomes the linking characters between the three novels - sometimes in the foreground, sometimes relatively minor characters, but The Twenty-Year Death is fundamentally their story.

Winter captures Simenon's Inspector Maigret style well. Verargent, the town, is a suitably atmospheric locale - small town, but with a large prison full of some of France's worst criminals just a short drive away. The steady rain through most of the story adds to the gloom as Pelleter's initial reluctance to be there at all, or to get involved in the local crime, becomes an ongoing theme. He wants to leave - and regularly says he's about to - but always the case takes priority. Pelleter himself - the point of view character - while clearly a Maigret stand-in, is developed efficiently. Simenon wrote many many Maigret novels, and Winter somehow conveys the idea that this is just one in an ongoing series about this detective.

Ten years later, we are in the movie business in Hollywood, in The Falling Star. Chandler's Phillip Marlowe is here represented by Dennis Foster, a private investigator asked to keep an eye on aging star Chloe Rose, who believes she is being followed by a mysterious man. (Nobody else, including the studio security chief who hires Foster, believes she is.) Her husband, who wrote the film she is currently making, is cheating on her with her junior supporting actress. This young girl is killed; Foster discovers the body but is warned off investigating the death. Meanwhile, Chloe's male costar is secretly gay, and has asked Foster to help him find his partner, who ran off after an argument and hasn't been seen since.

Like the Chandler novels it draws on, The Falling Star is a complicated, tangled web of relationships and hidden agendas. (It does ultimately make sense, unlike a certain Chandler novel...) Chandler's style - one of the most influential & imitated in English-language 20th century fiction - is not as easy to pull off as many writers think, but Winter does a fine job here, not just in his labyrinthine plotting and in capturing the early 1940s west coast setting so central to Chandler's stories, but also in evoking the two most recognisable aspects of a Marlowe story - the detective's cynical, quippy exterior masking a genuine desire to do the right thing regardless of consequences; and the spot-on similies & descriptions (the first page includes 'It was just about noon on a clear day in the middle of July that wasn't too hot if you didn't mind the roof of your mouth feeling like an emery board', which is about as good as Chandler-aping gets).

And in Police At The Funeral, in 1951 washed-up writer Shem Rosenkrantz is in Calvert City for the reading of his first wife's will. Also there is his estranged son Joe, the latter's fiancee Mary, and Shem's mistress Vee. Shem had succeeded as a novelist, had moderate success as a film writer, but now hasn't written - let alone published - anything in years. He owes money to multiple people, and exists when we catch up with him on what Vee can scam from her other boyfriend, local gangster Carlton.

It's less easy to talk about the plot of Police At The Funeral than the previous two parts without spoilers, but the story follows Thompson's relentlessly grim first-person style. It's a little harder for me to judge this section against Thompson since I've only read one of his novels, the gloriously bleak The Killer Inside Me, but Winter's tone here, through Rosenkrantz's narration, is certainly evocative of that novel's style. Thompson's harsher prose and themes serve this part well, as the story unravels in an increasingly desperate manner. Where Malvineau Prison deals with institutionalised problems, and The Falling Star with the darker side of the glamorous movie lifestyle, Police At The Funeral is a much more personal corruption and collapse.

Each of the three stories that comprise The Twenty-Year Death would have made a fine standalone novel. By combining them, Winter has shown not only an impressive ability to write in the style of these three writers - without ever stooping to parody - but a significant talent for crime novels in their own right. This is not just a faux-clever spoof of three key crime novelists. If you didn't know the three writers he was imitating, or that he was imitating at all, The Twenty-Year Death would still hold up as a compelling and ingenious book. Each of the three has a satisfying conclusion - always the make-or-break factor in crime novels - and I found myself racing through each story. When these are combined in the way that Winter has done here, the result is one of the best novels I've read so far this year. My high expectations for The Twenty-Year Death were more than matched.

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Book review: Alms For Oblivion Volume 1

Simon Raven's Alms For Oblivion is a novel sequence - ten books - centred on a group of characters from Britain's upper (& upper-middle) class around the middle of the twentieth century. Rather than being a conventional series, following a group over time, or exploring the same timeframe from different perspectives, each of the novels is essentially self-contained. The plots, settings - and often styles - differ from book to book, but they all take place within the same world, with minor characters from one novel becoming major characters in another and events in some books being referred to in others (not to the extent that you need to have read the earlier one - you should, though, of course). Thus, over the course of ten novels, or even just the four here, Raven is able to build and populate his own little version of upper-class England.

This collection contains the first four books written in the sequence (over the course of the series, Raven jumped around in time, so these books are the fourth, fifth, third and first books respectively by that measure - but it's best to read them in the order they were written, I decided). The first, The Rich Pay Late, primarily deals with business and political deals in the mid-1950s London. Donald and Jude, who co-own a printing business, try to take over a political journal. That's basically all there is to the plot, although of course there are complications, but Raven uses that simple story to begin building his world. An astonishing array of characters is introduced, and with them, the complications of their various relationships - friends, enemies, allies of convenience, lovers, ex-partners, barely tolerated business colleagues etc. And Raven has tremendous fun with these relationships and complications, telling the story with a charming lightness of touch and an admirable ability to make his characters well-rounded and occasionally unlikeable.

Book two, Friends in Low Places, takes place not long afterwards and largely deals with the same set of characters, but with a different focus. Indeed, if anything, the spread of characters is even broader, with a plot revolving around various factions trying to gain control of compromising papers, the government's attempt to set up holiday camps, competition for political election, and the personal travails of a host of characters. At times it was hard to hold in my head who was who and how they all related in Friends in Low Places, but by the second half of the book all the threads are pulled together and the surprisingly intricate plotting becomes an asset. Some of the more prominent characters from The Rich Pay Late are reduced to secondary characters here, but we also get to see some of them from other perspectives, so they're painted more (or less) favourably than they were earlier, or different sides to their personalities are illustrated, or the toll taken on them by the events of that earlier book is evident.

The Sabre Squadron essentially introduces a whole new range of characters - although a couple from the first two novels make appearances. Daniel, a young mathematician, heads to Germany to try to unravel the final work of a man who was either a genius or insane (or both). He discovers that quite a few people are interested in his results, and in the novel's second half it becomes almost a spy novel as Daniel - and his findings - are jostled between different people, each with their own agenda, and he begins to wonder whom he can trust. The Sabre Squadron begins as a campus novel, becomes a spy novel, and ends on a quite unexpected note. The realignment of characters in the series is initally off-putting, I found, but Raven soon settles us into this new cast and this book makes clear that the whole Alms For Oblivion series is not going to be bound merely to the same (admittedly large) cast in the one setting.

The final novel in this volume, but chronologically the series' first, is Fielding Gray, named for its protagonist (& narrator), who has also appeared in each of the three previous books. Set during his final year of school - in 1945, beginning just as WWII ends - and based around a few of his friends and schoolmates (several of whom are significant characters in The Rich Pay Late & Friends in Low Places), Fielding Gray is, in its first half, a fairly typical English boarding school novel - which is not a complaint, mind you, since I usually enjoy the genre - focusing on his relationships with his friends, his difficult and domineering father & meek mother, the headmaster and various teachers, and typical plotting for such books (first crushes, growing philosophical/political consciousness, sporting matches, squabbles between friends, plans for holidays etc). As has become the norm in this series, however, the second half of Fielding Gray takes some unexpected turns, mixing tragedy with comedy, action with introspection, and fleshing out the main characters, especially the title one.

These four slim novels (the four together run to just under 900 pages) are each a quick, compelling read. Raven is a master of narrative pacing, always encouraging you to read just a little more. That, along with his beautifully crafted prose, commitment to drawing out his characters and ability to keep the reader on their toes via shifts in direction, made me race through these four and look forward to the remaining six novels in the series. Raven is one of those authors who is not well-known now (he died in 2001, and most of his books - including, until recently, this series - are out of print), but who nonetheless has a group of devoted fans. This volume has added me to their number.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book review: The Yips

Nicola Barker came to my attention courtesy of Darkmans, her 2007 novel shortlisted for the Booker Prize. I loved that book so much that I have subsequently read almost everything she wrote before then, along with her 2010 Burley Cross Postbox Theft, and so when I saw she had another new book out, I jumped on it. And then was very glad to see it longlisted for this year's Booker Prize.

Barker is one of the most distinctive writers in modern English fiction. Her style is one that I can understand grating on some people, but I personally find her novels hilarious, imaginative and wonderfully populated. The Yips in some ways pushes her style even further - most of the 550 page book is dialogue (I've seen estimates that it's up to 90%), much of which is overlapping, stylised and tangential.

In fact, that sort of describes the book as a whole. The action, such as it is, centres on Stuart Ransom, a past-his-prime but ludicrously egotistical professional golfer, and Gene, a middle-aged man who works multiple jobs, including at a bar where he meets Stuart. (The first scene begins mid-conversation as a tipsy Stuart holds forth to Gene and barmaid Jen.) We cut away from them to meet Valentine, who lives with her mother. Her mother has recently suffered an accident which has left her confused about who she is, and who Valentine is. No connexion between the two settings is evident to begin with, but of course we expect that eventually they will meet up. Barker takes that convention further, though, by gradually adding more and more relationships, so that each character ends up having no more than one degree of separation from any other character. Charting the relationships between the characters in The Yips would result in a cobweb with every point linking in different ways to each other point.

There's not really a plot, as such. Things happen, but they seem slightly irrelevant compared to sitting back and watching the ever-increasing cast of characters come to know each other (& themselves). Few novels could have, for instance, a major character forcibly abducted by another character, left in the boot of a car for a few hours before being rescued by third character (based on suspicions of a fourth!) and yet have that barely register as an important event in the book's world. In fact, several of the characters involved seem mainly to see it as a case of an inconvenient piece of plotting spoiling their story. (The book itself is not that meta.) Throughout all her inter-connected storylines and relationships, Barker takes evident delight in confounding expectations and taking the story in different directions to what the reader may expect.

And throughout it all, we're treated to Barker's talent for eccentric characters, oddball locations (few novels have been set in Luton before, I suspect) and comically overstuffed writing. The blurb, to give some idea, lists some of the characters: 'a man who's had cancer seven times, a woman priest with an unruly fringe, the troubled family of a notorious local fascist, an interferring barmaid..., and a free-thinking Muslim sex therapist with his considerably more pious wife'.

There are many readers who would probably read that description and recoil in horror. As I said above, I can understand why people wouldn't like Barker's style. For me, though, it's a perfectly composed comic novel - dense but quick to read, largely plotless but still convoluted and joyfully highlighting characters, occupations and locations that fiction rarely touches. Not all of Barker's books are perfect, but I've enjoyed her last few in particular so much that she's one of my favourite living authors.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Book review: The Expendable Man

Dorothy Hughes is probably best known these days as the author of the novel In A Lonely Place, made into the wonderful - & wonderfully bleak - Humphrey Bogart film. I've not read that novel, but when I saw this new reissue of another of her books, I jumped at the chance to read it. Mid-century American noir is one of my abiding loves, after all.

It's a Friday night in 1963. Young doctor Hugh Denismore is driving from his home in Los Angeles to a family wedding in Phoenix. On the highway after stopping for dinner, he sees a young girl, Iris, hitchhiking and decides, somewhat reluctantly, to give her a lift. He ends up, against his will, taking her all the way to Phoenix, even though she makes him nervous and is clearly lying about her reasons for going. Once they get there, he drops her off and hopes to never see her again. 24 hours later, her body is found in a canal. Someone has seen Hugh with her, and so he becomes the focus of the police investigation.

So far, so interesting. But Hughes has bigger things in mind, and there is a revelation partway through the book that puts Hugh's dilemma in context. I've no intention of spoiling that here, of course, but serious credit to whoever wrote the blurb (see here) on this new issue from NYRB Classics for implying that there's something else going on without giving away too much. So I'm not going to say too much more about the plot, other than that Hughes handles both this revelation - which could have come across as a cheat, but doesn't - and her story's conclusion well. The endings to crime novels are fabulously risky, as too many writers (& readers) have found to their peril, as failing on the conclusion can retrospectively ruin an otherwise enjoyable book.

While working within the bounds of a fairly well-covered genre, Hughes also includes some nice sideline touches. Hugh's family plays a small but important part, as he remains desperate for them to not learn that he is the major suspect in a murder investigation. Never the main theme of The Expendable Man, Hugh's family dynamics nonetheless provide both realistic and important context for his troubles. And simultaneously, Hugh meets Ellen, one of his fellow wedding guests, and the two instantly share an attraction. She, not dissuaded by him being a murder suspect, ultimately becomes his greatest ally as he tries to demonstrate his innocence to the police. Ellen is revealed as a strong, thoughtful comrade for Hugh - and somehow Hughes manages to make the unlikely combination of Man Accused Of Murder with Boy Meets Girl work to the advantage of both plots.

Critically, Hugh's character is perfectly drawn. Hughes strikes the right note in her depiction of him both before and after Iris' murder, conveying a realistic-seeming combination of desperation, anger and determination. Seeing him exclusively during a time when he is under pressure and apprehensive, we get a strong sense of what he must be like at all times: thoughtful, resourceful, determined. Her prose is unspectacular but atmospheric, and the third-person focus on Hugh's point of view is also judged well - we know everything he knows, and nothing more. We share his confusion over the motives of others and understand his angers and fears.

It's hard to talk too much more about the themes of The Expendable Man without spoiling the plot. I will say that Hughes' revelation felt like a punch to my gut - suddenly the slightly uneasy quality of the first part of the book made sense, small details all fell into place and the book took quite a different turn from what I had been expecting. It's rare that a novel can do that, can so effectively but quietly shift the ground beneath you, so that what you thought was going on turned out to only part of the story. Rare, and certainly to be applauded when an author does it as wonderfully as Hughes does here.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Book review: Ride a Cockhorse

'You can't judge a book by its cover' is an expression that's true as a metaphor but not as a literal statement of fact. We can't - & shouldn't - judge people by their appearance (although we do, all the time), but we (for 'we', read 'I') judge books by their covers constantly. Case in point: I first encountered Ride a Cockhorse when I noticed its cover & thought, 'oh, that looks lovely' (a frequent thought when I first see NYRB Classics books). I then read the blurb & thought 'I'd love that; I must read it asap' (ditto). I'd never heard of the book, or author Raymond Kennedy, before that, but the striking cover design convinced me to see what it was about, and that was enough to get me to order it.

In part my interest was aroused by the comparison to John Kennedy Toole's A Confederacy of Dunces, one of the most scathingly hilarious novels of the 20th century. Like that book, Ride a Cockhorse is not constantly guffaw-inducing, but both are nonetheless deeply funny. Set in 1987 in small town New England, Ride a Cockhorse is the story of a few weeks in the life of middle-aged widower Frankie Fitzgibbons. Her husband has been dead for a handful of years, and Frankie has settled into her quiet existence as a loans officer at the local bank. As the book begins, however, she decides she's had enough of playing her passive part in life and becomes a fierce presence everywhere - seducing a student from the high school, dominating her disappointingly earnest daughter more than usual and, most importantly, running roughshed over her workplace, demanding a promotion to CEO, hiring & firing at whim and ruling her quiet little bank like an unpredictable dictator.

She makes enemies, of course, but Frankie also attracts a little band of loyal supporters - her hairdresser, a couple of young women at the bank whom she promotes and takes under wing, her son-in-law, and a couple of others. They fall into her step, doing her bidding, worshipping her and fiercely defending her against the small group at the bank who dare to oppose this mid-level officer who has taken it upon herself to usurp the power structure and declare herself boss. She also attracts media attention - not just for being a female CEO of a local bank, but also because of her immense quotability. The blurb says Ride a Cockhorse is a 'rollicking cautionary tale of small-town demagoguery'. That's true, but in a way the most interesting factor here is the devoted following Frankie builds. Her evolution makes sense in a fairly obvious way - a response to the tedium that her life up until this point had been. But Kennedy also sheds light on the ways in which we love to follow an exciting leader, how we can counteract the boredom of our own lives by getting caught up in the drama caused by someone else - someone else who appeared to be quiet and boring just like us, but who turns out to have hidden depths. Perhaps we hope that within each of us lies a charismatic leader just waiting for the right moment to reveal itself and blow away the cobwebs of our day-to-day living?

The title comes from an old rhyme:
Ride a cockhorse to Banbury Cross
To see a fine lady on a white horse.
With rings on her fingers and bells on her toes,
She shall have music wherever she goes.

That's a good summary of Frankie's life through these few weeks - rings, bells, music everywhere she grows. But I suspect Kennedy was not at all upset that the title also sounds dirty...

Frankie is an awe-inspiring anti-hero(ine). For most of the novel we're torn - it's exhilarating to see her take some control over her life and get some enjoyment out of it. On the other hand, she's utterly dreadful and runs the bank - & everyone else she encounters - with tactics barely removed from those of military dictatorships. Kennedy - although he tells the story almost entirely from Frankie's perspective - never hides that his main character has become a thoroughly awful person and deserves a massive comeuppance. Does she get one? Well, you'll just have to read and find out for yourself...

As for me, I'm just glad that I continue to judge books by their covers.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Rereading project 2012: The Day of the Triffids

In the wake of rereading Nineteen Eighty-Four last month, I decided to continue in the English Dystopias vein for my June reread. Initially I tried Brave New World, which I mentioned in passing in writing about Nineteen Eighty-Four, but found it hard to write anything worthwhile about it. But that gave me the idea to return to John Wyndham's classic sci-fi, The Day of the Triffids. Unlike any of the other books I've covered so far in this series, I came to this novel fairly recently - I read if for the first time only a couple of years ago (for this and many other things, my eternal thanks must go to the North Sydney Public Library - I also saw the excellent miniseries version via their gracious benevolence).

Longtime reader/s, if any, will be aware of my somewhat mixed feelings about plot (in short: it's great if there is one, but plenty of potentially interesting books have been spoiled by the addition of a plot where none was necessary). I was somewhat surprised, especially given how recently I first read The Day of the Triffids, how little plot there actually is here. In short, seven years before the story begins, a new type of plant is discovered, eventually named the triffid. Though useful (it produces a sort of super oil), the triffid is dangerous - they come equipped with a powerful sting and a seemingly aggressive behaviour, including the ability to move. Our hero & narrator, Bill Masen, a biologist specialising in triffids, is stung in the eye & thus blindfolded when a beautiful series of comets streaks through the night sky. The next morning, he discovers that everyone who saw the display - almost everyone else - is now blind. He meets a girl (the appallingly named Josella) who was drunk and thus also missed the comets, and the two try to survive. The triffids, sensing the opportunity to take over, begin more overtly attacking and killing the blinded humans.

So, yes, in a way, a lot happens. But Wyndham handles it masterfully, making his whole book about the premise. What would you do if tomorrow morning you awoke and found that everyone around you was blind? Yes, now it would be a fair bit different to in 1951, when the book was published (and, more or less, set), but services quickly drop out. Electricity, fresh water, telecommunications, the chains of supply that bring food to us - all fall apart remarkably quickly. Wyndham obviously put a lot of thought into what effects his scenario would have, and in doing so, he creates a world that we can live in through Bill. Bill's an ordinary man in many ways, other than his professional knowledge of triffids which turns out to be vital, but otherwise torn: should he try to help the helpless people around him? Or is that merely delaying the inevitable, prolonging their misery while decreasing his own chance of survival? Stores can be looted in the short term, but if ongoing survival is your aim, a big city is no place to be. That fact is brought home - fully half of the novel is set in London, before Bill is finally able to leave and look for a suitable place to live in the country. Not only are supplies in short order, but everyone - blind or otherwise - is fearful, confused and desperate. Wyndham is unsparing in his descriptions here: The Day of the Triffids is never gory, it never revels in the misery of the world it creates, but it's impossible to read without thinking about what it would be like to be in Bill's shoes, or in the place of those less lucky than him who simply wake up one morning blind. (Within the first few chapters, several characters commit suicide, and many others turn violent, especially when they encounter the still-sighted like Bill and Josella.) Wyndham seems to actively encourage us to think about how we would react in Bill's place.

Bill is an obvious character for us to latch on to, and his narration is perfectly judged. I don't often include lengthy quotes in these reviews (mostly because my eyes glaze over them in others'), but this short paragraph (from just before Bill leaves London) wonderfully conveys the feeling of standing in the middle of a city and knowing that neither it, nor anything else you've known, will ever be the same again:

Above it all rose the Houses of Parliament, with the hands of the clock stopped at three minutes past six. It was difficult to believe that all that meant nothing any more, that now it was just a pretentious confection in uncertain stone which could decay in peace. Let it shower its crumbling pinnacles onto the terrace as it would - there would be no more indignant members complaining of the risk to their valuable lives. Into those halls which had in their day set world echoes to good intentions and sad expediencies, the roofs could in due course fall; there would be none to stop them, and none to care. Alongside, the Thames flowed imperturbably on. So it would flow until the day the Embankments crumbled and their water spread out and Westminster became once more an island in a marsh.

The Day of the Triffids is not a long book (around 230 pages), but it's a surprisingly dense one. Even my brief plot summary above should indicate that, but its main interest is not 'this happened, then this, then this...', but rather Wyndham seems to have come up with an idea and then decided not to complicate matters, just to think about 'what would happen if this premise came true?' In doing so, he's created a world, and dragged us into it. The book ends on a strangely lowkey note - another indication of Wyndham's real interest in this story. We're left with a lot more to imagine - knowing what we know to that point, what might happen afterwards?

What would we do? How would we cope?

Sunday, June 10, 2012

Book review: Twenty Thousand Streets Under The Sky

Last year, I read & review Patrick Hamilton's Hangover Square, a novel set in (just) pre-WWII London about George, a perenially near-broke young man who wastes all his money socialising with people he doesn't really like just because Netta, the object of his obsession, is in their group. While I loved the book, for some reason I had it in my head that Hangover Square was, if not Hamilton's only novel, certainly his major one. Recently, looking through the NYRB Classics catalogue, I discovered that they publish two of his other books - this one & The Slaves of Solitude (which I have not yet read, but will soon). Both, as is customary for NYRB Classics, have gorgeous covers too. So I ordered it quickly and read it as soon as it arrived.

Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky is actually a collection of three linked novellas which were published separately in 1929, 1932 and 1934 before being collected together in 1935. Each focuses on a different character: The Midnight Bell is the story of Bob, a young bartender at the pub of that name who falls for a beautiful prostitute, Jenny. Her story is told in the shortest part of the trilogy, The Siege of Pleasure. And The Plains of Cement follows Ella, Bob's coworker at the Midnight Bell, who also has a crush on him.

As with Hangover Square (1941), the world here is of the young & impoverished working classes. The Midnight Bell can be seen in some ways as an early version of that later novel - Bob has little money, is very proud of the savings he has, but continually throws it away to impress Jenny. She is no Hooker With A Heart Of Gold, either - while her own story in the second volume fills in her character and presents her more sympathetically, she is clearly interested in Bob only to the extent that he can help her out of her financial problems and occasionally show her a good time. The problem is, of course, that he is barely richer than she is. Time after time she stands him, ignores or is rude to him and all-too-clearly (at least from the reader's perspective) grasps after his money while offering little in return. Apparently based on a period in Hamilton's own life, he brings both a sympathy and a clear-eyed perspective to Bob's story: we see every one of Bob's series of bad decisions, but at the same time that we dread everything he does and wish we could reach through the book's page and give him a firm shaking we also never stop hoping that it will work out for him.

In the brief The Siege of Pleasure (just over 100 pages), we jump back in time to see how Jenny went from being a sensible, indeed model, maid to a pair of eldery sisters and their infirm brother to prostitution. Here, rather than the several-months timespan of Bob's story, we see the shift in Jenny's life over the course of one night: after having landed her new job, she goes out for the night with a friend she doesn't particularly like. Lacking the willpower to do anything else, she ends up not only trying alcohol for the first time, but going on a rather impressive bender, along with her unlovely friend and two random men they meet. Hamilton leaves most of her subsequent journey up to us to imagine, but while the idea of one night's drunkeness leading to life as a working girl might seem simplistic or extreme, Hamilton's success here is that he sells the idea. Given the chance to focus on just a couple of days, Hamilton's gift for creating an atmosphere is in full flight.

Circling back to the same timeframe as The Midnight Bell, in The Plains of Cement, Ella's story largely avoids the trick of just showing us Bob's story from the perspective of his friend. That's what I'd expected - Ella moping while he's out wasting his money on that cheap floozy (it's worth noting that, from the moment Jenny first enters the bar, both Bob & Ella know exactly what she does for a living). Instead, we see Ella's life parallelling Bobs - she also meets someone at the Midnight Bell and her story mostly deals with that relationship. Mr Eccles is a relatively wealthy older man who takes a liking to Ella and begins taking her out, assuming a stronger and closer relationship than she is willing to enter into. While she likes him well enough, and is pragmatically aware of the benefits of attaching herself - and eventually marrying - a wealthy man, Ella is unable to commit to the idea. Partly this is because of her unspoken, unreturned, love for Bob, but she also finds Mr Eccles (she struggles to even call him by his first name) too eager, too ridiculous, too quick to assume that they are dating, then engaged. As with the first two entries, The Plains of Cement is told in a third-person perspective of the lead, and again Hamilton shows a fine talent for developing his characters. 

Across all three stories, Hamilton's genius is in describing his world. It's obviously a world he knew well - as noted, the story of Bob was drawn from his own life, but more broadly, these working people and their lives were what he lived in. At times when reading Twenty Thousand Streets Under the Sky - and especially the first part - I felt almost ashamed of not having a glass of booze in my other hand. In some ways, though, that would have been redundant - so effectively is this world recreated on the page that there's almost no way to get any closer to how the characters feel.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Rereading project 2012: Nineteen Eighty-Four

Few twentieth-century novels cast shadows anywhere near as long as Nineteen Eighty-Four. It was not the first dystopian novel, as it clearly cribs from Huxley's Brave New World (Huxley certainly thought so - follow that link, by the way), and there are plenty of novels from the 20th century which were more influential, in literary terms, than Orwell's final book. (Even the whole dystopian/alternative history type of novel has largely been submerged into the science-fiction genre.) Yet it's hard to think of any other English-language novel that has contributed anywhere near as many ideas or phrases to our society as has Nineteen Eighty-Four. (Catch-22 gave us the title, of course, but not as much else from that book has penetrated public language.) A short list of words/phrases from Nineteen Eighty-Four: Big Brother, doublethink, thoughtcrime, memory hole, Room 101, 'Oceania has always been at war with Eurasia'. Not to mention one of Orwell's most famous sentences: 'If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face - for ever'.

But how does Nineteen Eighty-Four stand up as a novel? Actually, better than I remembered - and I say this as someone who's loved the book since I first read it (in school, like many). This re-read has emphasised what a well-constructed and wonderful novel it is - not just as an excellent satire of totalitarian, but as an entertaining story as well. I'm not going to bother with any sort of plot summary here, by the way, and will assume that you're at least passingly familar with the story. (So, there will be spoilers.)

Orwell does - and does surprisingly subtly and effectively - an excellent job of building his world. Yes, occasionally the polemicist in him gets the better of the novelist in him and he does sometimes disobey the 'show, don't tell' rule of storytelling with wild abandon, but it's the small details in the first section of Nineteen Eighty-Four that really convey what we need to know. The dreadful taste of the standard-issue gin, the scarcity of razor blades, the horrible lunches served at Winston's work - they all emphasise the sheer poverty of Oceania. Similarly, Orwell never defines a lot of the terms or groupings Winston encounters, but he tells us all we need to know and leaves us to fill in the blanks ourselves. And this is all aside from the fact that one of the most damning critiques of the Soviet Union came from the Left, and came remarkably early (whatever modern-day members of the Right might want to believe, Orwell would have had very little sympathy for their arguments).

The love story that forms the centre of the middle sections of Nineteen Eighty-Four is - perhaps surprisingly - another instance of Orwell's skill and an oft-overlooked reason why this novel works as well as it does. Winston and Julia may not be the most-lovable characters in all of fiction, and their 'romance' is based almost entirely on their shared unorthodoxy, but it also presents each of them, in their different ways, with a chance to be human in a way that nothing else in their world does. Together they find a small way to reject Big Brother and the Party, and that's enough to override their knowledge that none of it can or will last. Humanity, our shared need to feel things, is the only way to respond to a system designed to crush everyone into uniformity.

One of my problems with Nineteen Eighty-Four on previous reads has been the overly long extract from Goldstein's book presented halfway through. This has all the excitement that one would expect from a forty-page section of a novel wherein the two main characters sit together and read a book called The Theory and Practice of Collective Oligarchy. It is - I still think - too long and it derails the book's momentum to that point. Yet, re-reading it over the last couple of days, I couldn't help but wonder if that wasn't the whole point. The frustrating thing - for Winston, for us - is that this book, so long sought-after, promising so much, ends up being somewhat underwhelming. It doesn't really tell us (or Winston) much that we/he don't already know. And since he never gets to finish reading it, we never get to anything interesting. But maybe that's intentional. O'Brien later tells Winston that he co-wrote the book and emphasises that it - being a part of the Party's plot all along - merely confirmed Winston's suspicions without offering any suggestions or possible remedies. The dissidents' plot is hopelessly vague because it has to be. 'Goldstein's' book is repetitive, longwinded and obvious, and that should be our first clue that it's not what it appears to be, what Winston wants it to be.

Of course, Nineteen Eighty-Four finishes on a decidedly pessimistic note. Our hero is beaten, in every sense, and loses whatever humanity and individuality he had gained in the first half of the book. He betrays, and is betrayed by, the only person he really cared about, and is betrayed by the only person he admired. His triumph at the very end is amongst the most depressing in all literature, for it represents the flickering out of the last prospect of hope we could have had for him. We can hope that his earlier feeling that the Party would be overthrown, eventually, might come true, but there's no reason for us to think that, really. It's also worth noting what a dreadfully depressing world the Party has created for themselves. Even the Inner Party, the controllers of Oceania, lead lives that are caught up in the world they have created. They may have more luxurious surroundings - nicer apartments, better chocolate and booze, less risk of being exterminated - but ultimately they live in the same depressing world as everyone else. Being the face stamped on forever is obviously a horribly grim future, but being the wearer of that boot is hardly a great prize either. Humanity is removed from both ends of the scale, leaving the world nothing more or less than a machine.

Nineteen Eighty-Four isn't Orwell's best novel - that's Animal Farm (which also gave us at least one memorable and much-used phrase) - but its qualities as a book and as a story are often overlooked because of its remarkable qualities as a piece of political and social writing. Orwell was not the finest prose writer of the 20th century, but his simple, direct and understated style serves this story better than anything else would have. And he still gets in some wonderful writing - that first sentence is among fiction's best ('It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen'). I came back to Nineteen Eighty-Four for the political and social observations, but I finished it with a stronger appreciation for what a wonderful novel it is.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Re-reading Project 2012: Three Novels By Agatha Christie

In mid-February, I spent a few days at my parents' house in Brisbane. While there, I dug out some of the things I'd stored in their ceiling space when I left, including a pile of old Agatha Christie novels. Throughout my teenage years, I worked my way through her bibliography - I think I may've read everything she published under her own name (she also wrote some romance novels under a pseudonym, but I've never bothered with those). Yet I haven't re-read many of them at all in the last decade or so, and I thought it would be interesting this month to re-read three of them and see how I react many years after my first - or indeed any subsequent - reading of them. I decided to pick one Hercule Poirot, one Miss Marple and one non-series book to sample the range of Christie's books.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Arguably one of her most famous books, along with Murder on the Orient Express and maybe a couple of others, this is a relatively early book and apparently caused a big sensation at the time of its original publication because of its (unprecedented?) twist ending (which I won't spoil here).

Briefly, the story is narrated by Dr Shepherd, the GP in a small-ish English village. It begins immediately after the death of Mrs Ferrars, a local woman, but that is merely prelude to the titular murder of prominent local - and Shepherd's friend - Roger Ackroyd. As it turns out, the mysterious new neighbour next door to Shepherd and his sister is none other than famous, newly retired, detective Hercule Poirot, who gets pressed into helping solve the case. For much of the book, it's almost like an Agatha Christie by numbers routine - Poirot decides to help out, the local police think he's a little strange but nonetheless are glad for the help (so long as they still get credit), and Poirot works in his own inimitable way to root out secrets from everyone who could possibly be a suspect. This last ends up being one of my main gripes against Christie's books - none of them are long, but almost all of them occasionally get bogged down in frustrating red herrings. If someone dies at a country house (which is what happens in a decent proportion of them), it will emerge that
a) almost everyone else in the house - along with a few neighbours etc - will have a secret, many of which are at least potentially grounds for a motive,
b) several tedious chapters will be spent sorting out exactly who was where when the murder or other significant events occured (at least a few of the characters will lie about this),
c) almost none of a) or b) will matter to Poirot in solving the crime.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is a pretty good example of these tendencies, but is of course redeemed by the ending. Yes, it's silly and less plausible than many of her novels, but it is a damn good twist (even if it has been quite cleverly skewed by Pierre Bayard in Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?, which argues that Poirot was wrong in his deductions). Indeed, Christie thought it such a good ending that she later reused it in another book (which I won't name, for obvious reasons). But throughout Ackroyd, we see Poirot at his best - he was always served well by having a narrator/assistant, which is why the Hastings books are amongst the best Poirots - and many of the characteristics for which Christie was famous: the misdirects, the quickly but effectively drawn cast, the unspectacular but utilitarian prose, the gentle humour. She would grow to hate Poirot - in much the same way Arthur Conan Doyle did with his most-famous creation - but in this early novel he's still on show as one of fiction's most interesting detectives.

A Murder is Announced

Christie never, so far as I know, disliked Miss Marple as much as she did Poirot, but many of her Marple books feature the elderly detective as a marginal character, whereas Poirot was always centre stage. That was by design, given the two characters' styles, but it does mean that there are some Marple books where she barely appears. A Murder is Announced is not the extreme end of that, but it's a good example of how the Marple books as a whole work. Unlike The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, A Murder is Announced is one book I barely remembered, so reading it this time meant that I was in some ways reading it for the first time.

Unfortunately, A Murder is Announced is not Christie at her prime. The set-up is intriguing: the local paper carries a small notice to the effect that there will be a murder that evening at the house of Miss Blacklock and all her friends are invited to be there. A group from the small village turn up on time, to see an attempted robbery where the culprit ends up shooting himself. Miss Marple gets involved, a couple more murders take place and the ultimate villain is caught by falling into Miss Marple's trap. Yet the story, even by the standards of the genre, is just completely implausible: not one, but two sets of siblings whose identities and relationships are secret; multiple people going by someone else's name; a fantastically complicated plot wherein what should have been a simple murder committed by one person against another becomes a whole big routine; and Miss Marple stumbles onto the truth of what happened after a cat knocks over a vase.

It is frustrating because, as I said, it's an excellent set-up. But one of the worst faults of Christie's plots was her tendency to create fantastically complicated plans for the murderer to carry out. Implausibility within certain limits is part of this type of detective story, and one cannot really criticise her books on those grounds, but A Murder is Announced takes this altogether too far. It also features one of my least-favourite devices in her novels: a scene where we witness a murder taking place, but with the identity of the murdered withheld in an incredibly clunky manner ('she heard someone approaching'... followed by a conversation between the two in which the 'someone' is never named - particularly irritating in this book because the 'she' in question had just begun to suspect another character. That other character is the 'someone' who walks up to her and chats for a moment before killing her).

Miss Marple was always inferior to Poirot, but this book is far from either character or author at their best.

Ten Little [Racial Slurs]

Well. We must begin with the title, which was of course from a different time (1939: 'before racism was bad, as David Brent might argue). Nonetheless, its impossible for modern eyes to get past it, especially since it drawn from a poem frequently referred to in the book, and all the action takes place on and island named after the same word. (Publishers later renamed it Ten Little Indians, apparently believing that to be better, before its modern re-naming as And Then There Were None, which was a better title from the start anyway, even aside from the racial dimension.)

Anyway, all of that is unfortunate, not least because this book is actually one of Christie's best. Closer in some ways to a thriller than to a conventional detective story (my copy, pictured here, describes it as a 'detective story without a detective'), Ten Little N-Words inspired, directly or not, many of the tropes of contemporary thriller books/movies. Ten strangers are each summoned in different ways (offers of jobs, free holidays, chance to catch up with old friends) to an island off the coast of Devon. We learn early that several of them have things on their consciences, but after they all arrive - to find their host absent - they are all charged with committing murders for which they were never found out. They soon begin dying, one by one, following the descriptions in the titular poem, and begin to suspect each other. Christie does a fine job of creating a tense, claustrophobic atmosphere with her ten characters on a small island and with no way of leaving. (Against that, characterisation here is pretty weak - perhaps no surprise, given that it's one of her shortest books, clocking in at only 190 pages. Thankfully, the first to die is the worst-drawn character - Christie always had trouble with Modern Young People, usually making them sound like nothing on earth. In this case, the Thoughtless Young Man, responding to someone else's criticism of fast driving, shrugs and says, 'Speed's here to stay', as if anyone in the history of the English language would ever say that.)

And, remarkably, the ending works. It's overly elaborate, like so many of her plots (including the other two here), but in this case it's effective. The method of conveying it is perhaps a little clunky, but there was really no way around that. In some ways, the book's brevity (not that any of her others were much longer) helps create the propulsive and tense atmosphere which pervades.

So, what did I think of these three books after this re-read? Well, two of them I quite enjoyed, one I was mostly bored - with bouts of frustration - by. They all have the virtue of being quick, escapist reads - so long as you can keep all the characters in your mind, that's all the reader need bring to the read. The parts of Christie's writing which annoy me will not come as a surprise to anyone who's read any of her books - the over-reliance on stock characters, the occasionally dreadful dialogue, the tedium of working through chapters describing the irrelevant movements of characters and the addiction to murders (even quick, unplanned ones) happening in overly complicated ways - make it hard to love these stories uncritically. But they're still fun and, occasionally, quite brilliant. Agatha Christie wrote during a period in which light authors such as herself were expected to publish a least one thing a year, and I do wonder how her books would've been if she'd had more time to spend on each. Rather than writing nearly 80 books of varying quality, she could have done half as many but increased the average quality of each, perhaps. (For another instance of an author who churned out too many books with similar plots when they might've been better served by writing fewer but better things, see Wodehouse, P.G.) But that was the way things worked through the mid-20th century, and so we can't blame her for that.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Gizmo Jones and the Great Train Robbery 1

[I've long intended to write a series of books called 'Gizmo Jones, Boy Detective'. Well, tonight after dinner I started! Here's the first chapter of the first one, made up as I've been typing for the last hour or so. I have no idea where it's going, so tune in later for subsequent chapters!]

Gizmo Jones and the Great Train Robbery 

Chapter One. A New Case

Gizmo Jones, Boy Detective, stared at his computer screen in amazement. 'It can't be!', he muttered with restrained excitement. He was reading an email from 'Sirens' O'Reilly, officially known as the newest detective on the Metro Police Force, but also Gizmo's closest friend and best source.

Gizmo- You'd better come down here as soon as you can.
I think I've got something for you.


There was no doubt in Gizmo's mind as to what Sirens wanted him for. There was only one story in the city that morning. He'd been reading about it as Sirens' email arrived. That morning the busiest commuter train had disappeared, full of passengers, between one station and the next. It had arrived at Downtown Station at 8.11am as scheduled - itself a small mystery - but had simply not turned up at Central Station three minutes later. An hour and a half later, it was still unaccounted for. Calls to passengers known to be on the train rang out. Satellite photos revealed nothing. Subsequent trains ran as per usual - they didn't disappear, they didn't see anything out of the ordinary, they didn't collide with a suddenly reappeared train.

Gizmo, like most of his fellow Metro citizens, was baffled more than scared. Unlike most of them, however, his mind quickly turned to the question of how he could work his way onto the case. For that's how he saw it: a case. Not a supernatural mystery or a reason to lock himself in his house and hope for the best, as he knew some people were already doing. No, this was a riddle, a puzzle and a challenge, and if Gizmo couldn't help solve it the official way, helping the police force, he'd work it out alone. Officially was better, though. Easier and less tiresome if someone else was doing the boring grunt work, leaving Gizmo to handle the case his own way. So he was especially glad to receive Sirens' email, and he hummed a happy tune to himself as he put on some shoes, grabbed his bag and went out to the garage to his bicycle. His parents were both out, so he left a note for whichever one came home first, since he suspected he'd be gone longer than either of them, and started cycling towards the police station. There was another reason why he was happy this morning. 'At last - something to do!', he thought. He'd been bored since the Case of the Vulnerable Gymnast - only three weeks ago, he had to remind himself - and this looked like a particularly interesting problem to solve.


Detective Peter O'Reilly had met Gizmo Jones in most embarrassing circumstances. At that time a new recruit to the force, O'Reilly had suffered the humiliation of having his grandmother's home, which he was temporarily living in, burgled. Fearing that his new colleagues would never let him forget it, he tried to solve the case himself - starting by interviewing the young boy across the road. As it turned out, that ended up being the only thing he had to do. More accurately, O'Reilly didn't interview Gizmo so much as the boy had walked across the street and solved the case for him. The boy introduced himself as Gizmo, said he was nine years old, and that he could help. O'Reilly, despite his distress, humoured the boy by following him into his bedroom. Confusion, suspicion and relief intermingled as this strange boy showed him photos on his computer of the thieves in the act of leaving the house, and then handed him a piece of paper with an address written in an immature but clear script. 'Here's where they are', Gizmo said, 'but you should hurry. I don't think they'll stay there much longer'.

Without O'Reilly's really noticing it, Gizmo invited himself along, but O'Reilly had recovered enough by the time they got to the address, only a few blocks away, to tell him to stay in the car. Two men came out of the house just as O'Reilly pulled up, and obviously recognising him, elected to toss the bags they were carrying - which were full of O'Reilly's grandma's jewelry in the hope that he would call it even. He didn't, and chased them in a short and not-particularly-dramatic burst of excitement. He was thus able to show his new colleagues at the station his crime-solving chops, and thus started his rise through the ranks. Gizmo had been part of, but not the only reason for, this success. O'Reilly was an instinctive detective, more at home tracking important cases than with the less-glamorous aspects of modern policing. He had, of course, asked his new friend how he solved the case, and the answer was stunning in its simplicity but spoke volumes of this nine year old's courage and detective skills. He saw two men enter the house, so while they were inside he attached one of his latest toys - a powerful tracking device - to the bottom of their car. When they exited, he took photos with his parents' camera and then returned to his bedroom to track their movements on his computer. He saw the car stop and stay in one position, and wrote down that address. 'Why didn't you call the police?' O'Reilly had asked. 'I knew you were a policeman', Gizmo said, 'and I thought if I helped you catch them, you might let me help you again'. And thus had begun one of the most successful - if unofficial - detective partnerships in Metro's history.


Thinking back to that day as he waited for the Gizmo to arrive, O'Reilly couldn't help but wish that his young friend had possessed the foresight to have attached one of his helpful tracking devices to the train this morning. He'd never been this utterly confused by a case before, and he had no idea how it could be solved. At this point, he reflected ruefully, their best hope was that the train would just reappear as suddenly and inexplicably as it had disappeared. And O'Reilly knew that hoping for that was a sign of a case that was going to cause him trouble. The chief and their mayor had already held some long meetings with their young star detective - not the sort of meetings he had occasionally had with his bosses, where they either berated him for his lack of progress or congratulated him on solving a high-profile case. No, this time, they both seemed scared. Both expressed the wish that someone else would jump in and take control of the whole thing. As it turned out, they were going to get that wish fulfilled. But not in the way they might have imagined. Neither of them realised that the case was about to be in the hands of one Gizmo Jones, Boy Detective.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TV Shows I Have Invented But Which, To Date, Nobody Has Actually Made: The Sequel

Well, two years after my initial publicising of some long-held dreams of mine (see previous post), my tv-show-development ship has still not come in.  So here are some ALL NEW! ideas for shows.  If you're an important tv-type person, get in touch to buy these ideas off me while you still can!

Random Number Generator

Most of us have, at some point, turned on the television late at night/very early in the morning in the hopes for something to lull us to sleep.  Something mindless, thoroughly unlikely to engage us, yet to distract us sufficiently from whatever irritating thoughts can't be gotten rid of.  Until now, the default choice for such television has been home shopping programmes, but there's a problem with them: they're just too ridiculous, and while the prospect of a 45-minute infomercial for a revolutionary type of sponge might seem like just the thing to put one to sleep, the reality is that there's something compulsively viewable about that sort of broadcasting.

So here's my solution: random numbers (in white) appear against a black background, stay there for 15 seconds (which is longer than you think - it's longer than most story arcs on Glee, for instance) before being replaced by another random number.  (Whole integers only, thank you.)  A computer-generated voice reads out the number (once), but otherwise the show is silent.  I anticipate that this would become a hypnotic and addictive programme, enjoyed equally by the tired and the inebriated.  It's like Keno, only without the distracting gambling stuff.

Fun & Games With Existentialism

In this show, my overt attempt at critical praise and awards, drama and the blackest comedy freely intertwine.  Four friends are dying, all in different ways.  One has cancer, one has a mysterious and undiagnosed illness, one from a heart that is steadily declining and the final is dying, through some temporal trickery, after a violent attack by some random thugs.  (Each episode covers a couple of days for each of the first three, but only a minute or two for the last.)

Conscious of their own respective mortality, each of the four friends tries to deal with their looming death in their own way.  One draws on their deep religious faith, seeking solace in those beliefs ingrained since childhood.  The second is comforted by their unshakeable conviction that death is no more meaningful than life and that therefore dying cannot really be said to actually matter.  The third goes into deep denial, believing in nothing other than that by refusing to accept the reality of their imminent demise, they can stave it off indefinitely.  And the last panics, flicking week by week between different beliefs, philosophies and religions, seeking something they can believe in as they face the idea of their own death with horror.

Reflecting on life, death, faith, philosophy and friendship, Fun & Games With Existentialism combines heart-wrenching drama with pitch-black comedy.  Sure to be a hit with critics and discriminating viewers!

Play Home-School

Drawing on the recent trend towards parents removing their children from schools in favour of educating them at home, Play Home-School is based on the long-running and much-loved ABC children's programme, but with a 21st-century twist.  The presenters are endearingly ill-prepared and awkward in front of the cameras.  The show rarely starts on time and is regularly bolstered by transparent filler.  Arcane and discredited ideas are presented as irrefutable truths and some subjects are skipped over entirely.  Simple stories illustrate ever-relevant morals like the dangers of friendship or social skills of any kind and the importance of trusting in everything your parents tell you.  History is explained through ancedotes about great-great-uncles and their experiences and science experiments revolve around sand, water and salt.

Play Home-School may not teach your child everything, but it will teach them everything they really need to know!

TV Shows I Have Invented But Which, To Date, Nobody Has Actually Made

[This post was originally published as a couple of notes on Facebook in February 2010.]

So, most of what's currently - or has ever been - on television is pretty awful, I think we can all agree. But it doesn't have to be. Television, the form, is fine; it's the content itself that's the problem. With that in mind, here are a few ideas for shows that I think would be really good, if only someone would pay me lots of money to actually make them.

Police Cops

Ahh, the cop show - repository of more cliches than you can point a stick at. But for years, I've dreamed of another kind of cop show - one in which our heroes, the detectives and officers of some city police station, are simple, happy people who take their job seriously, but who are essentially mid-level bureaucrats. They are committed to their job, yes, but in the same way that you & I are (assuming that you & I have a job, and that we're reasonably committed to it). They punch in at 8am, and out at 6pm (or whatever). They're all happily married/dating, or single by choice. Those who are married have a couple of children whom they see often and get on well with. Two officers in our station are indeed dating, but they're both rookies, and the department's HR section is aware of the relationship, since they lodged the appropriate paperwork once it became clear to them both that this was a serious relationship.

The captain in charge of the station is well-respected by both his/her subordinates, and by the big brass at police HQ (or whatever it's called). This is because s/he has neither been a political appointment, nor an unruly headkicker. They just get the job done effectively, a task made easier by the mature and professional approach of everyone else in the station. None of the cops has a drinking problem - although several of them get together on Friday nights for drinks & dinner at a nice but casual restaurant nearby. (Spouses/partners often attend too.)

Watch throughout the thrilling first season as the young rookie detective is accepted well into the unit! He humbly learns from those who've been doing the job since he was in short pants, and in turn also helps them take advantage of recent advances in computer technology! Follow the on-going story of the cynical older detective, who falls for an entirely stable new girlfriend of approximately his own age, and be swept off your feet as he proposes in the season finale! Watch as the detectives solve cases calmly, methodically and without getting personally invested! Look how none of them ends up investigating a crime apparently committed by their ex, or long-lost school friend!

[Yes, the title needs work, since it's currently a Simpsons reference. Other than that, though, doesn't this show sound like a breath of fresh air?]

So You Think You Can Paint

Lots of people, statistics show, sing in the shower/while driving/when cooking, and they're well catered for in the modern television environment. Plenty of people also dance like nobody is watching, but also sorta wish someone was, and most of the tv schedule is about these people. Ditto for cooking - once something people did because otherwise they'd starve, now an almost-entirely competitive activity. (According to a confidential source, 10% of all meals prepared in Australia this week will be done for the camera.)

So what other popular hobby enjoyed by the masses can be made into a television game show, I asked myself. And then I answered myself, The Visual Arts. But 'So You Think You Can Visual Art' makes for a title too clumsy and grammatically troublesome even for commercial television, so we're going to generalise to just Paint. All the visual arts will be represented, though - painters, sculptors, origami-makers, installationists, quilters, photographers, film-makers, graffiti artists, and those people who make things out of twine.

The great diversity of contestants is what makes SYTYCP so exciting! Rather than forcing contestants to try things outside of their chosen field, each week everyone is set a theme for the next round. (Note: might need to spread the show out in production, to allow everyone to actually do their thing for each round. Show it weekly once it's finished, though.) Thus, one week the theme might be Childhood, the next week it could be Red, and so on. Expert judges - along with a popular celebrity more recognisable than the average art critic, but not a sportsman or former model - will offers comments each round, before it goes to a popular vote as per in those other shows on which this one is loosely based.

Finally, a television show for all those who can't sing, dance or cook, but who still want to prove to the country how talented they are!

The Law Is An Ass!
(Unlike the first two, both of which were the product of much thought over an extended period, this idea is fresh & new. Which is code for: not-entirely-thought-out.)

It's Wallace & Gromit meets Mr Ed meets... The Practice.

In this animated show, we follow the trials (pun intended) and tribulations of a small but determined law firm staffed entirely by horses. (Their opponents, as well as judges, juries etc, are all human; clients are both animals and humans.) Combining heartfelt drama, exciting plot twists, good-natured humour and the occasional office dalliance, The Law Is An Ass! combines everything you've always loved about legal dramas with the noblest of all beasts - the talking, anthropomorphic horse.

Throughout the first season, the scrappy law firm of Caufield & Sons struggles to gain acceptance from the human-dominated legal community. Young firebrand attorney Star fights to have the courthouse modified for improved equine access, while older associate Misty deals with trying to establish herself in the profession while also raising two foals. The firm's head partner, Abercrombie, faces the toughest decision of his life when asked to represent local farmer Mr Jones, accused of selling beef which is, in fact, horsemeat. Whatever the case, Caufield & Sons act with dignity, honesty, and plain old horse-sense, and become the most sought-after legal representation in town.

Yes, the show exists only because of its name... but then, that's true of most television.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Re-reading Project 2012: Emma

The second entry in my re-reading project for this year is Jane Austen's Emma.  Like A Suitable Boy, I've read Emma multiple times before (twice, I think, compared to the half-dozen of ASB), but not for a few years.  In this review, I will be a little bit spoiler-y, so proceed with caution if you've not read it but don't want to know what happens.

Pride & Prejudice is probably most people's default choice for their Favourite Austen Novel, helped of course by the excellent (& faithful) BBC mini-series a decade or so ago and the actually-pretty-good movie a few years later. And certainly it's a hard one to argue against, but personally I've always had a bit of a preference for Emma, for the following reasons:

1) The title character.  Austen apparently set out to create a less-likeable central character*, and certainly Emma can be a little unpleasant, especially to modern eyes. Her early obsession with taking on the socially unfortunate Harriet and setting her up with a respectable young man at the expense of Harriet's (returned) feelings for Robert Martin comes across as hopelessly patronising, assuming she knows better than Harriet whom she should marry.  (Of course, by the standards of their society, she's right - Mr Elton or Mr Churchill or Mr Knightley would all be very advantageous marriages for Harriet. And two of them also would have made pretty decent husbands too, had they shown any interest in her.)  Yet what makes Emma an appealing character is that she learns from her mistakes - after the awkwardness resulting from her efforts to matchmake Harriet with Mr Elton, she takes a much more passive role in hoping for the best for Harriet.  Emma also does have a genuine affection for Harriet, as well for quite a few other people in her life.  She's sometimes thoughtless - both in her matchmaking and in a particularly cutting remark she makes to Miss Bates late in the novel - but she also feels bad about these and recognises without hesitation when she has erred.

2) All the other characters. For a novel named after a single character, Emma does a remarkable job of filling out its world.  There's an extensive cast of well-drawn characters in Emma's life - her family, her friends & associates, and even some people she doesn't like.  Admittedly all we ever know about Robert Martin is that he is an excellent young man who loves Harriet, but that is actually probably fairly accurate in some ways.  There's no reason Emma would ever know him as anything beyond that - she knows him exclusively from reports from Harriet and Mr Knightley, and they both like him.  But elsewhere Austen provides some wonderful characters, including the twin comic pieces of Mr Woodhouse (permanently worried about the health of everyone, including being shocked that someone might even consider opening a window at night) and Miss Bates, surely one of the most annoying but accurate characters in English literature, with her never-ending run-on sentences, starting on one topic but diverting herself constantly before any theme is fully expressed.  Frank Churchill is an appealing male lead for most of the story, appearing (to draw a Pride & Prejudice comparison) like the best characteristics of Bingley and Wickham combined.  Better still is Jane Fairfax, who allows Austen to hit a beautiful but rarely-expressed character note: most of us know someone we feel like we should like, but we just cannot, without even perhaps being able to say why.  That's exactly how Emma feels about Jane, and it's a neat point for Austen to make (and one, incidentally, which helps us identify with and like Emma).

The only false move here is Mrs Elton, a one-note, thoroughly unlikeable and unsympathetic character.  Insincere, snobby, with a massively inflated sense of her own worth, Mrs Elton is far too broadly drawn - especially since she plays such a prominent part in the novel - to be believable.  For story purposes she had to be objectionable to Emma, but I think Austen overplays this point here.  Against that, I will note that her awfulness does allow for my favourite throwaway line in the book:

'Mr Knightley seemed to be trying not to smile; and succeeded without difficulty, upon Mrs Elton's beginning to talk to him'.**

3) The subtle reveal of the romance.  Again, to refer to Pride & Prejudice, this is a point in Emma's favour - from the start of the former novel, it's clear that Mr Darcy is the male lead and therefore the ultimate partner of the female lead Lizzie.  Emma does a much better job of providing some plausible alternatives for its main character - including the unlikely but oft-expressed option that she will not marry at all.  But for most of the novel, Mr Churchill is seen as a possibility for Emma, even if she seems to go off him after their initial (seeming) mutual infatuation.  On this re-read, I was quite surprised at how little a role Mr Knightley plays in the first half of the story, and how suddenly their romance seems to bloom (or, more accurately, how late in the novel each realise that's how they feel).  The result of this is that it's quite possible to read most of Emma without trying to pick who - and how - Emma will end up with, which makes the late reveal much more satisfying.  (A minor quibble here which will make sense only to those who know the story very well: I can't help but feel that she should have received the letter from Mr Churchill before Knightley's declaration.  Austen could have made something of Emma reading that Churchill felt free to flirt with Emma because he could tell she didn't care, perhaps making her stop & realise that soon she really would be the only unmarried person in her circle, and that maybe Knightley woudn't return her recently discovered feelings because he too saw her as someone without any romantic feeling at all.  But that's just a thought I had, and clearly Austen had other things in mind with Churchill's letter and Emma/Knightley's responses to it.)  There's also a neat way here in which, in more subtle terms that Pride & Prejudice, Emma and Knightley will be good for each other - he can provide for her the grounding she sometimes needs, and she can help him see the better side of people than he probably would otherwise.  It's no coincidence, although Austen doesn't slap us in the face with this, that each of them are seen to be better people - nicer to those around them, more tolerant of people they previously hadn't liked - because of the other.  Knightley is not just an improving influence on Emma; she does the same for him.

On top of those, of course, are all the other reasons why people still read Austen the best part of two centuries after she wrote - the wonderful writing, the way in which a social world was depicted (and, honestly, who cares if it's not accurate or representative? that's such a facile reason for disliking a work of fiction - like arguing that you don't like the Sherlock Holmes stories because some of the crimes were a bit far-fetched), and the endlessly entertaining characters and their romances.  Austen is not for everyone - a characteristic her writing has in common with every writer in every language - but to avoid her because you struggled through the first quarter of one of her novels in high school is to do a grave disservice to both yourself and one of the great writers.

* She would eventually succeed, intentionally or otherwise, with Mansfield Park and the detestable Fanny Price, English literature's least interesting lead character.

** I'm also very fond of 'There was not a dissentient voice on the subject, either when Mrs Perry drank tea with Mrs and Miss Bates, or when Mrs and Miss Bates returned the visit'.  Austen could be slyly hilarious, and I sometimes think of her like a grandma, outwardly pleasant, cheery and polite, but not fooled for a minute by those around her, and capable of making the odd cutting remark.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Tea review: Twinings Australian Afternoon Tea

Tea flavour: Australian Afternoon
Tea type: Leaf (infused)
Drunk: Black, no sugar
Blurb: "Full-bodied black tea designed for Australia".

Website description because the above is deliberately vague: a blend of "the slightly smoky Russian Caravan with the full bodied Irish Breakfast and then added the light Ceylon Orange Pekoe".

Twinings ran a competition last year, which I sadly didn't get to vote in despite being Australia's Most Trusted Tea Reviewer*, to choose a new tea based on blends created by five Australian celebrities of various types and degrees of worthiness. The winning one, as reviewed here, was created by Kevin Rudd.  (Details of the other four are here.  Most of them sound disgusting or laughably bland**.  Having tasted only one, the right winner was chosen.)

Rudd's name appears nowhere on the box for Twinings' Australian Afternoon Tea, commercially released in January 2012.  One can assume that this was deliberate, to keep politics out of the much more important business of tea-drinking, but it's a little odd that they ran a big promotional campaign to choose which celebrity's blend would be chosen, only to then leave said celebrity's name off the box.  (Or, alternatively, it could just be that there is in fact a law in this country which forbids the use of Kevin Rudd's name without speculating on his imminent challenge to return to the prime ministership and Twinings just wanted to stay out of that.  If so, well played, Twinings.  My respect for you continues to increase.)

Anyway, to the tea at hand.  As advertised, this Australian Afternoon Tea is certainly a full-flavour strength tea.  The Irish Breakfast predominates, but the after-taste shows the smokiness of Russian Caravan (which has grown on me still further since my review last year - I now drink have a tin of the loose-leaf version at work & often make myself a small pot of it mid-morning).  Between those two flavours, the Ceylon Orange Pekoe gets a little lost (as it is wont to do even when it's the only flavour in the tea).  It actually all works together quite well - the Russian Caravan is distinct enough to temper the Irish Breakfast while still allowing the latter's strength to be the tea's distinguishing flavour.  It's a warm-ish afternoon as I drink my cup & type this, and I can vouch that it suits the setting well.

Its slightly fuller taste stands it well against some of Twinings' smoother flavours (like the Prince of Wales or the Pekoe itself), but the inclusion of the Russian Caravan does give it a bit of softness compared to an unadulterated Irish or English Breakfast.  It also has a bit more of an obvious flavour when compared to something like their Traditional Afternoon Tea, which I sometimes feel just tastes like Strong Tea without any more notable flavour than that.

All that said, I suspect there will not be a huge public outcry should Twinings remove the Australian Afternoon Tea from the market (the box indicates it's a 'Limited Edition').  While it's quite an enjoyable drink, I doubt it is memorable enough to become anyone's new favourite blend.  I'll certainly drink the rest of my packet with pleasure - and probably buy some more when it's done - but, after a few cups over a couple of days, it hasn't really made an impression stronger than 'oh, that's quite nice' on me yet.  Nonetheless, the Australian Afternoon Tea is certainly worth a try if you enjoy full-flavoured black teas or drinks that make you feel vaguely nationalistic.

* I assume.
** Note to Kerri-Anne & John Kennerley: you don't need to put Earl Grey & Lady Grey into the same blend.  Note to John Williamson: if you put Lapsang Souchong into a tea blend, you should also remember to include toothpaste to get the taste out again.  And Layne Beachley: really? Why bother putting three light teas together and then adding Irish Breakfast? That's all anyone will be able to taste.  You may as well just have your 'special blend' include Irish Breakfast and water.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Re-reading Project 2012: A Suitable Boy

After I finished my F. Scott Fitzgerald reading/blogging project in December, I cast around for ideas for my next series.  I couldn't think of another author whose bibliography I wanted to work my way through - and nobody else suggested anyone - so I decided that this year I will re-read a bunch of my favourite novels and blog about them.  In some cases, I might find I like the book less than I thought I did, or I might appreciate different things to what struck me the first time around, and those would be interesting (for me, at least) to think about.

Re-reading is something I have a great theoretical appreciation for.  I think that the sign of a good book is one that you want to return to, and that you like more, or in different ways, to how you did when you first read it.  I also think that a lot of books - like a lot of movies and tv shows - actually improve the second time around. You can focus less on the Who-What-Where-When of the story and appreciate the telling more, notice details that you may have missed the first time around, and see how knowing the ending affects your reading (/viewing) of the beginning.

Against that, however, I have a huge pile of books I've not read at all, ready access to many more, a mental list of many books or authors I'd like to read and an account with the Book Depository.  So, in practice, I re-read much less than I would like to.

The first book in my 2012 re-reading project is in fact one I've read multiple times in the past (about four or five times, I'd guess).  I first read Vikram Seth's novel over a decade ago, when I was an undergrad, and I re-read it for the first time less than six months later - which fact is made more interesting because A Suitable Boy runs to 1474 pages in the paperback and took me about two weeks of solid reading to finish.  I don't really believe in allocating things as my all-time favourites, but A Suitable Boy is my standard answer when someone asks what my favourite book is.  Yet I haven't actually read it for a few years, so earlier this year I felt a desire to read it again.

A Suitable Boy, despite its daunting length, is a fairly straightforward novel.  Its main character is Lata, a 19 year-old girl in 1951 India. Her older sister has just gotten married, and now her mother thinks it's time to find a suitable boy for her youngest child.  But that's not it - A Suitable Boy has a huge cast of characters, and while Lata's story is the centre of the novel, almost as much time is spent with her new brother-in-law's brother, Maan, a warm-hearted but impulsive young man.  There are also separate but related stories about other members of each of Lata & Maan's families and their various friends and associates.  Along the way, A Suitable Boy touches on university politics, actual politics, literature and poetry, shoe manufacturing, families, rural life, religious tensions, cricket and India's national identity in the immediate post-colonial period.

That wide range of stories and characters is what makes A Suitable Boy more than a simple Pride & Prejudice re-hash in a different context (fun though that could've been).  Seth juggles all his elements perfectly, writing all his characters - even the unlikeable ones - which such warmth and empathy that we can spend consecutive chapters barely touching on Lata and her story without feeling like we're off the point.  All the stories and scenes are connected to Lata & her family, or Maan & his, even if neither of them actually appear there and even if the story has nothing to do with the ultimate question of whom Lata will marry.  As we move through this enormous book, meeting more & more characters (some central characters don't appear for the first time until 400 pages in!), Lata's choice for a husband narrow down to three boys.  Not everyone will be happy with her decision, but my most recent reading made me realise more clearly than ever before that it probably was the right one.

Returning to A Suitable Boy after a few years was like returning to a world I now know well.  Like the best long-running tv shows, A Suitable Boy's massive scope allows Seth to build an entire world and populate it with three-dimensional characters.  Parts of the novel are set in Calcutta and other real-life cities, but the bulk of A Suitable Boy is set in the fictional town of Brahmpur, which by the end of the book you feel to be entirely real.  Similarly, while some real-life Indian politicians appear, the fictional ones are so well-drawn that scenes between real and fictional characters seem completely plausible.  This is the rare novel which can be both heart-breakingly tragic and laughter-inducing hilarious.  We feel characters' joy, despair, indecision, anger, ambitions and friendship.

The warmth of Seth's writing, the scope of his stories and the wonderful characters will keep me returning to A Suitable Boy.