Late to the Party: Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman (1992)

Anno Dracula cover

I’d heard about Anno Dracula for a long time before actually getting my hands on it. When I was in high school, one of the big genres I liked to read was alternate history. I worked my way through Harry Turtledove’s work up to that point (Guns of the South and Ruled Britannia were especially good), devoured Philip K. Dick’s masterwork The Man in the High Castle, and found one of my favourite short stories of all time in Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades”. By far the best in my opinion was a novel by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman called Back in the U.S.S.A., which chronicled the state of the world after America’s Communist revolution in 1917, where Eugene Debs takes the Lenin role while Al Capone is cast as the U.S.’s Stalin. In the back of that volume, I saw an ad for a book called Anno Dracula, which has only recently come back into print.

Anno Dracula is another work of alternate history from Newman, one that provides a lot of the same pleasures as Back in the U.S.S.A., where part of the fun was figuring out who was a real person and who was fictional. In the 1888 of the novel, Victorian England is in the throes of becoming a vampire-run state after the wedding of the Queen to Vlad Tepes, aka. Dracula, a couple of years earlier. As Prince Consort, Dracula has made vampirism fashionable amongst the upper classes, and the more physical advantages of increased longevity and strength have also filtered down to London’s poorest in an example of trickle-down necronomics.

Charles Beauregard, a  still-“warm” spy working for an organization known as the Diogenes Club, is brought into an investigation into the murders of vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel by a maniac known only by the nom de guerre of Silver Knife. During the course of his investigation Beauregard meets Genevieve Dieudonne, a French vampire from a different bloodline than Dracula’s, who runs a halfway house/hospital for newly-turned vampires and joins forces with him to crack the case.

Much like the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Anno Dracula is a rollercoaster ride through Victorian-era and Victorian-set genre fiction, although in this case primarily vampire fiction for obvious reasons. Unlike certain recent volumes of League (Black Dossier and Century: 2009 especially), I found Anno Dracula to be a coherent, engaging story and not just a list of knowing in-jokes waiting to be explained by footnotes.

I do feel, though, that I would have gotten more out of it had I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula recently, as many of the main characters are survivors of that book; hilariously in the AD universe Bram Stoker himself is declared an enemy of the state for his relationship with Abraham van Helsing, and is shipped off to a concentration camp. An extensive list of the book’s references can be found on its wiki page; I was especially pleased to have been right on the money with my guess regarding Blacula.

I enjoyed learning about the day-to-day workings of an England controlled by vampires in much the same way as I enjoyed the first part of the underrated film Daybreakers. It’s fun to see the restrictive Victorian mores and taboos opened up ever so slightly to accomodate feasting on blood, but still leaving things like handing your calling card to a footman, or gentlemen’s clubs where not a word is to be spoken. You can really tell that Newman has done his research, both into pretty much every vampire book and movie currently in existence, as well as general Victorian life.

The new printing of Anno Dracula comes complete with an extensive afterword, footnotes for the myriad references, an alternate ending, a short story set in the same world, and a snippet from a screenplay of the book. While a nice addition, I can’t say that any of these were really big selling features for me, but they might be of interest to those who read the original incarnation. I did really enjoy the short story, “Dead Travel Fast”, as it featured Dracula learning how to drive a car and that idea’s pretty damn adorable.

There’s three books that follow Anno Dracula in the series, and I’d like to pick them all up, starting with this world’s take on the First World War in The Bloody Red Baron. If you’re a fan of well-thought out vampire fiction and alternative history that respects the intelligence of the reader, I’d definitely recommend this book.

Late to the Party: Old Filth, by Jane Gardam (2004)

Old Filth cover

Some long-time readers of this blog may recall my struggle to finish reading Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time, a twelve-book long cycle of books taking place mostly in London between the two World Wars. The short review of Dance? Don’t bother. I read six out of the twelve books and was basically bored silly the whole time, as Powell was much more interested in looking at different social strata of England pre-1939 and characterizing them poorly than actually telling any kind of story. Last week I tore through much better book, that in 250-some pages accomplishes what Powell couldn’t in his thousands, Old Filth by Jane Gardam. Old Filth is the first of a trilogy of books set in the declining British Empire that just concluded last year with Last Friends. After this book, I am eagerly awaiting picking up that one and the second, The Man in the Wooden Hat.

The aged Sir Edward Feathers is better known as “Old Filth” to his fellow Queens Counsels of England, FILTH being an acronym that stands for “Failed In London, Try Hong Kong.” Filth began life as a “Raj Orphan”, the son of a colonial administrator sent back to England for his education and safety. This great novel follows Filth from birth through to his tough interaction with the modern day after the death of his beloved wife Betty. Along the way he gets mixed up with public schools, Oxford dons, a brief (and hilarious) Army stint and eventually success in Hong Kong. It recalls the humour of Kingsley Amis and Evelyn Waugh, the exotic colonial locales of Graham Greene and E.M. Forster, and is equal to them all in quality.

As I noted earlier, I really loved this book. It is at turns hilarious, incredibly sad and a fascinating glimpse at a culture I know very little about. Raj Orphans, who I’d never heard about previous to the book, had a pretty tough go of it, as in addition to being taken from their families they were often put in foster homes and often mistreated. Filth forever feels torn between his two nations, as he was happiest in Malaysia (Kotakinakulu) with his native friends, but he never truly belonged due to his status and his race. He goes on to ping pong between social groups and organizations for the rest of his life, in a matter not too different from Jenkins, the ostensible main character of Dance to the Music of Time.

There’s some uproariously funny stuff here; my favourite part was when Filth finds himself a part of Queen Mary’s protection retinue during the Second World War, as his stutter would make it tough for men to understand his orders, and his social standing makes it difficult to use him as a grunt. It’s a fun interlude, and another look at something I’d never even thought about before: of course the Royals had to have been secreted away in case the Germans reached the mainland. This is again tinged with tragedy, though, as it’s while he’s ostensibly protecting the Queen that his first love affair falls apart like skeins from a ball of yarn. He also learns to drive using a tank, the only vehicle around.

I do wish I’d seen more of Filth’s success in the Far East, as his Hong Kong adventures are often alluded to but never fully explained. I’m hoping to see more about this time period in the second novel, The Man in the Wooden Hat, which tells the story of his wife Betty. The third book, Last Friends, is the tale of Filth’s great nemesis of his courtroom days, the delightfully named Terry Veneering, who only appears a couple of times in this one.

Late to the Party: Angelmaker, by Nick Harkaway

Musical Accompaniment: The Clash, “Tommy Gun”: 

“The world was getting old and cruel. The great game she had played, the wild, primary-colour roller coaster, had become something harsher. It wasn’t brother monarchs scoring points any more, or empires testing one another, or Vell played, Commander, but vee vill get you next time, you may be sure … What difference does it make if one crowned head replaces another? What matter if the Queen’s nephew displaces the Queen? But now it was different. It was about ideas, and fed by science. An idea could never die. A city, though, could burn, and its people.” (p. 293)

Angelmaker cover

Torn between two family legacies, Londoner Joe Spork turned his back on the glamourous gangster life personified by his father Mathew and instead became a clockwork artificer like his grandfather Daniel. Old age pensioner Edie Banister is a retired spy who fought the Great Game for King and Country across Europe and Asia through the early part of the Twentieth Century, attempting to stop the Opium Khan Shem Shem Tsien. When a very strange, beautiful and exceedingly well-crafted artifact comes into his possession, a clockwork book beloved of a cult called the Ruskinites, Joe finds himself at the centre of a battle for the future of the planet, and must team up with the re-activated Edie and embrace his dormant gangster heritage to save the day.

In the interest of full disclosure, I found myself unable to finish reading Nick Harkaway’s first novel, The Gone-Away World, when I tried it earlier this year. I found the collision of a post-apocalyptic landscape, ninja battles and long-haul trucking just too much to keep hold of in my mind as I read it, so I approached his followup Angelmaker with a little bit of trepidation. Luckily, I couldn’t have been more wrong, as this is a fantastic novel, filled to the brim with eccentric characters and fun detail. It has actually made me want to try again with Gone-Away World, maybe some time in the New Year.

What Angelmaker does incredibly well is balance trappings, characters and events that could have come right out of a Sax Rohmer or Lester Dent pulp saga with the realism, language and character development we have come to expect from “literary” fiction. The result is a super-fun and thoughtful book that is turbocharged with elements that could have easily come off as a pastiche in less skilled hands. The book demonstrates that Harkaway knows exactly why pulp is such a powerful mode to work in, and Joe Spork and Edie Banister are instantly likeable as characters. Their world, which at first seems somewhat drab and boring like our own, soon fills up with adventure and intrigue, as the plot ramps up like a runaway train.

Indeed, as the situation on the city streets starts to warm up and Joe starts to take hold of his gangster legacy, the propulsive, evocative language used by Harkaway starts to resemble that found in books by two of my favourite authors, China Mieville (Perdido Street Station) and Brian Francis Slattery (Spaceman Blues). Harkaway’s got an incredible ear for dialogue, and I found myself really enjoying the Londoner thieves’ argot. It’s also fun to see the heroes of Britain’s golden gangster age come back into the world, which has grown soft on white-collar crime and computers. Harkaway’s evocation of the London Underground through flashbacks to Mathew’s past, and glimpses at the much-diminished Tosher’s Beat and Night Market of the present era are wonderful to read.

I also really enjoyed the inversion of English spy novel stereotypes in the form of Commander Edie Banister, both in her aged present, and in her wild youth. The flashbacks to her past adventures have an almost gender-swapped James Bond quality to them, both in the actions she takes against a megalomaniac bent on world domination and the frequent female companionship Edie finds along the way. Apparently there’s a short story out there with more Edie adventures, and I’d like to read it as soon as I can. In the present, Edie’s knowledge of tradecraft is still very vital, even though her body is not, and the way she deals with crises is very entertaining.

You can really feel the quintessential Englishness Harkaway is playing with here, as he slams together the genre of spy adventure with London crime. I did find myself wishing I knew more about John Ruskin, though, as his theories about design form the ideology of the main antagonists of the book, the Order of John the Maker aka Ruskinites. A little bit more explanation of his worldview of perfectly-designed machines would have made the first half of the book much easier to grasp. Also, while Edie and her erstwhile lover/genius superscientist Frankie Fossoyer are well-fleshed out female characters, I found the figure of Polly, a childhood friend of Joe-turned-femme fatale paralegal, to be more of a collection of cool/sexy cliches than a real person. Still, if you’re a fan of thoughtful stories with a decidedly pulpy bent, this is a great book.

Late to the Party: The Ladies of Grace Adieu, by Susanna Clarke

2013-11-16 15.23.36

The Ladies of Grace Adieu is a short story collection released shortly after Susanna Clarke’s stellar first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. The nine stories collected here mostly take place in and around the world Clarke laid out in Norrell, a Regency-era England in which magic and faerie are very real (and dangerous) concepts, well-known if not outright feared by most people. Strange and Norrell are the two great magicians of their age, protecting Britain from Napoleon’s Grande Armée with ingenious spellcraft while feuding with each other in various journals and newspaper op-eds.

As such, Clarke’s language and dramatic situations are very much in keeping with those of Jane Austen and other authors of that era in English literature, although the extra fun part of Norrell and a few of the later stories in Grace Adieu is the fact that they’re annotated with footnotes provided by a scholar who lives outside of the main action. The collection also has an introduction from a professor of “Sidhe Studies” from the University of Aberdeen, who comments on the stories with scholarly precision. As many of the books I’ve raved about on this site will attest (S., Infinite Jest, Dune), I’m a big fan of this sort of metatextual technique. Mainly, though, this collection really made me want to read the full novel again. There’s apparently going to be a BBC miniseries in the near future, so I’ll have to read it before then.

Strangely enough, the cover copy for the collection fails to mention what I think is one of the biggest selling features, the fact that it contains art for each story by Charles Vess. Most people will know him best for his working with Neil Gaiman on Stardust (which has a tie-in story in this volume, “The Duke of Wellington Misplaces His Horse”), but I liked his work best on Spider-Man: Spirits of the Earth, an original graphic novel from the early Nineties. The art pieces he provides are very beautiful, and Vess’ ethereal and precise linework is an excellent complement to Clarke’s magical, elliptical tale-spinning. My favourite pieces of his are the “great Stagge” in the Rumplestiltskin pastiche “On Lickerish Hill” and the frontispieces for “The Ladies of Grace Adieu” and “Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower”.

The titular story starts off Grace Adieu, and provides a direct link to events hinted at in the novel. At the heart of the story is a conflict between the analytical, scientific magic practiced by Strange and Norrell, and the more primal and earth-bound version, tied to the faerie realm, used by country ladies. Three well-to-do women of Gloucestershire take it upon themselves to settle some scores using these techniques, while Jonathan Strange can only look on in awe. I enjoyed the male-female binary presented in this story, which is good because the rest of the book is seemingly all about that very concept. This is a nice counterpoint to the male-centric magic found in the novel, and I especially liked how all the women in these stories, while very powerful, still acted in ways someone from the Regency era would understand.

The first four stories in the book were basically all right, but it wasn’t until the fifth story, an epistolary called “Mr Simonelli or the Fairy Widower”, that I really started to take notice. I think the thing that drew me most to this one and some of the ones that came after, “Tom Brightwind or How the Fairy Bridge Was Built at Thoresby” and “John Uskglass and the Cumbrian Charcoal Burner” is the way Clarke shows the differences between fairies and humans through their wildly different actions and beliefs. In Clarke’s world, high-ranking fairy princes and princesses are gorgeous, haughty creatures who play around in the world of men basically because they think we’re hilarious, while their lowborn servants are misshapen monsters like pookas and brownies. The effect is very reminiscent of the way the highborn gentry in Austen often carry themselves in opposition to their lessers, as they too are uninterested in day-to-day concerns due to their immense wealth and power. I think Clarke is stealthily making a powerful statement about class with the faerie menagerie she has on display, and again this makes me want to go back to the novel to confirm.

Overall, I would recommend The Ladies of Grace Adieu to people who enjoy Regency culture and fairy tales, but with the caveat that I think it only works in concert with the novel. I feel like Neil Gaiman fans would also like the book, as would fans of Willingham and Buckingham’s fantastic Fables comics.

The Resolution Project: The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (1963)

Musical Accompaniment: The Decemberists – “The Bagman’s Gambit”

The Resolution Project: For my New Year’s resolution in 2011, I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through the list that year, so I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through to try and eventually finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I read before starting two years ago. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.

The Spy Who Came in From the Cold cover

 

“Leamas watched him take a cigarette from the box on the table, and light it. He noticed two things: that Peters was left-handed, and that once again he had put the cigarette in his mouth with the makers’ name away from him, so that it burnt first. It was a gesture that Leamas liked: it indicated that Peters, like himself, had been on the run.”

The Elevator Pitch: Alec Leamas is coming off of a disastrous operation in Berlin, just as the Iron Curtain is about to seal off half the city’s inhabitants. The master of Berlin Station, Leamas is an intelligence agent for the British Government who sees his latest operation against the Soviets go up in flames, as his best agent is gunned down at the checkpoint between the two worlds. Now, with nothing left for him, Leamas is given a chance for revenge by Control: pose as an agent at the end of his rope who’s looking to defect, get close to the East German intelligence officer who called for the death of his agent, and take him out.

What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: I didn’t really know much about le Carre going in to this book. I knew that he was basically the go-to guy for realistic Cold War stories, and that a lot of his books were turned into movies. I saw Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy in the theatre and really enjoyed it, so I was really looking forward to digging into this book when I got around to it. I was not disappointed.

Thoughts: Hello again. It’s been quite a while since I’ve written one of these posts, almost a year! And now I am remembering why they’re so difficult.

“Great” is a word that is often thrown around these parts, especially when I’m working my way through the Time list. Sometimes it’s great as in “big and terrible”, like A Dance to the Music of Time, or An American Tragedy, which are great in the same way that the Great Chicago Fire was great.

Other times you get an amazing little book like this one, the first I’ve ever read by le Carre, but by no means the last. I read this book in two sittings, devouring it like popcorn. Le Carre is so good at characterization, at dialogue, at plotting, that they seem almost effortless in his hands. He is able to make the spy vs. spy atmosphere of the Cold War at once completely bewildering and also completely understandable.

Spy takes us behind the scenes of the intricate chess match that was the intelligence world at this time. It’s a little off-putting at first, as codenames, German locations and military slang fly past the reader’s head like gunfire, but once you settle into the tense little world he’s put forth, it’s incredibly addictive. What’s more, the story is incredibly exciting despite the fact that most of it is just scenes where two men talk to each other: Leamas is cut loose from his service and taken in by various Soviet agents, all of whom debrief him as he moves up their ranks. The tension is palpable in these scenes, as we’re not entirely sure what parts of Leamas’ story are fact or fiction ourselves, and we’re just as interested in the way he spins his yarn as his new Soviet contacts. There is a courtroom scene near the end of the book where I was actually holding my breath a little bit, as the high wire act le Carre has put into place threatens to fall apart at any moment.

I really want to see the film version of this book now. And wouldn’t you know it, Criterion’s putting it out on Blu-ray any day now. I love it when a plan comes together.

My copy is the 50th Anniversary edition, with a great cover treatment by artist Matt Taylor and designers Gregg Kulick and Paul Buckley. I really like the shiny ink used for the bloodspatter, the title and the author’s name, and I’m definitely going to be picking up more of this reissued series because they’re so damn pretty (and because I liked this one so much). I did think it was a little weird that this book was marketed as “A George Smiley” novel, though. Smiley’s the main character of Tinker, Tailor, and makes a few little appearances here as a behind the scenes player, but I wouldn’t call this a “George Smiley” novel by any means. I get trying to link products together, sure, but this is the book that made le Carre explode on the scene, I don’t really think it needs much more help, does it?

“A man who lives apart, not to others but alone, is exposed to obvious psychological dangers. In itself, the practice of deception is not particularly exacting; it is a matter of experience, of professional expertise, it is a facility most of us can acquire. But while a confidence trickster, a play-actor, or a gambler can return from his performance to the ranks of his admirers, the secret agent enjoys no such relief.”

Similar books on the Time 100 list: I’m tempted to go the obvious route and say Christopher Isherwood’s The Berlin Stories as it does kind of hit some of the same manic, paranoid notes, if only thirty years prior to the events of Spy. I also feel like people who enjoyed The Heart of the Matter would like this one too. And, oddly enough, Snow Crash, which also drops you head-first into a strange milieu, then gradually fills in the background detail while also being a fun narrative.

Total pages read from the list since January 1st 2011: 16755 pp.

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 59/113, or 52% complete.

 

Late to the Party: Boxer, Beetle, by Ned Beauman

Boxer Beetle cover

When Kevin “Fishy” Broom, a collector of Nazi memorabilia, stumbles upon a secret communique from Adolf Hitler to an English aristocrat named Erskine, he uncovers a mystery that has lain dormant in England for seventy years, involving home-grown fascism, rogue entomology, avant-garde piano composition, a century-spanning eugenics project, steam-powered architecture and a young Jewish boxer named Seth Roach.

While I didn’t like this book as much as I liked the author’s followup, The Teleportation Accident, it is only lesser in my estimation by a very small margin, probably because it’s so short and I wanted more. It recalls my buddy Pynchon, again, this time in a way that serves to counteract something that always bothers me in book marketing, even though I’m occasionally guilty of it myself.

You know when you read the cover copy for a book, or a blurb provided by someone who seems important, and it promises you multiples that never end up appearing in the actual text? This could be something to the effect of “in this book, you’ll find time-travelling dinosaurs, nanomachinetic amputees and symphony orchestras,” and then you find a singular time-travelling dinosaur, one amputee powered by nanomachines, and just the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra, no other city’s. This book doesn’t do that, and I was extremely happy about it.

Erskine, the eugenics-theorising, gay-impulse denying, aristocratic entomologist whose prolonged misery throughout this book gave me so much joy, is not the only character in the novel who thinks about how to put eugenics into practice (shades of Eutopia, here), engages in gay sex, is a landed aristocrat or practices entomological research. The genius of both of Beauman’s books, the thing that reminds me of Pynchon this time around, is that we are invited into each of these subcultures and given multiple characters to compare and contrast in each. Erskine’s a member of an entomological society, for example, which battles other societies and has infighting between its own members. The world is fleshed out quickly but strongly with many different people who share the same interests, compulsions and traits, and characters are not just a collection of weird quirks that can be referred to by the marketing department. I loved that.

I also really enjoyed the character of Seth Roach. Again, on the surface, he could just be a collection of character traits: he’s a young boxer, he’s gay (or at least bisexual, maybe) in a time where this could be really dangerous, he’s got nine toes, he’s from the East End of London, etc. But, he’s also much more than that. He’s interested in leaving the gritty streets he lords over due to his relative celebrity and his strong physique. He tries to run away in New York City, as he strives to find something new, something he doesn’t even understand yet. He falls in with various groups throughout the book, but is never defined by any of them.

The book provides a rich tapestry of grotesque 1930s archetypes, and dares to plumb deeper than most would. There’s lots of fun tangents to be taken on, I especially enjoyed hearing about the pissing matches between various “universal languages” in development at the turn of the last century, and the history of Erskine’s crazy ancestral manor, which is powered by really strange machinery. The various strains of early-Thirties fascism all get the piss taken out of them to fun effect. If I had one complaint, it’s that the present-day stuff seems a little underdone next to the pre-War shenanigans, but even then that’s only minor compared to the enjoyment I got out of Boxer, Beetle.

Late to the Party: Daniel O’Thunder by Ian Weir

“Spectacle, dear boy. Never mind the mirror held to nature. If they want nature they’ll look at a tree. Bangs and whizzes — startling effects — characters who shriek and stab and get on with it. That’s what they want, and so naturally that’s what we give them.” (p. 72)

daniel o thunder cover

It’s probably a cliche at this point to point to a novel preoccupied with physical violence and call it “muscularly” written. I’m pretty sure if I looked, I’d definitely find that distinction given to this book by other reviewers, not that they’d be wrong of course. Daniel O’Thunder is indeed a muscular read, and, more than that, it is possessed of a pugnacious predisposition towards me liking it. If I had to narrow down my favourite genre of literary fiction, I’d probably have to go with historical narratives, and this is an excellent one indeed.

The eponymous Mr. Thunder is a former illegal prize-fighter who by 1851 has become a preacher in London’s slums. When humanity’s most fiendish, ageless foe begins to stalk the city streets and prey upon unfortunates, Thunder comes out of retirement and challenges the Devil himself to a boxing match. He gathers in his wake a cast of characters that includes a teenage prostitute whose knowledge of swearing is a delight to all that come in contact with her, a charming yet disturbed young preacher-turned-actor, a boxing promoter who knew Thunder long ago, and a newspaperman who continually reminds the reader what his editors would like to prune out of his narrative.

So yeah, as noted above, I really enjoyed this book. In fact, so much did I enjoy reading it that I actually finished the whole thing in about two sittings today. There’s just so many things Weir does right here. He’s got multiple narrators, all of whom have interesting points of view and character arcs. He’s got an amazing vocabulary being put on display here; there must have been about forty or so synonyms for the word “punch”, and I essentially devoured them all. It recalls the language of Deadwood, vulgarity mixed with poetry and with a sense of English jingoism for their true national sport of standing in front of someone and punching them until they don’t get up. It made me recall some of my favourite books of all time, Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, with its similar attitude towards telling a historical story in a way that does not recall the worst of actual period writing.

The author is perhaps a bit too fond of a few turns of phrase, repeated use of “the coin of the realm” being the worst offender, but I can’t really blame the guy for getting caught up in language as deep and satisfying as this. Definitely check this one out.

The Resolution Project Season Two: Never Let Me Go (2005)

Video Accompaniment: Linda Ronstadt, “What’ll I Do?”

The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.

Never Let Me Go cover

“I’m not saying we necessarily went around the whole time at that age worrying about the woods. I for one could go weeks hardly thinking about them, and there were even days when a defiant surge of courage would make me think ‘How could we believe rubbish like that?’ But then all it took would be one little thing — someone retelling one of those stories, a scary passage in a book, even just a chance remark reminding you of the woods — and that would mean another period of being under that shadow.” (p.51)

The Elevator Pitch: In the late 1990s, a woman named Kathy is a “carer”, a person whose job it is to drive all over England and help people out in convalescent homes. When she was young, Kath lived at a special school in the countryside called Hailsham, which I don’t want to tell you too much about right here. Suffice it to say, Kath and her young friends, who we meet over the course of her reminiscings, are very special children who were educated at Hailsham for a very interesting purpose… (Hint: bring a tissue while reading this one)

What I knew about this book, its subject and its author going in: While I was being coy about the big secret that surrounds this book up in the Pitch, I knew about it going in due to the fact that this book had a pretty well-regarded film adaptation two years ago. I think I’m going to try and check it out soon, potentially once I cheer up some. I’d heard of Kazuo Ishigiro before, with regards to The Remains of the Day, but I hadn’t read anything by him before this one.

Thoughts: Hi there. It’s been a while, now hasn’t it? As you will no doubt remember, being rabid fans of The Spoiler Show as you no doubt are, I’ve mentioned once or twice the fact that I’ve changed jobs. I’m not using this to excuse myself from my sacred duty of reading these books (so you don’t have to in many cases), but as a matter of fact I’ve been busier now than in the past. Doing a weekly podcast is potentially one of the factors in this. Sure, I’ve read a bunch of books since finishing The Kindly Ones back in summertime, but I haven’t really thought about the less entertaining ones on the Time 100 list. I’m trying to get back in the swing of things though.

Anyway, Never Let Me Go. This is a pretty excellent read, and one that I wish I hadn’t been spoiled on early on. Yes, I do realize the irony in that statement considering the blurb above this review, as well as the name of my podcast, etc. I do wish, though, that I could have been in on the ground floor seven years ago when this book came out. The real emotional power Ishigiro wields throughout this narrative comes from the amazing, frail, gormless, beautiful innocence of his protagonists. When I first started reading, the fact that Kath’s job allows her to traverse the countryside almost at will, without, say, gene-police or something out of Cloud Atlas hunting her clone ass down was kind of confusing. Why wouldn’t you try to escape the spectacularly shitty hand that “life” has dealt you? This is of course the plot of both The Island and the far superior Parts: The Clonus Horror, which are all basically the same story as this one.

Parts: The Clonus Horror poster

It dawned on me pretty quick though that the Hailsham School is basically one giant pot of classical and operant conditioning, with a dash of isolation. The quote above, about the woods, is a marvelous example of form and theme and plot all rolled into one deliciously depressing burrito. As much as you’d want to empathize with the kids in the book, on a certain level their upbringing is so alien to most that you just have to accept the fatalism and fear that they operate under at all times. I guess the basic premise of the book is sci-fi, but it’s pretty lo-fi and awful to have to care for and raise all of these poor children rather than using bacta tanks or something. It’s heartbreaking. Add to the fact that the Hailsham School has as its sole emphasis development of artistic creativity in its charges, and you basically had a one-way ticket to Sadnesstown for this reviewer.

I’d be interested to know just how Ishigiro researched this novel. The interactions he describes between the children at various stages in their upbringing felt incredibly real to me. The children were not little Cuckoos or anything like that, they got into the same little spats and crushes that I remember from that time. It’s absolutely marvelous, and makes me want to seek out The Remains of the Day.

“None of you will go to America, none of you will be film stars. And none of you will be working in supermarkets as I heard some of you planning the other day. Your lives are set out for you.” (p. 81)

Similar books on the Time 100 list: The cynical jerk half of me wants to recommend Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret for fans of Never Let Me Go because it’s kind of a funny comparison, but I do honestly feel that the voices of Margaret and Kath have the same ring of authenticity about them. Aspiring grad students could potentially base a thesis on the suffocating feel of the nightmare England present in both Never and The Golden Notebook?

Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 16530 pp. (2071 this year)

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 58/113, or 51% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: Money (1984) by Martin Amis. Maybe.

The Spoiler Show Episode 12 – Police and Thieves

This episode of the Spoiler Show, Marcus and I had started out with the intention of talking about the difference between British and American television, specifically police procedurals, but we ended up talking more about gun culture at home and abroad. Check it out here: http://spoilershow.podomatic.com/entry/2012-08-17T07_01_49-07_00

I think that there’s probably some really minor spoilers for the BBC’s SHERLOCK, the UK and American versions of LIFE ON MARS, and for Idris Elba’s badassedness on LUTHER, but that’s about it for spoilers.

The title of this episode, by the way, comes from a great Clash song. You should check it out.

Here’s a promo piece for Marcus’ SELL ME ON IT, BBC’s SHERLOCK!

And here’s the short film Marcus brings up early on, “Feminism and the Disposable Male”. Food for thought:

The Creative Commons attribution link for our theme song can be found here:

“Bonaparte – I Can’t Dance” (Noise Problems Selections) / CC BY-NC-SA 3.0

If you have any burning questions for The Spoiler Show, or want to suggest a topic, our email address is spoilershow@gmail.com.

The Spoiler Show is now available on itunes! So check us out there for fun and frivolity. If you want to use our Podomatic site, check it out here: http://www.podomatic.com/profile?public=1. You can plug our new rss feed into your readers, too, it’s right here: http://spoilershow.podomatic.com/rss2.xml

The Resolution Project Season Two: A Dance to the Music of Time Book Six – The Kindly Ones (1962)

The Resolution Project Season Two: For my New Year’s resolution last year (2011), I decided to try and read all one hundred of the novels picked by Time Magazine as the best since their inception in 1923 to the list’s publication in 2005. I got almost halfway through. I’ve decided to bull-headedly push on through and try and finish the challenge, continuing with the same caveat as before: I’ve exempted myself from reading books I’ve already read, leaving eighty-six or so left to go. Some spoilers may lie ahead, so be warned if you’re the type to be bothered by that. It’s not really worth getting that angry about though.

The Kindly Ones cover

“My mother – together with her sisters in their unmarried days – had always indulged a taste for investigation in the Unseen World, which even the threatened inconveniences of the Stonehurst ‘ghosts’ could not entirely quench. My father, not equally on terms with such hidden forces, was at the same time no less imbued with belief. In short, the ‘ghosts’ were an integral, an essential part of the house; indeed, its salient feature.” (p. 5)

The Elevator Pitch and What I knew going in: Second (sixth, actually) verse, same as the first. If you’ve been following along with my missives from the land of Widmerpool, Jenkins, et al., you’ll know what you’re getting into here. If not, Anthony Powell’s  A Dance to the Music of Time is a twelve-volume novel about various middle- and upper-class English people, with a time frame spanning from the 1920s all the way up to the beginning of the Second World War (so far). Nick Jenkins, a writer of … something, is ostensibly the main character, and each book chronicles his interactions with various sets of friends and acquaintances, usually with some overarching theme.

Thoughts: Where the last book, Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant, dealt a lot with the world of feuding musicians and composers, this volume had the feeling of clearing the decks somewhat before WWII kicks off. The Kindly Ones, aka. the Furies of Roman mythology, were cthonic vengeance goddesses, who would pursue oathbreakers and the like. A few characters reach the end of their mortal coil in this volume, but the relatively light-hearted world of the Dance does not allow for sinners to suffer too much. I have a feeling that as the war progresses, this’ll change a lot. There’s definitely a feeling of the old guard getting tossed out in favour of the new this time out.

It was interesting to see Jenkins kind of take some initiative this time out, but as far as I can tell it’s only to save his own skin; he spends most of the book trying to secure a commission in the Army, which I feel is probably his way of avoiding the draft and attempting to get posted somewhere less dangerous? I don’t feel a lot of patriotic fervour coming from Jenkins, so I’m assuming he doesn’t want to haul ass and fight the Hun face to face. I guess I’ll find out next book what position he finds for himself.

While reading this latest entry, I began to long for a chart, or a set of family trees, something like that, to keep straight the sheer volume of characters in the saga. I don’t really know why it took me so long to break down and admit I need help keeping everyone straight, but a chart in the style of the ones you find while reading Love and Rockets would be really handy.

Love and Rockets Issue 31 cover, by Jaime Hernandez

Love and Rockets Issue 31 cover, by Jaime Hernandez

Actually, working my way through the L+R I had available to me when I worked at a comic store is probably one of the closest experiences I’ve had to reading A Dance to the Music of Time, except for the fact that I liked it much better. Its scope is as far-reaching, if not more so, and the characters found within are sketched out much better. I guess if I go with this hypothesis, this makes Widmerpool the Penny Century of the Dance world? Wealthy London industrialist Sir Magnus Donners is obviously H.R. Costigan in this scenario, and… No. This way lies madness.

“‘Why should we wish to ruminate on your most secret orgies?’ said Dr. Trelawney. ‘What profit for us to muse on your nights in the lupanar, your diabolical couplings with the brides of debauch, more culpable than those phantasms of the incubi that rack the dreams of young girls, or the libidinous gymnastics of the goat-god whose ice-cold sperm fathers monsters on writhing witches in coven?'” (p.194)

I liked the introduction of Doc Trelawney, a self-styled hedge wizard and cult leader in the style of an Aleister Crawley. There’s always been a bit of flirting around with mysticism in these books, but it was kind of nice to see someone go balls-out in its pursuance this time. There was a big section I skimmed over, though, where Jenkins reads his and his Uncle Giles’ horoscopes and then is amazed by how much they coincide with his own self-image. Dude, they’re written in a vague, yet reassuring, way for that very reason.

Anyway, this marks the halfway point in my reading of the Dance saga, and so far my rating is meh? It is a pretty impressive project, and it’s pretty amazing how Powell’s writing style evolves over the course of the books, but remains similar enough to the others that it’s never too jarring. Over all, I can’t really recommend this book on its own, but wouldn’t exactly warn you off attempting to read the series if it sounds like something you’re into.

“Just as most of the world find it on the whole unusual that anyone should be professionally occupied with the arts, Moreland could never get used to the fact that most people – in this particular case, Templer – lead lives in which the arts play no part whatsoever.” (p.103)

Similar books on the Time 100 list: Well, the other five books, A Question of Upbringing, A Buyer’s Market, The Acceptance World (combined review of the first three here), At Lady Molly’s and Casanova’s Chinese Restaurant are pretty similar considering they’re all the same book. This volume reminded me a little bit of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, with a similar setting at the seaside for some of it, and similar attitude towards women in love.

Total pages read since January 1st 2011: 16964 pp. (2505 this year)

Total books on the Time 100 list read: 60/113, or 53% complete.

Next up on the Resolution Project: A House for Mr. Biswas, (1961) by V.S. Naipaul. Maybe even more for real this time.