Monday, 30 September 2013

The Books I Read In September

'The Angel of Pain' by Brian Stableford
I had no memory of buying this book but guess I scooped it up from a charity shop when looking for some fantasy fiction.  Stableford writes a mature kind of fantasy.  I had read 'The Empire of Fear' (1988) and while I did not like the directions it went in, I recognised that he had succeeded in creating an interesting take on vampire stories in a 17th century alternate Earth.  It is much the same with 'The Angel of Pain'.  It is in effect a sequel to his 'The Werewolves of London' (1990), featuring the same characters but is set 21 years later, in 1893.  I think my key issue with Stableford's books is that not a lot happens.  He spends much time writing about the characters rather than having them do anything.  He creates an interesting context of Victorian Britain in which various powerful beings with limitations are compelled to use various humans to observe and compete against their opponents.  I was not surprised to find that Stableford has published a book featuring Cthullu stories.  The story focuses on the impact on the individuals, one is enslaved by the Angel of Pain and for much of the book is wracked by discomfort as part of his service to her; others come off worse.  The setting and the creatures within it are interesting.  There are werewolves of the kind seen later in the 'Twilight' series.  There is an immortal man perhaps created by an angel and these powerful beings of differing kinds.  What is Stableford does well is have all of the main characters as unreliable witnesses: their viewpoints are never perfect and often contaminated by the individual's prejudices.

The book succeeds on its own terms in creating a number of complex characters and having them interact with each other sometimes in mundane ways, sometimes in very exotic ways.  The lead characters ultimately end up in another realm appearing as a manifestation of Eden, but even here they do not do a great deal.  Perhaps this is to emphasise that they are little more than pawns.  I was interested by this book but did not enjoy it, there was insufficient action.  I also read it at entirely the wrong time as I was suffering pain daily and further injured myself bringing on more pain during the period while I was reading it.  I certainly disagree with Stableford's view that with time pain loses its sharpness and as a consequence felt the fact that characters did not reflect on how pain comes again and again and again as fresh as the first time as making their perspective illegitimate.  I commend Stableford's imagination, I just more happened in his books.  For me, reading this book was like wading through an encyclopaedia of imaginary country.

'Ashes and Diamonds' by George [Jerzy] Andreyevski
I came to this book from seeing the movie of the same name released in 1958. The book was written in 1948 but the edition I have must, published in 1957, must have been done to coincide with the movie's release as the front cover has a drawing replicating an iconic images of the young nationalist resistance assassin played by Zbigniew Cybulski (1927-67). I heartily recommend the movie which has some stunning photography that you will remember and successfully conjures up a time and place.

This book is almost the reverse of 'The Angel of Pain' featuring almost frenzied activity over the course of three days at the very end of the Second World War. For the movie it was tightened even further to a day and a night and the following morning. The setting is a medium-sized industrial town in Poland which had been liberated some months before. Nationalist resistance forces are still operating in the area, turning their attention to the Communists busily establishing a new regime, backed by the Soviet Red Army. It looks from many different points of view and the reader is shown a string of characters coming to terms with the situation which remains fluid. Interestingly, and this may stem from the time when it was written, despite the extremes of the time many characters come over as surprisingly soft. Another factor is already the legacy of the war years weighs heavily on them. Thus, this is very much a 'slice of life' novel, bracketed by two shootings and covering violence but also more down-to-Earth activity such as having meals, ambition and betrayal. For the bulk of the characters there is no conclusion contained in the book and it is very much as you have glimpsed their world in passing. I imagine this was in part Andreyevski's intention, to record a very particular time. Yet, though 1945 Poland may seem very alien to us now, you are drawn into the characters very well.

I would not say I was as impressed with the book as much as I was with the movie. However, given the poor quality of so much I have been reading recently, this did stand out and I really admire the writer's craft. However, the brevity of it is liable to leave many modern readers unsatisfied.

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