Joseph Knight by James Robertson

Fourth Estate, 2004. 372p

Joseph Knight cover

Based on a legal case brought in the eighteenth century, celebrated at the time but soon forgotten, this novel pushes a fair number of Scottish buttons, with settings from Drumossie Moor, 1746, (Culloden) to the Perthshire of 1802, taking in Dundee, Edinburgh and the Scottish Enlightenment – complete with cameo appearances from Boswell and Johnson – before ending up in Wemyss, Fife, in 1803. It also ranges all the way to the Jamaican sugar plantations and back.

Though we don’t hear from or see him (except for two words of dialogue or in the pages of a notebook) until nearly halfway through, and then only incidentally till the last section, the character of Joseph Knight hangs over the book – almost like a ghost.

The tale is carried to fruition by Archibald Jamieson, who is engaged by Sir John Wedderburn, sometime Jacobite rebel and refugee from Culloden, later sugar planter and bogus doctor in Jamaica, long returned to Scotland a wealthy man and now owner of Ballindean Estate, to ascertain the whereabouts, or remaining earthly existence, of Joseph Knight, once Sir John’s personal possession (brought to Scotland as a marker of success) but who petitioned the Scottish courts in the 1770s to attain his freedom. Jamieson learns of the Jamaican episodes via a journal given to him by Sir John’s daughter but written by her long deceased uncle during his sojourn on the island. Despite at first finding no trace of him and assuming him dead, Jamieson nevertheless becomes fascinated by Knight.

The book is structured in four sections, two much shorter book-ending the longer middle pair: Wedderburn, where Sir John ruminates over his life from the windows of Ballindean with its fine views over the policies down to the River Tay; Darkness, mostly concerned with the life Wedderburn and his brothers led in Jamaica; Enlightenment, wherein the court case on which the book depends is led up to and described; and Knight, a somewhat melancholic coda.

The narrative is multi-stranded with various viewpoint characters in each section, all of whom are portrayed in their roundnesses. If anyone needs a demonstration of how to carry this off Joseph Knight is the perfect example.

There is a peculiarity. Robertson has his characters use the word “neger” to describe black slaves (and freemen.) Perhaps that is indeed how the n-word was pronounced in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries but it still seemed a trifle odd, as if he was somehow afraid to outrage modern day readers.

Dealing as it does with those novelistic biggies life and death, plus freedom, servitude and the peculiar institution of slavery – but not so much with sex – it’s not surprising that Joseph Knight garnered such praise; not to mention the Saltire Scottish Book of the Year Award. It does, however, lose focus a little in the two long sections. In particular the scenes involving Boswell were not entirely necessary.

The characterisation is superb, however; all the people portrayed, even minor characters, seem idiosyncratic living, breathing beings and Robertson’s ability to inhabit the minds of his centuries-gone agonists sympathetically is striking. The only exception to this is Knight himself, who remains a shadowy figure.

But even this is appropriate. It is his absence from the main lives depicted here, the void he left, that they circle around.

This is a fine book: perhaps not so good as Robertson’s first, The Fanatic, but certainly surpassing his later the testament of Gideon Mack.

The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction Books.

The Herald – formerly The Glasgow Herald – is, along with Edinburgh’s The Scotsman, one of the two Scottish newspapers of note. (Aberdeen’s Press and Journal and Dundee’s Courier could never compare; not least in circulation terms.)

I found the following list of The Herald’s 100 Best Scottish Fiction recommendations just under a year ago at a now defunct webpage where only thirty works were actually given; with a solicitation to readers for further suggestions. Perhaps the page has been removed. It provides some fuel for future reading, though.

Of the 30, I have read 19 (asterisked below – where I also include from the Herald’s webpage the comments which accompanied the nominations, complete with any typographical and other errors.) Where applicable I have also linked to my review on this blog of that particular novel. Those in bold also appear on the list of 100 best Scottish Books.

1 The Death of Men, Allan Massie, 2004*
Anne Marie Fox says: Compelling as suspense and profound as a philosophical exploration of political ideologies and terrorism, ‘post-Christian’ consumer society and family.
2 The White Bird Passes, Jessie Kesson, 1958*
Alistair Campbell, Elgin, concludes: Writing of the highest quality, pared to poetic essence. The unforgettable tale of Janie’s childhood in crowded backstreets richly peopled by characters who live on the margins.
3 The Well at the World’s End, Neil Gunn, 1951*
Janet Feenstra recommends Gunn’s most personal novel: The metaphor of light reflects Gunn’s quest for personal enlightenment. Its optimism has relevance for Scotland now more than ever.
4 The Bridge, Iain Banks, 1986*
Allen Henderson, on Facebook, says: I’m a big Banks fan and for me, The Bridge just pips the Wasp Factory.
5 Cold in the Earth, Aline Templeton, 2005
Julia MacDonald, on Facebook, says: a novel with a clear description of Scottish towns and folk.
6 Fergus Lamont, Robin Jenkins, 1979
Ian Wishart, Edinburgh made this choice.
7 The Antiquary , Sir Walter Scott, 1816
Bryson McNail, Glasgow, writes of the second Scott entry to our list: It has some of the finest descriptive writing ever – the scenes and vistas open before you. It also has a great story line.
8 Joseph Knight, James Robertson, 2004*
Megan Mackie says: It is both a great story and a powerful history lesson rolled into one…a narrative of family relationships, betrayal and social justice told within the context of Scotland’s involvement in the slave trade.
9 Body Politic, Paul Johnston, 1999
Elaine Wishart, Edinburgh, concludes: As well as a great crime novel it paints a very very believable picture of Edinburgh as a city run for tourists – brilliant satire and cracking characters. I read it in one sitting.
10 A Disaffection, James Kelman, 1989*
Mark Barbieri says: Any one of Kelman’s novels could make the top 100 but the story of frustrated school teacher Patrick Doyle is his finest. Sad, honest, funny, vital, incomparable and simply brilliant..
11 The Holy City, Meg Henderson, 1997
Diane Jardine, Glasgow, says: Captured my home town with unnerving accuracy and helped me appreciate its psychology and community just a little bit more.
12 Young Art and Old Hector, Neil M. Gunn, 1942
Myra Davidson, Livingston, concludes: Wonderful depiction of childhood and old age. A Glasgow child, I was evacuated to a croft on Arran and I am still grateful for the introduction to a way of life I would not otherwise have had.
13 Whisky Galore, Compton Mackenzie, 1947
Elizabeth Marshall says: A lovely book that deserves to be included.
14 The House with the Green Shutters, George Douglas Brown, 1901*
Joan Brennan: This has to be among the very top of the finest 100 Scottish novels
15 Consider the Lilies, Iain Crichton Smith, 1968*
Derek McMenamin nominates the writer’s best known novel, about the Highland clearances.
16 Gillespie, J. MacDougall Hay, 1914*
Alan Mackie, Kinghorn says: An epic tale. And just as dark, if not darker than Crime and Punishment as an insight into what it means to be human. Not the happiest book but in terms of style and sheer enjoyment it is right up there with the best for me.
17 The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner, James Hogg, 1824*
Kenneth Wright justifies his choice: Theology might not sound like a promising subject for fiction, but Hogg’s critique of the hardshell Calvinism that was Scotland’s religious orthodoxy c.1700 is compellingly expressed as ghost story, psychological thriller, earthy kailyaird comedy and drama of personal morality.
18 One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night, Christopher Brookmyre, 1999*
Vicky Gallagher says: I really enjoyed Christopher Brookmyre’s books, especially this one and A Tale Etched In Blood And Hard Pencil – very funny – very Glaswegian!
19 The Heart of Midlothian, Sir Walter Scott, 1818
Robert Miller is convinced it’s a forgotten masterpiece: This book has a real Scottish heroine and is very accurately based in a interesting time in Scottish history.
20 Greenvoe, George Mackay Brown, 1972*
Siobheann Saville says: Tragic, funny, poetic, descriptive – a book that has it all. Some of the passages read like poetry and have to be re-read several times. The wit and setting of ‘Local Hero’ and the family sagas of ‘Stars look down’ – a personal favourite I can read many times and still be surprised.
21 Sunset Song, Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1932*
The first – and best – part of the Scots Quair trilogy explores several key issues, such as Scottish identity and land use, war, and the human condition. All bound up in an accessible, moving human tale. An evergreen classic.
22 The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, Muriel Spark, 1961*
First published in the New Yorker magazine, the novel’s heroine was memorably brought to life by Maggie Smith, complete with the girls who comprised her “crème de la crème”. It’s a bitingly funny examination of love, relationships, and power.
23 Trainspotting, Irvine Welsh, 1993
The graphic portrayal of a group of junkies made a huge impact, helped by Danny Boyle’s film. Welsh added a sequel, Porno, and a prequel, Skagboys, is due out in 2012.
24 Kidnapped, Robert Louis Stevenson, 1886*
It may have been written as a “boys’ novel”, but the book’s basis in historical reality and its ability to reflect different political viewpoints elevates it to a far higher place, drawing praise from such figures as Henry James and Seamus Heaney.
25 The Thirty-Nine Steps, John Buchan, 1915*
The first of five novels to feature Richard Hannay initially appeared in serialised form in Blackwood’s Magazine. A rollicking good read ¬- if rendered slightly outdated by its kanguage and attitudes – it inspired British soldiers fighting in the WWI trenches, and the various film versions cemented its place in the literary canon.
26 Lanark, Alasdair Gray, 1981*
Gray’s first novel but also his crowning glory: a marvellous mixture of storytelling, illustration, and textual subversion which set the tone for his future work. The author cited Kafka as a major influence, but just about any interpretation of his words is possible…and that’s the fun.
27 Black and Blue, Ian Rankin, 1997
Not everyone will agree with this choice, but Rankin is the acknowledged king of Tartan Noir, and the eighth Inspector Rebus book won him the Crime Writers’ Association’s Macallan Gold Dagger.
28 The Princess and the Goblin, George MacDonald, 1872
This son of Aberdeenshire’s fantasy is regarded as having had a seminal influence on children’s literature, with such luminaries as Mark Twain and GK Chesterton paying homage. Film versions of the book have not been huge successes, but it appears in the 100 Classic Book Collection compiled for the Nintendo DS.
29 Clara, Janice Galloway, 2002
Galloway first came to prominence with The Trick is to Keep Breathing, but Clara, based on the life of the composer’s wife Clara Schumann and which won her the Saltire Book Award, is seen as her finest achievement.
30 The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, Tobias Smollett, 1771*
Born in Renton, West Dunbartonshire, Smollett trained as a surgeon at Glasgow University, but moved to London to find fame as a dramatist. A visit back to Scotland inspired his final novel, a hilarious satire on life and manners of the time. His fiction is thought to have influenced Dickens.

100 Best Scottish Books (Maybe)

I came across this list a week or so ago. There are some odd choices in it. The Woolf and Orwell are surely pushing it a bit to qualify as in any way Scottish. And The King James Bible? Yes he was primarily a Scottish King but the endeavour was undertaken for reasons to do with his English realm.

Those in bold, I have read. There’s a lot I haven’t. Time to pull my socks up.

(Edited to add:- Those with a *I have now read.
Edited again to add:- I have added even more than these to the “have now read” list.)

John Galt – Annals of the Parish* (1821) I’ve read The Member and The Radical. See my review here.
Aonghas Pàdraig Caimbeul – An Oidhche Mus Do Sheòl Sinn (2003) This is written in Gaelic and hence beyond my competence.
Kate Atkinson – Behind the Scenes at the Museum – (1995) I read this years ago.
Ian Rankin – Black and Blue* (1997) I’ve not read this Rankin but I have Knots and Crosses.
Laura Hird – Born Free* (1999)
Tom Nairn – The Break-Up of Britain: Crisis and Neo-Nationalism (1977) Non-fiction
Frederic Lindsay – Brond (1984)
Naomi Mitchison – The Bull Calves (1947) Not a Mitchison I’ve read but I’ll need to catch up with more of her work. (As of May 2016 on tbr pile.)
Anne Donovan – Buddha Da* (2003)
Matthew Fitt – But n Ben A-Go-Go (2000) Science Fiction in Scots! Brilliant stuff.
Patrick MacGill – Children of the Dead End (1914)
AJ Cronin -The Citadel (1937) Cronin was from Dumbarton. I’ll need to read him sometime.
Frank Kuppner – A Concussed History of Scotland (1990)
Robin Jenkins – The Cone-Gatherers* (1955)
Thomas De Quincey – Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Iain Crichton Smith – Consider the Lilies* (1968)
R. M. Ballantyne – The Coral Island (1858) I may have read this as a child but I cannot actually remember doing so.
Louise Welsh – The Cutting Room (2002) (tbr pile)
Robert Alan Jamieson – A Day at the Office (1991)
Archie Hind – The Dear Green Place* (1966)
James Kelman – A Disaffection (1989) I read years ago. Kelman is essential.
RD Laing – The Divided Self (1960) non-fiction
William McIlvanney – Docherty (1975) Again read years ago. Again McIlvanney is essential reading.
David Hume – An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding (1748) Philosophy. I haven’t read this.
Andrew Greig – Electric Brae (1997) A superb first novel. See my review here.
Tobias Smollett – The Expedition of Humphry Clinker* (1771) Smollet was from Renton, which is 2 miles from Dumbarton.
Violet Jacob – Flemington* (1911)
Agnes Owens – For the Love of Willie (1998) See my review here.
Ian Fleming – From Russia, With Love (1957) Fleming? Scottish? Only by extraction it seems.
Dorothy Dunnett – The Game of Kings (1961) (tbr pile)
Denise Mina – Garnethill (1998) (tbr pile)
James Frazer – The Golden Bough (1890)
Nancy Brysson Morrison – The Gowk Storm* (1933)
Bernard MacLaverty – Grace Notes (1997)
George Mackay Brown – Greenvoe* (1972)
Alistair MacLean – The Guns of Navarone (1957) I read this many years ago. Decent enough wartime thriller.
J.K. Rowling – Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (1997)
Joseph Conrad – Heart of Darkness (1902) Conrad was the favourite author of the original Jack Deighton (my grandfather.) I’ve read The Secret Agent and always mean to get round to more. But… Wasn’t Conrad Polish?
John Prebble – The Highland Clearances (1963) Non-fiction
Ali Smith – Hotel World (2001) See my review here.
Arthur Conan Doyle – The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902)
George Douglas Brown – The House with the Green Shutters (1901) A Scottish classic; see my review.
Willa Muir – Imagined Corners (1931) (tbr pile)
Luke Sutherland – Jelly Roll (1998)
Chaim Bermant – Jericho Sleep Alone (1964) is on the tbr pile.
James Robertson – Joseph Knight (2003) Robertson is another of those very good present day Scottish authors. My review of Joseph Knight.
Various – King James Bible: Authorised Version (1611) ???? See comments above.
Alasdair Gray – Lanark (1981) Absolutely superb stuff. More essential reading.
Ronald Frame – The Lantern Bearers (1999)
James Boswell – The Life of Samuel Johnson (1791)
Bella Bathurst – The Lighthouse Stevensons* (1999) Non-fiction. I bought this for the good lady and it’s another I keep meaning to read.
George MacDonald – Lilith (1895) The Scottish tradition is to write fantasy rather than SF. I’ll need to catch up with this.
John Burnside – Living Nowhere (2003)
Anne Fine – Madame Doubtfire (1987)
Alan Spence – The Magic Flute (1990) I’ve read his Way to Go.
Des Dillon – Me and Ma Gal* (1995)
Margaret Oliphant – Miss Marjoribanks (1866)
Alan Warner – Morvern Callar (1995) I think Warner’s most recent books The Worms can Carry me to Heaven and The Deadman’s Pedal are more successful.
George Friel – Mr Alfred, MA (1972) (tbr pile)
Neil Munro – The New Road (1914)
William Laughton Lorimer (trans.) – The New Testament in Scots (1983)
George Orwell – Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) I know it was written on Jura but Orwell? Scottish?
Alexander McArthur and H. Kingsley Long – No Mean City: A Story of the Glasgow Slums* (1935)
Alexander McCall Smith – The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency (1998)
Christopher Brookmyre – One Fine Day in the Middle of the Night 1999) Brookmyre is a fun read – if a little too liberal with the violence. But this isn’t even his best book. See my review here.
Catherine Carswell – Open the Door!* (1920)
Andrew O’Hagan – Our Fathers (1999) I have yet to warm to O’Hagan. My review of this book.
A.L. Kennedy – Paradise (2004) Kennedy’s more recent Day and The Blue Book impressed me more.
Muriel Spark – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961) My review is here.
James Hogg – The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner (1824) The quintessential Scots novel. The döppelganger tradition starts here.
Suhayl Saadi – Psychoraag (2004)
Nan Shepherd – The Quarry Wood* (1928)
Walter Scott – Rob Roy* (1818) Scott more or less invented the Scots historical novel but I can only remember reading Ivanhoe.
Thomas Carlyle – Sartor Resartus (1836) Anothe disgraceful omission on my part I fear.
Toni Davidson – Scar Culture (1999)
Margaret Elphinstone – The Sea Road (2000) I’ve read Elphinstone’s A Sparrow’s Flight and The Incomer; but not this. (tbr pile)
Jimmy Boyle – A Sense of Freedom (1977)
George Blake – The Shipbuilders (1935) (tbr pile)
Gordon Williams – The Siege of Trencher’s Farm (1969)
Neil M Gunn – The Silver Darlings* (1941) Of Gunn’s work I recently read The Well at the World’s End.
Ron Butlin – The Sound of My Voice (1987) I’ve not read his poetry but Butlin’s fiction is excellent. My review of The Sound of my Voice.
Robert Louis Stevenson – The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde* (1886) Following on the döppelganger tradition from Hogg. Again I can’t remember if I’ve read it or just watched adapatations on TV.
Jeff Torrington – Swing Hammer Swing! (1992)
Lewis Grassic Gibbon – Sunset Song (1932) A brilliant novel. Worth its status as a classic. See my thoughts here.
John Buchan – The Thirty-Nine Steps* (1915)
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse (1927) (tbr pile)
Irvine Welsh – Trainspotting (1993)
Janice Galloway – The Trick is to Keep Breathing (1989) I fear Galloway is an acquired taste. See here.
Jackie Kay – Trumpet (1998) I read this last year.
Christopher Rush – A Twelvemonth and a Day* (1985)
Michel Faber – Under the Skin (2000)
David Lindsay – A Voyage to Arcturus (1920) In the Scots tradition of the fantastical but has a weirdness all its own.
Iain Banks – The Wasp Factory (1984) The much lauded Banks debut. I’ve come to think A Song of Stone may outrank it.
Adam Smith – The Wealth of Nations (1776) The foundation stone of Economics.
Compton Mackenzie – Whisky Galore (1947) (tbr pile)
Jessie Kesson – The White Bird Passes (1958) To be reviewed within the week!
Kenneth Grahame – The Wind in the Willows (1908) I may have read this as a child but can’t honestly remember.
Alexander Trocchi – Young Adam* (1954)
James Kennaway – Tunes of Glory (1956) (tbr pile)
John Gibson Lockhart – Adam Blair (1822) (tbr pile)

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?

120 More Novels You Should Read, Apparently

The Guardian has added its readers’ picks to its original list of novels you must read.

Of the 100 novels given a puff from a contributor I’ve read 4½. 3½ of these were SF/fantasy. (The half is Doris Lessing. I read the first Canopus In Argus book and gave up. It was turgid stuff.)

I did rather better in the 20 more titles list. Three from here, all SF/fantasy.

I note that in the SF list the book that topped their best of the 20th century SF finally gets a look-in. I must add that I don’t rate it anywhere near a list of this sort.

And there’s still no Silverberg. I know I forgot about it last time but Dying Inside has got to be there surely?

Here’s the full 120. Bold I have read, those I’m intending to read are in italics.

Love (1)

Before She Met Me by Julian Barnes (1982)
The Bread of Those Early Years (Das Brot der frühen Jahre) by Heinrich Böll (1955)
La Regenta by Leopoldo Alas Clarin (1884-85)
Belle du Seigneur by Albert Cohen (1968)
David Copperfield by Charles Dickens (1849-50)
The Siege by Helen Dunmore (2001)
Ask the Dust by John Fante (1939)
Senseless by Paul Golding (2004)
A Pair of Blue Eyes by Thomas Hardy (1873)
In Love by Alfred Hayes (1953)
The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (1952)
What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt (2003)
The Cloud Sketcher by Richard Rayner (2000)
I Sent a Letter to My Love by Bernice Rubens (1975)
Fanny by Gaslight by Michael Sadleir (1940)
The Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu (early 11th century), translated by Royall Tyler
Zoo, or Letters Not About Love by Viktor Shklovsky (1923)
Gordon by Edith Templeton (1966)
Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton (1911)
The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder (1927)

Crime (0)

The Fashion in Shrouds by Margery Allingham (1938)
The Tiger in the Smoke by Margery Allingham (1952)
The Final Days by Alex Chance (2008)
Night and the City by Gerald Kersh (1938)
The Way Some People Die by Ross Macdonald (1951)
The Underground Man by Ross Macdonald (1971)
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (1986-87)
True Grit by Charles Portis (1968)
I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond (1990)

Family And Self (0)

Pather Panchali by Bibhutibhishan Banerji (1929)
Parents and Children by Ivy Compton-Burnett (1941)
Hopscotch by Julio Cortazar (1963)
Cards of Identity by Nigel Dennis (1955)
Death of an Ordinary Man by Glen Duncan (2004)
The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver (1998)
The British Museum Is Falling Down by David Lodge (1965)
The Country Girls by Edna O’Brien (1960)
The Fortnight in September by RC Sherriff (1931)
Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White (1961)
Soul Mountain by Gao Xingjian (1990)
The Daisy Chain by Charlotte Mary Yonge (1856)
L’Assommoir by Émile Zola (1877)

Comedy (0)

The Caravaners by Elizabeth von Arnim (1909)
The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin by David Nobbs (1975-78)
Some Experiences of an Irish RM by Somerville and Ross (1899)
Trooper to the Southern Cross by Angela Thirkell (1934)
Drowned Hopes by Donald Westlake (1990)

State Of The Nation (0)

Havoc In Its Third Year by Ronan Bennett (2004)
A Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe (1722)
And Quiet Flows the Don by Mikhail Sholokhov (1934)
The Sea and Poison by Shusaku Endo (1958)
The Football Factory by John King (1996)
The Octopus by Frank Norris (1901)
Joseph Knight by James Robertson (2003)
Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi (2003)
Downriver by Iain Sinclair (1991)
When Memory Dies by A Sivanandan (1997)
Fame Is the Spur by Howard Spring (1940)
Sostiene Pereira by Tabucchi (1994)

SF And Fantasy (3½)

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (1985)
Little, Big; or, The Fairies’ Parliament by John Crowley (1981)

Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson (1999-)
Lost Horizon by James Hilton (1933)
Island by Aldous Huxley (1962)
Canopus in Argos by Doris Lessing (1979-83)
The Boys From Brazil by Ira Levin (1976)
The Case of Charles Dexter Ward by HP Lovecraft (1941)
The Wave Theory of Angels by Alison Macleod (2005)
The Confidence Man by Herman Melville (1857)
Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce (1958)
Lord of Light by Roger Zelazny (1967)

War And Travel (0)

Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (2006)
Riceyman Steps by Arnold Bennett (1923)
A Good Place to Die by James Buchan (1999)
The March by EL Doctorow (2005)
Consul at Sunset by Gerald Hanley (1951)
Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson (2007)
The Middle Parts of Fortune by Frederick Manning (1929)
The Killer Angels by Michael Shaara (1974)
The Miracle Game by Josef Skvorecky (1972)

And 20 More:- (3)

Captain Corelli’s Mandolin by Louis de Bernières (1993)
Heart’s Journey in Winter by James Buchan (1995)
The White Guard by Mikhail Bulgakov (1955)
Aegypt by John Crowley (1989)
Chronicles of Thomas Covenant by Stephen Donaldson (1977-83)
Troubles by JG Farrell (1970)
Night Soldiers by Alan Furst (1988)
I, Claudius by Robert Graves (1934)
See You in Yasukuni by Gerald Hanley (1969)
The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V Higgins (1972)
Phantom Lady by William Irish (1942)
March Violets by Philip Kerr (1989)
Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector (1990)
Khan Al-Kahlili by Naguib Mahfouz (2008)
A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin (1996-)
If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things by Jon McGregor (2002)
The Spanish Farm trilogy by RH Mottram (1924-26)
Gormenghast by Mervyn Peake (1950)
The Time of Our Singing by Richard Powers (2003)
Angel Pavement by JB Priestley (1930)

Chris Priest’s list

In response to the BBC’s list of 100 books that shaped the world Christopher Priest has blogged his 100 ‘key’ titles.

As usual the ones in bold I have read. (20 here. Others are on my tbr pile.) If asterisked I have read part of the works mentioned. Question marks mean I can’t remember if I read it in the long ago.

01. Penguin SF Ed. Brian Aldiss
02. Non-Stop Brian Aldiss
03. New Maps of Hell Kingsley Amis
04. The Green Man Kingsley Amis
05. The Four-Dimensional Nightmare J G Ballard
06. Vermilion Sands J G Ballard
07. The Twins at St Clare’s Enid Blyton
08. The Castle of Adventure Enid Blyton
09. The Mountain of Adventure Enid Blyton
10. 2666 Roberto Bolaño
11. Last Evenings on Earth Roberto Bolaño
12. Don’t Point that Thing at Me Kyril Bonfiglioli
13. Fictions Jorge Luis Borges
14. The Sheltering Sky Paul Bowles
15. The Silver Locusts Ray Bradbury
16. The Naked Island Russell Braddon
17. The Dam Busters Paul Brickhill
18. Project Jupiter Fredric Brown
19. What Mad Universe Fredric Brown
20. Rogue Moon Algis Budrys
21. Dark Avenues Ivan Bunin
22. The People’s War Angus Calder
23. That Summer in Paris Morley Callaghan
24. The Outsider Albert Camus
25. Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll
26. No Moon Tonight Don Charlwood
27. Bomber Pilot Leonard Cheshire
28. The World in Winter John Christopher
29. The Second World War Winston S Churchill
30. The City and the Stars Arthur C Clarke
31. Mariners of Space Erroll Collins
32. Enemies of Promise Cyril Connolly
33. Fifth Business Robertson Davies
34. Complete Holmes Stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle*
35. Nickel and Dimed Barbara Ehrenreich
36. Who Killed Hanratty? Paul Foot
37. Modern English Usage H W Fowler
38. The French Lieutenant’s Woman John Fowles
39. The Magus John Fowles
40. Diaries Joseph Goebbels
41. Adventures in the Screen Trade William Goldman
42. The Killing of Julia Wallace Jonathan Goodman
43. Good-Bye to All That Robert Graves
44. A Sort of Life Graham Greene
45. The Quiet American Graham Greene
46. The Door into Summer Robert A Heinlein ???
47. Catch 22 Joseph Heller
48. A Moveable Feast Ernest Hemingway
49. Hiroshima John Hersey
50. Pictorial History of the War Walter Hutchinson
51. Biggles and the Cruise of the Condor W E Johns
52. Dubliners James Joyce
53. Ice Anna Kavan
54. A History of Warfare John Keegan
55. Fame Daniel Kehlmann
56. 10 Rillington Place Ludovic Kennedy
57. Jack the Ripper – The Final Solution Stephen Knight
58. Steps Jerzy Kosinski
59. The Painted Bird Jerzy Kosinski
60. Changing Places David Lodge
61. Small World David Lodge
62. The False Inspector Dew Peter Lovesey
63. High Tide Mark Lynas
64. Revolution in the Head Ian MacDonald
65. Calculated Risk Charles Eric Maine
66. The Caltraps of Time David I Masson
67. Owning Up George Melly
68. The Cruel Sea Nicholas Monsarrat
69. Pax Britannica James Morris
70. Song of the Sky Guy Murchie
71. A Severed Head Iris Murdoch
72. Collected Stories Vladimir Nabokov
73. Collected Essays George Orwell
74. Nineteen Eighty-Four George Orwell
75. The Tale of Samuel Whiskers Beatrix Potter
76. Invisibility Steve Richards
77. Pavane Keith Roberts
78. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat Oliver Sacks
79. Collected Sonnets William Shakespeare*
80. Hamlet William Shakespeare
81. Pilgrimage to Earth Robert Sheckley
82. Frankenstein Mary Shelley
83. Larry’s Party Carol Shields
84. Mary Swann Carol Shields
85. On the Beach Nevil Shute
86. Loitering with Intent Muriel Spark
87. The Autobiography of Alice B Toklas Gertrude Stein
88. Earth Abides George R Stewart
89. Dracula Bram Stoker
90. The Murder of Rudolf Hess Hugh Thomas
91. Battle Cry Leon M Uris
92. No Night is Too Long Barbara Vine
93. Twins Peter Watson
94. The War of the Worlds H G Wells
95. The Time Machine H G Wells
96. Uncharted Seas Dennis Wheatley
97. Disappearances William Wiser
98. The Crazy Years William Wiser
99. The Day of the Triffids John Wyndham
100. The Kraken Wakes John Wyndham

Blue Moon edited by Douglas Lindsay

Mayflower, 1970, 174 p

Blue Moon cover

I only really bought this because of its cover painting of an iconic V2-shaped rocket on a desolate planet with crescent moon overhead – a really evocative image. As to its contents, had I not noticed the publication date I would have sworn they were written in the 1950s. Such is the rudimentary writing style adopted by all the contributors, the emphasis on gung-ho action, the cartoon characterization, the ad-hoc information dumping, the casual xenophobia, the equally unthinking sexism, this read like a pulp magazine. The New Wave might as well not have happened.

Blue Moon1 by Norman L Knight starts with a totally unnecessary prologue and goes on into an equally forgettable space adventure which throws a decades-marooned spaceman, telepathy, and aliens up in the air then allows them to land where they will, with a rather telling aside about black humans being easily forgotten and sexual dynamics of the most rudimentary kind. (This last stricture applies to most of the stories here.)

Twilight of Tomorrow2 by Joseph Gilbert features a dictator who commissions a time machine to enable him to eliminate the threat to his plans to take over the world. Unfortunately the story’s last sentence, its whole raison d’être, for which it depends for its effect, isn’t true within the terms of the story. For the spoiler see Pedant’s corner.

Rain of Fire3 by Ray Cummings is a tale of interplanetary conflict. The eponymous rain is inflicted on Earth by inhabitants of the Jovian moon Phorgos. Three humans set off in a space-flyer – home-built by a Dr Livingston – to try to find out how to stop it. Phorgos is small and said to be utterly inhospitable; yet has a breathable atmosphere!! The three’s immediate response to its inhabitants is to shoot at them.

In Time Exposure by E A Grosser, using the new Hsuing drivers reveals the Lorentz-Fitzgerald effect to be an expansion rather than a contraction. Ships’ crews end up spread all over time.

The Case of the Vanishing Cellars4 by J S Klimaris features the Society for the Investigation of Unusual Phenomena looking into why cellars are suddenly disappearing. It’s all a fiendish alien plot.

In Ajax of Ajax5 by Martin Barrow, a certain Ajax Calkins is invited to be the ruler of a group of planetoids orbiting the leading of Jupiter’s Trojan Points and which are named after ancient Greek heroes. This is all as a cover for piracy.

The last two stories were written by Hugh Raymond. Washington Slept Here6 sees a real estate agent set out to find why there is a spate of seemingly natural deaths in the company’s properties. By the end the story has morphed over into fantasy. The Year of Uniting starts off in a US right winger’s wet dream of a restrictive US state (run by something called the Science Government.) Protagonist John Clayhorn makes his escape to Europe and there (for reasons unexplained in the text) receives help to instigate a revolution back home.

As a collection it’s tempting to say Blue Moon is of its time. But it’s actually worse than that. Even in its time it ought to have been after its time. Before 2016 I’d have said it is only to be read now as a historical curio. But we may well be going back there.

If you see a copy, buy it for its cover only.

Pedant’s corner:- Despite it being a British publication all of the stories are written in USian. 1an unindented new paragraph (x 2,) Hermes’ (Hermes’s,) demonaic (demoniac,) Dinapod (elsewhere Dinopod,) crepulscular (crepuscular,) equatic (aquatic,) terrestrial (terrestial.) “A gang of Dinopods were labouring” (a gang was,) a missing start quote mark at one piece of dialogue, a missing full stop. 2one less hero (fewer,) a missing full stop. Spoiler follows. That last sentence was, “He never existed.” But he did exist, up until the year of the time machine’s intervention in his life. And if he hadn’t, there wouldn’t have been a story. 3frightening numerous (frighteningly,) Hans’ (Hans’s,) “a line of metallic globes and cylinders were being assembled” (a line of …. was being assembled,) “Earth was a huge yellow glowing ball” (yellow?) “My metal-tipped fingers somehow seemed gripping Simms’s shoulder” (seemed to be gripping,) plus why invent a Jovian Moon? 4“a fine spech” (speech.) 5“Martian non-wheel cars” (the one the narrator is in has an exterior …. wheel! The whole is five lines later called “a huge single wheel”. Words almost fail me,) thusly (thusly? Who in real life ever uses that word?) Jobian (Jovian,) “the movements of one would effect all the others” (affect.) 6“‘I have never before been known consciously to refuse a drink’” (since the speaker hasn’t refused one this time either, that “before” is redundant,) “in the older days” (in the olden days is more usual,) nonchalently (nonchalantly.) 7Sanders’ (Sanders’s,) “she sat the both of them” (she seated both of them,) “with no slight sign of suspicion” (without the slightest sign of suspicion is a more natural phrasing,) Curtis’ (Curtis’s,) “in which was stored some rare viands and beverages” (viands, plural; and beverages, also plural; so “in which were stored.”)

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