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Fleck: a Verse Comedy by Alasdair Gray

A Comedy in Verse Derived from Goethe’s Tragedy of Faust. Two Ravens Press, 2008, 104 p.

Fleck cover

Gray is multi-talented; playwright, novelist, artist. A graduate of the Glasgow School of Art, he illustrates his own books (and those of others) in a distinctive style. His first novel, Lanark, instantly established him as one of the most important Scottish novelists of his or any generation. His left wing politics are not hard to discern and his enthusiasm for Scottish independence and Scottish culture has displeased some.

Fleck does what it says on the tin; reworks Faust in a modern idiom with the main character recast as a Scottish scientist, Fleck. Other characters include God, Nick and the journalists Pee and Cue. The book also includes a postscript by the author where he discusses the appearances of the devil in the Bible (there are only two,) Satan’s co-option by the established church to police sensuality, the evolution of the Faust story and its influence on Gray personally, and the drawbacks of Goethe’s version. Finally there are five Gray poems which deal with God. A packed 104 pages then.

Verse is a surprisingly good vehicle for Gray’s updated tale. (Or perhaps not surprising if you think of Shakespeare.) The rhythm of the iambic pentameter is a fine motor. And it throws up nicely judged juxtapositions, “Broadcasters think the public is a fool/ so sounding stupid is their golden rule.”

Very little that Gray has written is not worth reading. Fleck is no exception. Not just the play but the postscript and poems too.

Pedant’s corner: Labelling a year as Anus Domini looks like it may be a misprint but I wouldn’t put it past Gray to have used it deliberately. But oughtn’t tug-of-wars for supremacy be tugs-of-war? Bismark for Bismarck.

Jezebel by Irène Némirovsky

Vintage, 2010, 199 p. Translated from the French by Sandra Smith. © Éditions Albin Michel 1940. First published in English as The Modern Jezebel by Henry Holt and Company 1937.

Jezebel cover

I hadn’t intended reading a Némirovsky again for a while but the good lady picked this up in one of our local libraries – there are five within easy distance; one walkable (but not as walkable as Kirkcaldy Central was when we lived there) – so I took the opportunity to delve once more into her œuvre.

At the start of the book Gloria Eysenach is on trial for the murder of a young man whom she visited frequently in the weeks before the shooting. The trial is described along with Gloria’s inadequate efforts to explain her actions. Thereafter the novel tracks back to her earlier life and follows the train of events that led to her being in the dock.

For a while I felt that this wasn’t Némirovsky at her best; things seemed to drag, the set-up felt almost banal. However with the circumstances leading up to the death of Gloria’s daughter, Marie-Therèse, my interest was regained; though by that point the exact identity of the murder victim wasn’t too difficult to fathom.

Perhaps the most affecting sentence in the book is, “Life is sad when all is said and done, don’t you think? There are only moments of exhilaration, of passion…”

Jezebel ends up as a fine portrait of a selfish woman, too vain even to be aware – still less take care – of the interests of her own children. This is something of a theme for Némirovsky and she is perhaps better when she avoids it. Jezebel is still a fine novel though.

The Race by Nina Allan

NewCon Press, 2014, 251 p

The Race cover

This seems to be marketed as a novel but is in fact a set of four tenuously connected novellas the succeeding ones of which cast doubt – or light depending on your viewpoint – on the events of at least one of the previous ones. Three are first person narrations, the third (appropriately) is in third person.

The book starts with Jenna, whose title character narrates a tale of smartdogs – greyhounds upgraded (initially illegally) with some human DNA – and the handlers who can communicate with them telepathically via a chip inserted in the brain. The setting is the town of Sapphire, hard by an ecologically damaged area off Romney Marsh. The plot kicks off when Jenna’s brother Del’s daughter Luz Maree is kidnapped, ostensibly for money which Del hopes to procure by running his smartdog Limlasker in the season’s big dog race the Delawarr Triple, but in reality because she can interact with the dogs without an implant. In this segment Allan employs the phrase “going to the dogs” perfectly straight, but on its first appearance I initially read it as “in decline.”

Christy is set in a recognisable “real-life” Hastings but we are invited to believe the town of Sapphire which we met in Jenna is an invention of the eponymous narrator, who retreats into the stories of her imagined world – subsequently achieving publication with them – when her overbearing brother Derrick, a nasty piece of work, damages her life too many times. One of his girlfriends disappears, another called Linda enlists Christy’s help to leave Derrick for her former boyfriend Alex. Derrick reacts violently. The parallels between Christy’s life and Jenna’s are plain. Too much so. Having even a fictional writer write about stuff so obviously inspired by her own life stretches credulity too far. Fair enough in the general case (and then only if a writer’s sources are invisible to the ordinary reader) but here the artifice undermines the effect of Jenna as a story. One of the overlaps between these first two stories is a focus on gloves but this does not carry over into the final pair.

In the third person narration, Alex, again set in our universe, it seems Christy’s fears about what may have happened to Linda are unfounded as, years later, Alex tells her he saw Linda some time after the violent incident. (But the reader may think he was mistaken. The writing is sufficiently ambiguous to allow for either possibility.)

By contrast with the first and last in the book, both these middle two novellas are apparently set resolutely in the real world. Unfortunately the outcome of this is to dilute the effect of the other two stories. I know it is Allan’s intention to make us question the narration and the reality of the everyday – each novella has a scene where other worlds intrude on the milieu, parallel worlds are explicitly mentioned at times – but what it means is we cannot trust any of them. The connections we make slip away.

The last story, Maree, also has smartdogs, but they are off-stage (except for Maree remembering one called Limlasker.) This world has some familiar town names – Inverness, Faslane, Madrid – but also invented ones, Asterwych, Charlemagne, Lilyat and the countries of Crimond, Thalia, Farris and Espinol. Our narrator, one of those who can communicate with smartdogs without implants, is about to make the dangerous sea voyage from Crimond to Thalia to become part of a research project to help decipher the language of a strange set of signals from space. We discover Maree was taken from her parents when young. Her Dad was named Derek and he has a sister called … Christy. The set piece here is an encounter with Atlantic whales – not our familiar species, but strange creatures, aloof from and disdainful of humans. Like the dog race in Jenna, though, this apparent centrality is only background to the story. It is as if the SF in The Race isn’t SF. That’s fine, in fact I’m all for it – but don’t rub our noses in it.

Throughout all four sections of the “novel” information dumping, although necessary, is a bit intrusive and the foreshadowing verges on heavy-handed.

Despite all of the book, bar Maree’s sea voyage, being set in Britain (or, in the case of Crimond, an altered Britain) various USianisms spatter the text – veterinarian, semester, jerking off, sneakers, airplane (though aeroplane is employed more often,) outside of, wedding band, a raise – which I’m afraid detract from the verisimilitude. At times there was some awkward syntax, “a vegetable I’ve never tasted before called aubergine.” “The house was on Emmanuel Road, a solid Victorian terrace with a weathered front door.” The terrace has a front door? And it may be Allan has a problem with endings. Except for Maree, they seemed rushed. I noticed a similar tendency in the same author’s Spin.

As a whole The Race is a hall of mirrors, of distorting mirrors. Nothing is reliable; even its unreliability. It might even be said to be less than the sum of its parts. Which is a pity as Allan can write well and empathically.

Pedant’s corner:-
A “span,” brooch spelled as broach, double English (in a primary school?) “I think that was he was counting on,” “We lived of frozen fish fingers…” “pretending they was invisible,” “that 1 now knew,” “Tim had has name down for Oxford,” “I decided I to Laton Road,” “Recounted the final days an old piano teacher dying in Aberystwyth,” “accustomed Maclane’s presence,” “Faslane shrinks and dwindles, … first a … smudge on the horizon, then disappearing altogether. We are still in the mouth of the loch, not in the open sea at all yet.” Faslane has “disappeared” but we’re still in the mouth of the loch, not the open sea? (Aside: the Faslane I know is near the mouth of the loch it stands on – it’s a small loch – and disappears very quickly; when the necessary turn on leaving the loch is performed.) “The pattern templates were …. carefully folded and each once sealed within a white paper packet.”

Interzone 252, May-Jun 2014

Interzone 252 cover

The Posset Pot by Neil Williamson1
Possibly the unexpected results of a Large Hadron Collider type experiment, bubbles from elsewhere or elsewhen are intersecting the Earth, excising parts of it when they disappear. The narrator navigates the ruins of Glasgow, looking for provisions, hoping for the chance to be reunited with the lover he lost to one of the bubbles years before. An unusual apocalypse this, made more so by the familiarity (to me) of its setting.

The Mortuaries by Katharine E K Duckett2
Another apocalypse, this one based on global warming. The remaining human population lives on a gloopy foodstuff named noot. The titular mortuaries are more like mausolea. A man called Brixton invented a process which could embalm bodies and keep them fresh. Viewpoint character Tem grows up not fully understanding the world around him until he visits the “bad” mortuary. The pieces of the story didn’t quite cohere. In this world of shortage would there still be enough resources for the upkeep of the mortuaries – not to mention cars and motorbikes for people to flee the doomed last coastal city?

Diving into the Wreck by Val Nolan3
A story about the discovery of the lost Apollo 11 lunar ascent module, Eagle, crashed somewhere on the Moon, and of the necessity for mystery. I wasn’t quite convinced by the (unnamed) narrator’s final decision but this is a fine tale of what it – sometimes – means to be human.

Two Truths and a Lie by Oliver Buckram4
This describes a doomed love affair – one of whose participants may be an alien – couched as a series of short paragraphs each followed by three propositions of which the story’s title and preamble invite us to believe only two are true.

A Brief Light by Claire Humphrey5
Ghosts are appearing in everyone’s houses. Ghosts which sometimes have the attributes of birds. This causes complications in the marriage of Lauren who is contemplating a lesbian affair with Jo. The ghosts interfere in both their lives.

Sleepers by Bonnie Jo Stufflebeam6
Strange white creatures with hooves have started to appear randomly. An insomniac woman whose father is in hospital seeks one out to see if it perhaps a version of him. While the present tense narration is perhaps justified by the ending it seemed to strike a false note in the second paragraph.

1 sheered for sheared and “cookie jar.” Cookie jar? Unlikely from a Glaswegian I’d have thought.
2 Written in USian
3 A wyne of hay may be a misprint for wayne. There was also the sentence, “Here so the long culmination of selenological time.” What????
4 I had to look up “s’mores.” It’s some sort of USian confection.
5 Ditto “toonie” – a Canadian two-dollar coin.
6 Written in USian

Blood of the Martyrs by Naomi Mitchison

Constable & Co Ltd, 1939 500 p.

Naomi Mitchison has an extensive bibliography. Some of her output dealt with Scottish themes, others with sexuality. Blood of the Martyrs is a historical novel set in Imperial Rome during the reign of Nero.

Blood of the Martyrs cover

The first eight chapters relate the life histories of the members of the small Christian group whose story the book tells. Thereafter most of the novel takes place in the household of Senator Flavius Crispus, where Beric, a Briton, son of King Caradoc (Caratacus,) is treated as one of the family. He is not a Roman citizen, however, and is effectively being trained up for a return to Britain to help maintain Roman rule. His infatuation with Crispus’s daughter Flavia spitefully spurned by that spoilt young woman, he falls in with the Christians among the house’s slaves. As we are in the run-up to the Great Fire, things are obviously not going to turn out especially well. In passing we meet Paul of Tarsus, imprisoned in the Mamertine jail, and Luke, designated here a provincial doctor. We also matter-of-factly encounter the harshness of life in those days for all but the pampered rich – and even they were not secure from imperial displeasure.

The discussions among Crispus’s Senator friends – the Empire was built on money and the need to avoid Carthage making it, but that was also the Republic’s ruination – their political intrigue, the imperial dynamic which insists on enemies, the attraction of early Christianity for the downtrodden, are all well-handled. The book flows easily, the discussions of doctrine are not abstruse – a rich man couldn’t stay so as a Christian; if he lived like one as he wouldn’t want to keep his wealth – and at one point a character observes that Paul’s epistolic suggestions to a particular Church over a particular problem will one day be taken as a general rule. (each Church here is described as having its own autonomy and is run by a deacon, male or female according to who is most respected,) another fears that the rich and powerful might try to co-opt the Churches.

The novel is very easy to read and appears to be well researched. There are however several mentions of fireworks – generally considered to be a later Chinese invention. Others for pedant’s corner: there was an “Aren’t I?” – I doubt Romans spoke so ungrammatically – a “sunk,” “less” rights, by and bye (my dictionary has that without the e,) smoothe (ditto: says it’s rare) and “you’d have woke up that morning.” Interestingly, Mitchison deploys the word ruthful and the phrase “you usen’t to be interested in such things.”

Rites of Passage by Eric Brown

Infinity Plus Books, 2014, 188 p.

Rites of Passage cover

This is a collection of four of Brown’s novella length works three of which have appeared previously.

Bartholomew Burns and the Brain Invaders is a steampunk story featuring Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, our eponymous hero Burns, mudlark Tommy Newton and a scene at the Great Exhibition. In it we have no less than three sets of aliens, one of which is about to invade Earth by taking over the brains of people in power. Put so baldly it seems daft, and in many ways it is, but it is effective as light entertainment. As Brown says in his introduction to the collection the background here is not as compelling as it might be but he has created scope for more adventures from Burns in the future where that deficiency, if it is one, can be remedied.

Guardians of the Phoenix was later expanded by Brown into a novel. This original version became roughly the third quarter of the novel and, to my mind, the story works better at this shorter length, being more tightly focused.

Sunworld is set on a constructed space habitat where the inhabitants have long forgotten their origin. Yarrek Merwell dreams of being an architect but his extremely religious parents force him into joining the Inquisition. His encounter with the Church’s head leads to revelations that overturn his ideas of himself and his place in the world. Yet again in a Brown story religion looms large.

The story original to this collection is Beneath the Ancient Sun but its setting – an Earth dried up, with little fresh water – could be that of Guardians of the Phoenix only many centuries further on. A handful of humans struggles to survive, eking out their meagre reserves of water and telling stories to inspire the youngsters. For his Initiation rite Par chooses to emulate the legendary journey of Old Old Old Marla to the high mountain peaks. His girlfriend Nohma and her former lover Kenda accompany him. This story and Guardians of the Phoenix are the most satisfactory of the four novellas here. The other two seem more sketchy, as if they required greater length to be fully effective. Brown has left plenty scope for that, though, if he decides to return to the scenarios.

The Professor of Truth by James Robertson

Hamish Hamilton, 2013, 259 p.

 The Professor of Truth cover

James Robertson has published a series of novels dealing with Scottish themes, The Fanatic conjoins a present day tale with one set in Covenanting times, the testament of Gideon Mack has a modern day Kirk Minister meet the devil, Joseph Knight examines the (in danger of being forgotten) colonial and slave-owning legacy, while And the Land Lay Still deals with the rise of the Scottish independence movement in the late twentieth century. Scottish themes also abound in Robertson’s short fiction, of which I have read these and these.

The Professor of Truth marks a slight digression. While not dealing explicitly with Scottish subject matter – though its narrator is an Englishman living in Scotland – it takes an oblique look at an incident from recent Scottish history.

Alan Tealing is a lecturer in English literature in a university “of no great age located in a part of Scotland that positively groans under the accumulation of history.” Many years before the events of the novel his wife and daughter were killed when, while over the Scottish Borders, a bomb exploded in the aeroplane in which they were travelling to her parental home in the US. During the course of the trial of the men accused of the act, held in a foreign country, Tealing, despite wishing the reverse, becomes convinced of their innocence. His life since has been dominated by his search for the truth of what happened. This brings him into conflict with not only the authorities, but also the families of other bereaved, of his dead wife, and even his own mother, father and sister.

The inspiration for this scenario is not hard to discern but Robertson is at pains to avoid specifics. The place for the supposed “ingestion” of the bomb onto the aircraft is only ever referred to as “the island,” the town the destroyed plane descended on is never named, likewise the country the accused came from. (The incident also occurs around Thanksgiving rather than Christmas and the names of the accused are amended.)

The trigger for Robertson’s story is the appearance at Tealing’s house, one snowy day, of “Ted Nilsen,” a dying man attached to one of the US agencies which dealt with the aftermath of the bombing. Their discussions of the “narrative” of the atrocity, a narrative which evolved over time from a revenge attack by a terrorist cell in Germany funded by a Middle Eastern country which itself had had a plane downed (in an error of confusion) by US action even earlier, to a newer, less important to avoid annoying, Nearer Eastern country, are well laid out.

Tealing’s early life, his meeting with his wife, his learning of the tragedy, his trip to the Borders to try to find out if his wife and child are still alive, his subsequent disillusionment with the trial and lack of engagement with the world – barely ameliorated by a sporadic relationship with a colleague – are described in alternate chapters to his discussions with Nilsen. In his academic life, Tealing has a sense of being fraudulent, as, while he can discourse at length about them, he remembers almost nothing of all the books he has read. This fear of being found out in one’s inadequacies is a very Scottish trait, however. For Tealing, “Too many people write books. Far, far too many people write novels.” In his search for truth he consults a lawyer who tells him a courtroom is not a search for truth, it’s a venue for a fight between two sides. Justice may be done, truth may come out, but that isn’t the point.

All this is superb, but when “Nilsen” leaves the house, the book takes a less cerebral turn. Tealing travels to Australia, in bush fire season, to try to talk with the witness who was essential to the conviction (and who was subsequently well rewarded and given a new identity for his efforts.)

Aside. The details of the fluctuating “narrative” and the payment to the witness will be no shock to those who took a close interest in the real-life model for the bombing.

In Australia Tealing first encounters the witness’s Vietnamese wife – who has a tragic back-history of her own but agrees (perhaps a touch too willingly for suspension of disbelief) to facilitate the necessary meeting. The morphing of the story into one where a bush fire becomes an immediate threat was odd – though it gives Tealing the opportunity he had craved to engage with the witness. These bush fire scenes were reminiscent of something else I’ve read – almost Ballardian in tone.

Tealing and the witness (who now goes under the name of Parr) are never on the same level. Finding out Tealing’s occupation Parr says to him books are, “Like noise on paper,” and their discussion make Tealing remember one of “Nilsen”’s questions to him, “Were you even alive before the bomb went off?” which is an epiphany of sorts.

Pedant’s corner. In a book written by a Scot and published in the UK why is “medieval” spelt the US way?

Was by Geoff Ryman

Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks, 2005, 456p. First published 1992.

Was cover

As I posted in my review of the same author’s Air (or Have Not Have) I didn’t much take to Ryman’s earlier (short) works. I remember Colin Greenland at an Eastercon pointing this book out and saying, “You’ll have read this.” I shook my head and said I had a blind spot where Ryman was concerned. He seemed taken aback. When I saw this recently in a second–hand bookshop I thought I might give it a whirl.

Following her mother’s death a young girl called Dorothy, along with her dog, goes to live with her Aunty Em in Kansas. Any similarity to a well-known film (and slightly lesser known book) is entirely intended. Was is suffused with references to them. But this is no mere retread. Ryman takes the opportunity to illuminate life in late nineteenth century Kansas and so contrast his realistic approach to the smoothed out film version.

Dorothy Gael’s life in her new home is harsh – and unremitting. She does not get transported by a tornado to a more colourful world. Moreover, there are enough wicked witches in our own to suffice for anyone – and not only witches. Dorothy’s lack of understanding of her new environment only exacerbates her estrangement. The main focus of the book is on Dorothy’s experiences but there are chapters setting out Judy Garland’s life as viewed by herself as a child, by her make-up artist on The Wizard of Oz and by her mother after her success, with quotes at chapter heads from various sources commenting on the making of the film, the book on which it was based or the history of Kansas. Topping and tailing it all is the tale of a 1980s (HIV positive) actor trying to find traces of Dorothy Gael in historical documents.

Ryman’s imagining of Dorothy’s story has her surviving into the 1950s where, as a troublesome inmate of a home, she is befriended by a young man who goes on to a successful career in counselling (and one of whose later clients is the actor.) Dorothy tells him, “People are the only thing that can make you feel lonely,” and that Was is “a place you can step in and out of. It’s always there.”

Yet Fantasy comes to the book late. For the most part the tone is resolutely realistic and until very near the end any intrusion of the strange can be taken as imagination or illusion.

In what is perhaps a touch of overkill Ryman has The Wonderful Wizard of Oz’s author, L Frank Baum, encounter Dorothy while employed as a supply (Ryman uses the term substitute) teacher – but it does precipitate a further deterioration of Dorothy’s young life. After this, “Dorothy needed magic….. She began to have another fantasy… walking backwards through the years… back home… away from Is into the land of Was.”

As a re-examination of, a commentary on, the mythology of Oz, this is a fine work. It’s also a damn good read.

Ryman’s afterword, where he discourses on the relative utilities of realism and fantasy, of the necessary distinction between history and fantasy, is also worth a look.

Pedant’s corner. Apart from the USian in which the whole book was produced, it was page 246 before I came across an irritant – laying instead of lying, which occurred once more. Unusually, I didn’t spot any typos. This may be because the book is a reprint.

The Book of Souls by James Oswald

Penguin, 2013, 441 p including a short story, The Final Reel, which is rather abrupt.

The Book of Souls cover

This is the second of Oswald’s Inspector MacLean novels which he first electronically self-published before gaining a book contract at Penguin.

In a disturbing echo of the “Christmas Killer” murders whose perpetrator Inspector Tony McLean was instrumental in catching several years before, a succession of women is being found naked, with their throats cut, staked out under bridges over running water. A local journalist with a new book on the previous killings is suggesting the police got the wrong man, McLean’s superior Inspector Duguid keeps taking officers away from his investigation and McLean himself is forced to endure counselling. In addition to the murders McLean has a series of mysterious fires destroying old industrial premises around Edinburgh on his caseload.

The book is certainly readable if with some workmanlike prose at times – but then I’m not overly familiar with the modern crime novel so this may be what’s expected. I also felt that Oswald over-eggs the pudding a bit with the identity of the last potential murder victim.

As with Oswald’s first McLean book, Natural Causes, there is a tinge of the supernatural to the proceedings. The Liber animorum, the Book of Souls of the title, is said to weigh souls – and take over those found wanting. (My hang-up I know, but as an explanation for human depravity I have always found the supernatural a total cop-out.)

Pedant’s corner:-
One count of “sunk” for “sank”. “Ploiped” appears to be a coinage of Oswald’s but may only be a typo for “plopped.” “A half a dozen” has one “a” too many. “Happy Christmas.” (Where I’m from the greeting is “Merry Christmas.”) A judge bangs a gavel – not in a British court I’m afraid.

The Causal Angel by Hannu Rajaniemi

Gollancz, 2014, 292 p.

 The Causal Angel cover

The third in Rajaniemi’s Jean Le Flambeur trilogy – see my reviews of The Quantum Thief and The Fractal PrinceThe Causal Angel also features the characters Mieli and Matjek Chen from the previous novels, the latter now as a young boy. Reversing their previous roles, here Jean is attempting to save Mieli, who is in the hands of the transhuman Zoku. The action ranges all over the Solar System – much of which has already been trashed or else is destroyed in the process. Any attempt at plot summary would be wasted.

While The Causal Angel shares a present tense narrative with the earlier books it felt too distancing here and the frequent shifts of viewpoint make the tale less intimate than, in particular, The Quantum Thief. Except in a few cases – most notably the necessity of Planck locks for life as we know it to exist – Rajaniemi still makes absolutely no concessions to the reader with regard to explanation. While quantum entanglement is more or less obvious and the overlapping of branes is easy enough to visualise, the concept of an ekpyrotic cannon does depend a little more on a knowledge of Physics.

Not a read for the faint-hearted or the technophobic.

Pedant’s irritants:-
The text mentions an aurora borealis near Saturn’s south pole, That would be an aurora australis, then; or just an aurora. The spelling of Iapetus warps back and forth to Iapetos.

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