Friday, October 28, 2011

2,540: Caligula by Douglas Jackson

Caligula is the third book kindly sent to me by Transworld Book Group as part of the Transworld Book Challenge, for which I thank them.  It tells the story of Rufus, a young slave from Carthage, who is sold to a purveyor of wild animals to Roman circuses.  Finding that he has a way with animals, Rufus becomes an animal trainer, even appearing in the circus once himself.  Along the way he befriends a gladiator, Cupido, himself a slave, having been the son of a defeated German prince.

Life is looking good for Rufus when he is unexpectedly sold to the Emperor, Caligula, to look after the Emperor’s new elephant.  Now living inside Caligula’s palace, Rufus plays witness to the paranoia and depravity that surround the Emperor and, inevitably, becomes involved in the continual plotting against Caligula by members of his household, family and guards.

Of the Julio-Claudian emperors of Rome, Caligula ranks alongside Nero as the most luridly lunatic of them all.  From wanting to make his horse a senator to sleeping with his sister, an author wanting to set a novel during his reign certainly has no shortage of material to work with.  This, of course, is a slightly double-edged sword as Caligula’s well-known life story also acts as a constraint upon the author’s freedom of imagination.

Douglas Jackson starts off by handling the material well, choosing to use Caligula almost as background, only having him appear directly in a small number of scenes.  Rufus, and his relationships with Cupido and other key characters takes centre stage and it is only as the plot moves towards its climax that other real historical figures, such as Caligula’s uncle, Claudius, and Chaerea, one of the leaders of Caligula’s Praetorian Guard, become key characters.

The plot moves along briskly and there is no shortage of pace.  There’s plenty of casual period detail to make the book feel solidly placed in ancient Rome and the dialogue doesn’t feel too modern for the setting.  All in all, it’s a quick and easy read and something one could pick up at the airport to help while away a long flight.

Unfortunately, that’s about where it ends.  Plot-driven in the extreme, there is very little depth of characterisation and most of the main characters are quite flat.  This, combined with large dollops of blood and guts (which, to be fair, is probably unavoidable in a novel set in this period) and a spoonful of sex, made me think that its real audience is teenage boys who are not really into literature but are happy with something that gets the adrenaline and hormones going.  Basically, not me.

If that were all, I’d be happy to chalk it down to experience and accept that it just wasn’t my kind of thing if it weren’t for one big, fat, glaring problem.  I’ve mentioned above that Caligula’s life story acts as constraint as well as source and this links in to one of my beliefs about historical fiction.

It seems to me that, if you are going to write historical fiction, you can take certain liberties with the history.  You can give your protagonist a fictional title.  You can add in minor events that didn’t really happen.  You can even insert your character into major events where it does not compromise the integrity of the event (i.e. having your character as, say, one of the executioners of the Romanovs as the guards are not well-known figures).  But, I believe that it destroys the integrity of a historical fiction work if major historical events are changed significantly.  That’s not to say that books where that happens can’t work; just that they are not historical fiction.  They can be counter-factual history.  They can be speculative fiction (for example, the excellent Fatherland by Robert Harris).  They cannot, though, be billed as historical fiction.

And this is where Caligula really fails for me.  I don’t want to reveal a big spoiler here but, suffice it to say, one of the key scenes, dealing with one of the most important events in Caligula’s life, is historically completely inaccurate.  Not only did this really spoil the book but it is also potentially misleading to anyone who reads the book and is not already familiar with the history.

So, I’m sorry, but Caligula just didn’t work for me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Top Ten Tuesday: It's close to midnight and something evil's lurking in the dark.........

Unfortunately, I’m going to be missing Hallowe’en this year, as I will be in Dubai on a business trip.  If truth be told, I’m not actually a big Hallowe’en fan.  I find all the trick or treating a little artificial, something that we’ve copied from America where it’s far more traditional.  Me, I’m much more of a Bonfire Night kind of guy.  Give me a cold, crisp November night with a smoky, blazing fire, a pile of fireworks and a charred sausage in a bun and I’m happy.  Mini-Falaise, on the other hand, simply adores Hallowe’en, combining as it does three of her favourite things – dressing up, free sweets and staying up late.  Fortunately for her, Mrs F and Old Man Falaise have stepped into the breach, meaning that South West London will be plagued by a tiny child beggar dressed as a sorcerer next Monday evening.  So please give generously, her dentist needs the money.

In compensation for my absence from the festivities (or infant carnage, depending on your point of view), I thought I would respond to The Broke and the Bookish's request for a list of top Hallowe’en reads.  So, in time-honoured fashion, in no particular order, here are ten books to read whilst listening to Thriller and munching on your Faginesque cut of your child’s ill-gotten edible gains.

1.         Dracula by Bram Stoker.  Do I really need to say more?  I’ve foamed at the mouth about vampire books before during Top Ten Tuesdays but it’s worth saying again.  Step away from the Twilight books and walk towards the light (or dark?).  Read this, it’s the real thing.  In general, other vampire novels, bar none, are either pale imitations or freakish mutations with no place on a civilised bookshelf.  I’ll make one exception for some of Anne Rice’s books.

2.         Frankenstein by Mary Shelley.  Whilst we are on the ur-books of the gothic horror genre, may I take this opportunity to recommend this.  In the same way as Michael Jackson was not like all the other boys, Frankenstein the novel is not like the Frankenstein movies.  It’s a far sadder and richer story and well worth the read, despite Victor’s self-indulgent bleatings.

3.         The Historian by Elisabeth Kostova.  Having just had a pop at vampire books, I’m now contradicting myself by recommending one!  Nevertheless, despite being massively overhyped and trailing off towards the end, this is worth a look.  Lots of fashionable elements such as academic mysteries that need to be pieced together, parallel historical and modern storylines, cool locations and, yes, vampires.

4.         The Omen by David Seltzer.  As I’ve already said, I am not a horror fan and so I found the first two Omen films quite creepy enough thank you as a teenager.  And, guess what.  The book is better.

5.         The Complete Edgar Allan Poe by Edgar Allan Poe (duh).  Do you see what I did there?  I wasn’t going to pick one story over any of the others.  Fantastic.  In actual fact, I think I like The Purloined Letter best but that’s not one of his gothic stories.  In any event, you really should read him if you haven’t already done so.

6.         The Tattoo Murder Case by Akimitsu Takagi.  This is more a detective story than a horror/gothic story but there are some very creepy elements to this classic Japanese crime novel.  I don’t want to give anything away but if you like crime fiction or you like novels that feature Japan and Japanese culture, this may be for you.

7.         The Dark is Rising sequence by Susan Cooper.  Hallowe’en is considered by some to be linked to the Celtic festival of Samhain and Arthurian and Celtic mythology and folkore is central to the quite brilliant The Dark is Rising sequence.  Nominally children’s books, they are capable of being enjoyed by all ages.  Not at all creepy but I wanted to lever them in here somehow!  Please, please, please go and read them (or, if you are sniffy about children’s literature, go and buy them for any child in your life.).

8.         Witches and Jesuits: Shakespeare’s Macbeth by Garry Wills.  Hallowe’en wouldn’t be Hallowe’en without a few witches around the place and there can be few more famous literary witches than the “Double, double toil and trouble” crew from Macbeth.  Witches and Jesuits is a fascinating study of the theological politics of England in the early 1600s and sets the Scottish play in the context of the religious and political issues of the time, showing how this backdrop would have given the play huge power when it was first performed.

9.         The Call of Cthulhu by H.P. Lovecraft.  This is actually a short story but it forms the foundation of his Cthulhu mythos output and all the other Cthulhu mythos stories by, inter alia, Robert Howard and August Derleth.  This is proper weird horror.  Forget slasher novels and things that go bump in the night, this is existential terror, madness and the end of the world type fiction.

10.       Theatre of Blood.  To finish on a lighter note, here is a film for Hallowe’en night.  A comedy-horror flick, this stars Vincent Price as Edward Lionheart, a hammy thespian who, tiring of being scorned by the critics, decides to murder them one by one in parodies of Shakespeare’s more gruesome scenes.  It’s high camp, very funny and has some quite disturbing moments.  It’s also a great role call of 1970s English acting talent.  A little bit odd but very amusing.

Monday, October 17, 2011

2,541: 1,001 Book Challenge - The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole

When the Classics Circuit announced that its latest tour was to take in pre-1840 gothic literature, a lightbulb went on (dimly, it must be said) above my head.  Here was a chance both to participate in the tour and to tick off another of the 1,001 books I must read before I die.  So I was pretty enthused about reading Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto.  After all, it is acknowledged to be the first gothic novel and, if it is in the 1,001 books list, it must be good – right? And I loved Dracula and Frankenstein so the genre can appeal to me.

Well, it didn’t quite work out like that.  On reflection, just because something is the first in its field, it doesn’t necessarily make it the best, or even any good and I suspect it is the book's place in literary history that gets it the nod for the 1,001 books list rather than any inherent merit.

The Castle of Otranto purports to be a late medieval manuscript that the author has discovered in the home of a prominent northern English catholic family (although Walpole admitted his authorship in later editions). The manuscript tells the story of Manfred, Lord of Otranto and the calamities that befall his family following the mysterious death of Manfred's only son on his wedding day, caused by a gigantic helmet falling on him from nowhere.

Manfred, whose sole raison d’être is to retain power in Otranto for him and his family, then determines that, since his wife Hippolita is unlikely to bear him another heir, he must divorce her and marry Isabella, his late son’s fiancée, who, as well as being the daughter of another powerful noble with a claim to Otranto, just so happens to be young and beautiful, which I am sure played no part at all in Manfred’s thinking.  Young Isabella isn’t overly keen on the idea of becoming the randy old goat’s wife and so does a runner from the castle, abetted by a curiously chivalrous and brave peasant, Theodore.

From here on in, Walpole throws a slew of gothic tropes at the reader, rather like an over-enthusiastic cook thinking that “just one more” ingredient will render a dish perfect.  So, we have doors opening with no human presence, supernatural artefacts suddenly appearing, damsels in distress, masked knights, long-lost family members, noblemen masquerading as peasants, the madness and hubris of princes and, of course, the satisfaction of an ancient prophesy, which leads to the extinction of Manfred’s bloodline and a happy ever after ending for Theodore and Isabella who marry and become rulers of Otranto.

Looking on the positive side, it’s short.  I read it on my Kindle but, in print, I suspect it must be less than a hundred pages.  This means that I didn’t waste too much time reading it.  To be fair, I did still keep turning the pages, although this was more to confirm that I was correct in my plot forecasts than out of any sense of intrigue as most of the plot twists are pretty obvious.  It is also funny in parts, sometimes intentionally, as with the character of Bianca, one of the servants of Matilda, Manfred’s daughter, who is clearly the designated comic relief, but, generally, unintentionally, through its excessive melodrama and the rollercoaster nature of the characters’ reactions such as Hippolita’s spontaneous flip-flopping on whether she should fight Manfred’s desire to divorce her and pack her off to a convent.

Unfortunately, that’s about everything on the credit side of the ledger.  On the debit side, as I have already mentioned, the characters have a habit of not just changing their minds but seemingly changing their entire moral outlooks within the space of a few pages.  Now I know it is a gothic novel and as such, has a great deal of inbuilt implausibility but this adds so much to it that it destroys any tension that might otherwise have been in the book.  It's also not helped by the fact that the plot is dependent on a number of unlikely occurrences that fortuitously beocme public knowledge at just the right time.

Added to this is the way Walpole treats his female characters.  Even allowing for the fact that he was writing in the 18th Century, they are amongst the drippiest and most sanctimonious collection of females that I have ever come across in a book.  Just to give you two examples, Hippolita, faced with divorce and confinement to a convent, refuses even to criticise her husband and when Manfred stabs his daughter, Matilda, to death, she forgives him and says how much she loves him!  All of the women, with the honourable exception of Bianca, behave as if they are mere chattels of their husbands and fathers and brook no criticism of their male relatives.  I know the book is set in the medieval period but, to this modern reader, it was truly annoying.  Let’s just say that if mini-Falaise were to grow up like them, I would be slitting my wrists in despair.

The Castle of Otranto is also predictable, over-melodramatic and completely lacking in horror or tension.  It actually reminded me of the episode of Dallas in which Pam Ewing wakes up and realises that Bobby hadn’t really died in the previous season but that she had, in fact, been dreaming all along.  Not so much jumping the shark as pole vaulting the aquarium.

It was an interesting read because it is possible to see the genesis of some of the staples of the genre in it and it does give some context to better and later examples of gothic literature so, to that extent, it was worth reading but it certainly won’t be qualifying for a re-read.

Finally, I’d like to thank Rebecca and everyone who helps out with the Classics Circuit tours both for another fascinating topic but for all the work they put in on this fantastic idea.

If you’d like to read more on pre-1840 gothic literature, today’s other tour stops are:

·        A Striped Armchair - The Old English Baron by Clara Reeve or Wieland by Charles Brockden Brown
·        Devouring Texts - Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
·        Birdbrain(ed) Book Blog - The Devil’s Elixir by E.T.A. Hoffman

Sunday, October 16, 2011

2,542: Leave it to Psmith by P.G. Wodehouse

OK, quick question for you:  What do Rupert (aka Ronald) Psmith and Ray Langston from CSI have in common?  Go on, have a guess.  No idea?  Give up?  Well, I shall enlighten you.  You see, it turns out that they are both crossover characters.  Dr Langston appeared in episodes of CSI: Miami and CSI: New York in 2009 and, in Leave it to Psmith, Wodehouse engineers a trip to Blandings Castle for Psmith, thus bringing him into contact with Lord Emsworth and other Blandings Castle inmates in what became the second in the Blandings Castle series and the last of the four Psmith books.

And make no mistake.  Despite the title of the book, Leave it to Psmith is very much a Blandings Castle tale.  Whereas the three previous Psmith stories  form part of Wodehouse’s “school” phase and tend to hinge on Psmith’s peculiarly superior attitude to life, Leave it to Psmith is a romantic comedy, more representative of Blandings and Wodehouse’s mid-career style.

Indeed, the plot of Leave it to Psmith has so many similarities to that of the first Blandings novel, Something Fresh, that it could be used as exhibit A in the oft-raised accusation that Wodehouse simply used the same plot over and over again.

At the outset of Leave it to Psmith, we find Psmith (the “P” is silent as in psychic, ptarmigan and phthisis) in reduced circumstances.  His father’s money has gone and he has just resigned from a promising career as a monger of fish for his uncle, a mogul in the piscine world.  Freddie, Lord Emsworth’s imbecile younger son is desperate for cash to invest in a bookmaking business and his uncle, Joe Keeble is also in need of cash to give to his niece Phyllis Jackson to enable her husband, Mike to buy a farm without his wife, Lady Constance knowing.  To complete the circle, Mike is Psmith’s best friend from school.  All clear?

Psmith and Freddie come into each other’s life when Freddie answers a personal ad placed in the paper by Psmith, wherein he offers to take up any job for cash.  Psmith agrees to steal a necklace belonging to Lady Constance, Freddie’s aunt.  Joe will then be able to draw a large sum of money to replace the necklace with Lady Constance’s blessing.  He will then split the cash with Freddie and return the stolen necklace to Lady Constance.

At this point, enter Lord Emsworth.  Despatched to the Senior Conservative Club in London by Lady Constance to bring a Canadian poet back to Blandings, he manages to offend said poet, who storms off in a huff.  Psmith, who happens to be in the club at the same time steps into the breach as Emsworth, having lost his glasses, is under the impression that Psmith is actually the poet.  Although unaware that Emsworth is Freddie’s old man, Psmith is desirous of visiting Blandings as he has fallen in love with one Eve Halliday, who has been engaged to catalogue the Blandings library and is, again unbeknownst to Psmith, a childhood friend of Phyllis.

The scene is thus set for a typical Blandings story, a mixture of romantic comedy and high farce.  After misunderstandings aplenty and despite the best efforts of the Efficient Baxter, Emsworth’s secretary, and a couple of American thieves, one of whom is at Blandings in her capacity as a leading poet, Psmith ultimately prevails, getting the girl and ensuring that both Phyllis and Freddie are put in funds.  All’s well that ends well, apart from Freddie’s love life, which remains unfulfilled.  Even Lord Emsworth is left happy as he is able to sack Baxter, who ends up throwing flowerpots through Emsworth’s bedroom whilst wearing lemon-coloured pyjamas, in a scene that should be read in private lest you be thought mad for laughing out loud in public.

Leave it to Psmith is a pacey, madcap story that shows both Wodehouse’s weaknesses and his strengths.  As well as recycling some of his standard plot devices, the plot is over-dependent on coincidence and one really shouldn’t think too hard about the logic and plausibility of the plot, which at times are tissue-thin.
On the other hand, not only are many of the set piece scenes laugh out loud funny but Wodehouse’s writing style is, in Leave it to Psmith, approaching its full majesty.  In truth, never mind the plot, just feel the fluidity and precision of the writing.

Psmith was not to appear in Wodehouse’s writing as he freely admitted that he could not think of anything else to do with him.  He’s never been one of my favourite Wodehouse characters as he mainly features in Wodehouse’s early books which are a bit too much like school stories for me.  Nevertheless, as a valedictory appearance, he could have done much worse than Leave it to Psmith.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

2,543: The Honourable Schoolboy by John le Carré

I was in Moscow last week on business and, in a little bit of spare time, had a good old wander around Red Square and the Kremlin.   Although I’ve been in Russia a few times in the past few years, I hadn’t actually revisited the square since the first time I was there in 1987.  Now, it’s probably my age but, being a child of the Cold War era, images of Soviet-era parades and old movies with fur-hatted men furtively passing secrets in the snow under the Kremlin towers were filling my mind so, as night follows day, I suddenly had the urge to read some John le Carré.

The magic of the Kindle worked and that evening after dinner, I was tucked up in my hotel bed with The Honourable Schoolboy.  It probably wasn’t the obvious choice as it focuses on events in South East Asia, rather than Cold War Europe.  It was, however, the next on my le Carré list to read (or, actually, re-read) following my review last year of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy which is itself in the public consciousness again with the release of the new movie version.

Following the unmasking of the mole at the heart of the Circus, le Carré’s fictional British Secret Service, George Smiley has been put at its head to determine the extent of its penetration and to salvage what he can from the rubble.  As well as being demoralised and financially crippled, the Whitehall bureaucrats and politicians are circling, waiting to sntach chunks to add to their own empires.

Smiley’s personal life is also in tatters with his wife, the beautiful but sexually incontinent Ann, having been outed as the traitor’s lover and having again deserted George.  He is also becoming slightly obsessed with Karla, his nemesis from Moscow Centre, the spymaster behind the infiltration of the Circus.

Many of the characters from Tinker, Tailor also appear in The Honourable Schoolboy.  Smiley is still faithfully protected by his strange little bodyguard, Fawn and Peter Guillam remains as his cup-bearer.  The eccentric analyst Connie Sachs is present and Oliver Lacon is joined by a number of other, even more reptilian, civil servants.

The Circus is under intense pressure to achieve something to justify its continued existence.  Smiley and Connie embark on a strategy of “taking back-bearings” – by reviewing old cases that had been suppressed by the mole on Karla’s orders, they can ascertain what Moscow is concerned about and then come up with an offensive operation.  Whilst doing this, they uncover a money-laundering operation in South East Asia pursuant to which Karla is funnelling cash to a Soviet agent.

At this point, the Honourable Jerry Westerby, a journalist and part-time Circus spy (and the titular character of the book) is called out of his Italian retirement to help Smiley investigate the identity of the beneficiary of the funds.  Smiley then uses him as a tool to shake up the other side in order to bring the Soviet spy into the open.  Jerry is a conflicted kind of guy, however, and for both him and Smiley, their personal issues begin to interfere more and more with their professional roles with some depressingly inevitable conclusions as what should be a triumph for the Circus brings defeat for them both.
The Honourable Schoolboy was written in the mid-1970s during the tragic dénouement of US involvement in South East Asia and at a time of financial woe in the UK (plus ça change…..) and, just as a period piece, it is full of the flavour of that time – the decaying corruption and sweaty grime of the drug-addled wars in places such as Laos and Cambodia, the long, slow decline of British colonial rule in Hong Kong and the tired and tawdry stagnation of London.  In the sections of the book set in Hong Kong, there are even foreshadowings of the shift in financial power from East to West that we are experiencing today as the British taipans are portrayed as corrupt, lazy and morally bankrupt and ripe by contrast to the new energetic and confident Chinese businessmen.

Beneath the historical canvas, there is a downbeat air of deception of betrayal throughout the book on numerous levels.  Smiley’s pre-occupation with Karla seemingly blinds him to the plotting of Enderby and the CIA liaison Martello which ultimately results in his downfall.  There are numerous personal betrayals – Smiley by Ann and the Orphan by Westerby to name just two.  And, of course, there are the professional betrayals that we expect in a spy novel.  Noone is clean in this book and at every turn, there is cheating, deception and dishonesty.
If I’m being honest, the book could have been a couple of hundred pages shorter as le Carré got a little carried away with his Asian war zone descriptions.  Also, the period Hong Kong expat language seems very old-fashioned and a bit camp.  It is also not a book to be read when you’re down as it is very bleak and pessimistic in its world view.
It is, however, satisfyingly complex and meaty as well as giving a plausibly grubby view of the secret world and, save for some of the dialogue, stands up well to the passage of time.