Monday, 30 November 2015

The Books I Read In November

'A Body in the Bath House' by Lindsey Davis
This is a book from the long-running Falco series of books, featuring the eponymous Roman detective active in the 1st century CE.  I read the first in the series 'The Silver Pigs' (1989) many years ago.  This is the 13th book of 20, published in 2001.  Davis has moved on to writing stories featuring Falco's daughter.

This novel was not at all good.  The books are written in the first person with Falco looking back on his life.  However, despite Davis's work in terms of ensuring historical accuracy, Falco's manner is far too late 20th century/early 21st century.  The complexities of Falco's family and connections are complex and add little to the story except for confusion and coincidence later in the story.

This story mainly focuses on Falco resolving issues at the construction of the palace at Fishbourne in southern England.  Thus, Davis puts in far too many jokes about unreliable builders and uses construction jargon from modern times.  The jokes are very feeble and not humorous if you have never had an extension built.  The key problem with the book is that it progresses with minimal direction.  Various people die whether from accidents or murders but there is little sense of urgency.  Ultimately murders both in Rome and in Britain are resolved almost by accident.  Overall this book seemed to be a waste of effort.  There were interesting components but they were assembled in a way which was listless and not engaging.  I am unlikely to read any more of Davis's books.

'The Time Ships' by Stephen Baxter
Down the years friends have often recommended me to read certain books.  Typically I have loathed the recommendations and as a consequence if someone suggests I should read a book, let alone says I 'have to' read it, then I go out of my way to avoid it.  This book was lent to me by a friend and running short of science fiction or fantasy books, I turned to it.  It is billed as 'The Authorized Sequel to The Time Machine'.  It is not clear who authorised it, but I imagine it was the estate of H.G. Wells.  As we know from the difficulties that 'The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen' (2003) movie faced in trying to feature the lead character of 'The Invisible Man' (1897), the estate guards these things very assiduously.  'The Time Machine' (1895) is a novella and at over 600 pages, I feel Baxter has lost some of the essence of the original.  The tone is pretty well replicated of a Victorian character written in the first person.  However, Baxter does tend to betray his own era especially in portraying the superstructures created by the advanced Morlocks and then the Universal Constructors that seem to be physical manifestations of the internet.  Baxter's problem is that he simply has too many ideas that he feels compelled to jam into the book.  This is in contrast to Wells who maintained a tighter focus, exploring a concept per book.

Wells's book first appeared as a magazine serial and it is ironic that because of the multiplicity of ideas that Baxter feels compelled to include his book ends up being very episodic.  Any block could have been a book in itself.  There is travel to the advanced Morlock society in which a vast sphere has been built around the Sun.  There is a brief episode in which the time traveller meets his younger self.  There is an alternate 1938 and 1944 caused by time travel and involving an enduring First World War.  This seems to have been caused by the Kaiserschlacht of March 1918 succeeding and an assassination of a leading Allied general in Paris, I assume Marshal Foch.  There is a return to the Paleocene era; a journey to an Earth wrecked by a perpetual ice age brought on by climate change from pollution and a return to the original future of Morlocks and Eloi envisaged in the original novel.  Any one of these would have been sufficient for Baxter to explore his ideas of parallel realities allowing time travel and changes to history shifting the traveller into an alternate rather than actually changing that line of history; plus the sense that humans are almost doomed to becoming Morlocks or Eloi in one way or another.  I am never happy with beneficent super-powerful creatures with vast constructs and Baxter manages to get two of these in.  The visits to the alternate mid-20th century and the prehistoric period are much more tolerable.

I enjoyed this book more than I anticipated.  However, I feel it is too long.  I feel that it should not be perceived as a sequel to 'The Time Machine' but something simply using the tone of that book.  It might appeal more to readers who are fans of 'hard' science fiction.  Steampunk fans may enjoy the middle element of the book.  However, this is clearly a segmented novel and ultimately it is less overall than the sum of its parts.  I have been ambivalent about Baxter's work and this hardly encourages me to seek out any more.  However, in contrast to other book recommendations I have received, I am not angry with my friend for proposing this book.

'The Daydreamer' by Ian McEwan
My book choices recently have proven to be so poor that I almost feel I should start up a separate blog entitled 'Books Not to Read'.  Given how harsh and dismissive a large portion of online reviews are, I feel at least I am fair in my portrayal of the books.  I do wonder, sometimes, how these people managed to get their books published.  As someone once said to me, it is clear that it is not the book which gets it published, it is the person.  This is one reason why established authors, let alone celebrities, get poor quality books out there and why sales of Robert Galbraith's book, 'The Cuckoo's Calling (2013) rose by 156,866% when it was revealed that they were written by J.K. Rowling.

As you can imagine from this lead-in, I was not pleased with 'The Daydreamer' (1995).  I bought it about the time I read 'The Innocent' (1990).  That was a gritty thriller set in 1950s Berlin; was well researched and engaging.  I was irritated with reviews of the 1993 movie of the novel, as there was criticism that Isabella Rossellini was told old to play Maria in the movie.  She was 40 years old at the time and the character is 36 in the book.  Critics made the lazy assumption that innocent had to be the female character rather than Leonard played by Campbell Scott.

That aside, 'The Daydreamer' comes nowhere close to the earlier book by McEwan.  It is a conceit.  It is supposed to be a book written for children that adults can enjoy.  It features a number of episodes from the life of Peter Fortune between the ages of 10-12.  He daydreams himself into a number of scenarios, quite a fair portion of which envisage him swapping bodies in order to learn a lesson.  Yes, it is written in language which could be comprehensible by children of that age and could be seen as a collection of modern fables.  However, even if you accept these aspects, it is highly flawed.

It appears to be as nastily autobiographical as Martin Amis's work and, as regular readers know, I think Amis is highly over-rated.  It is set in a world that only exists in the mind of Michael Bond.  Aside from the occasional references to computer games, it could be inhabiting that stylised third quarter of the 20th century; it barely scrapes into the fourth quarter.  It is as if white middle class southern urban England has been distilled to its fullest.  This is the kind of context that the grandchildren of Enid Blyton's characters would have ended up living in.  As such, this is more unrealistic than the fantasies Peter ends up in.  It would have been more refreshing set on a fantasy island.  I have no idea why McEwan wrote this book, it seems to have been an utter waste of his time.  I have been reminded of the lesson of not to fall into the trap of assuming that if an author can write one good or even decent book, that others they produce will come anywhere close.

I have another of McEwan's slim volumes on my pile which I will read, but then it might be time to give up on him entirely.