Filler content without the Addams Family

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #30:-

FROM THE DUST RETURNED
Ray Bradbury
Earthlight hb, 204pp, £16.99

Bradbury’s first genre novel in almost twenty years, according to the publicity handout. Actually it’s a fix up of short stories, some of them written as long ago as 1945, padded with new or previously unpublished material, telling the saga of a weird family who bear a more than passing resemblance to the Addams brood.

The Elliotts are a gleefully oddball assortment, from Einar who is a winged man and may drink blood, to young Cecy, who can take up residence inside the minds of other people, from ancient grandma standing motionless in the attic to young Timothy, who is cursed with normality and fated to chronicle all that occurs. We follow their adventures over the course of many years, as the family try to adapt to a changing world, one where science comes increasingly into its own, casting the cold light of reason into previously unknown corners, threatening the Elliotts and all their kind with extinction.

The prose, not surprising when you consider that this book was over fifty years in the making, is rather patchy. The earliest sections, written when Bradbury was young and filled with creative fire, such as the standalone pieces ‘The April Witch’, with sad Cecy experiencing love by proxy, and the poignant ‘Uncle Einar’, in which the winged man must make an accommodation with disability, are just as marvellous as they were the first time around, shot through with the author’s highly individualistic take on sense of wonder and rendered in that pyrotechnical prose style so uniquely his own that has the characters jumping off the page and turning somersaults in front of the living room fire. Others have tried to imitate him, but Bradbury remains one of a kind. Sadly though, the later stories and many of the bridging passages show the differences in style that arise over fifty years, sound in fact like someone trying to imitate Bradbury and not getting it quite right.

Looked at as a whole the book lacks cohesion, the attempt to provide a viable framework requiring the shoehorning in of much disparate material. The result is an ungainly structure with bits and bobs sticking out here, there and everywhere, a narrative that seems fragile and sometimes loses sight of its own ends.

Do you want to buy this book? Well for all its flaws there are moments of true wonder. The good bits are very good indeed and, while they pale in comparison to Bradbury at his peak, the other bits aren’t wholly bad. Important things are being said, about the value of fantasy in our lives, a recurring theme in Bradbury’s work, the dark dreams that necessarily go hand in hand with the brightest of visions, the deep seated need human beings have to believe in something other than themselves, even if it’s only vampires. And serious efforts have been made to produce a book that is also appealing as an object, with eye catching cover art and interior illustrations. Finally, most importantly, it is a new book by Ray Bradbury, the guy who wrote Fahrenheit 451, Something Wicked This Way Comes, The Martian Chronicles, Dark Carnival and all those other wonderful stories that turned whole generations of us on to fantasy. I don’t usually approve of special pleading, but there are times when sentiment and brand loyalty should outweigh objectivity. We owe this man big time. So go and buy the book. Help keep Unca Ray comfortable in his old age (just let them try and use that as a back cover blurb).

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Trailer Trash – Pirates of the Caribbean: Salazar’s Revenge

Diminishing returns with this franchise, though each entry has been entertaining. Will this one continue the trend?

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Filler content with Miss Prym

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #29:-

THE DEVIL AND MISS PRYM
Paulo Coelho
Harper Collins hb, 201pp, £10.99

Coelho’s latest novel poses an interesting moral dilemma. A man comes to the remote village of Viscos, where a century’s old way of life is staring extinction in the face. He offers its inhabitants ten gold bars if they will commit a murder. At first repelled, the villagers soon start to rationalise what they are about to do in terms of one sacrificing for the many, though curiously, or perhaps not, the one isn’t consulted by the many. It’s up to Chantal, the Miss Prym of the title and the subject of a side wager, to find a way out for everyone.

I enjoyed the last book that I read by Coelho, but this time around the publisher’s hype, describing him as ‘a storyteller with the power to inspire nations’, has me waving my arms around like Robbie the Robot on speed and shouting ‘Warning! Warning!’ Those kind of guys always end badly, as witness the example of one Mr Adolf Hitler and his Mein Kampf.

Fortunately Coelho takes a more humanistic and inclusive approach than the moustached madman. This is a beautifully written book with a deceptive depth for such a slim volume. The characterisation and dialogue are spot on, while the timeless feel of Viscos and its people’s way of life is convincingly rendered. As a depiction of the moral confusion arising out of personal tragedy and how easily people can be reconciled to evil the book is compelling.

On the down side, the religious convictions that permeated Veronika Decides to Die, to which this is intended as a sequel of sorts, are here presented more overtly, with Angels and Devils prompting the characters to act, a device offered as fact rather than metaphor. It intrudes an element of sideshow into a drama that would’ve worked far better without it, tending to devalue human effort. And at the end Coelho cheats, completely sidestepping the moral dilemma he’s elaborated at such length and so well. After promising much The Devil and Miss Prym only part delivers.

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Song for a Saturday – Gloria

Something wild is loose.

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Filler content with wood

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #28:-

THE WOODEN SEA
Jonathan Carroll
Gollancz hb, 247pp, £16.99

For Frannie McCabe, Police Chief of Crane’s View, the strangeness begins when a dog he’s already left for dead and buried turns up alive and well in the boot of his car and smelling of something nicer than roses. Next thing his seventeen-year-old self shows up in the middle of the night and starts telling him what a mess he’s made of his life, from which point on things steadily get weirder, until Frannie’s left feeling that he’s stepped into a painting by Salvador Dali. The strings are being pulled by aliens, and the fate of the universe itself hinges on the actions of one Frannie McCabe.

Regular readers of TTA will know that I’m a big admirer of Jonathan Carroll, but every so often he delivers a book that I’m uncomfortable with, one where the metaphysics swamps the human story, and this is one of those. Often, like From the Teeth of Angels, they’re the very books that other readers see as best demonstrating his genius.

Plotwise this reads like a hybrid of Back to the Future and Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan, with God thrown in to get the machine up and running. Like Winston Niles Rumfoord, Frannie McCabe has come unstuck in time, though the mechanism by which this is achieved alters at the author’s whim. First up he meets his seventeen-year-old self. Then he opens the door and steps out into the 1960s, getting to chat with his old man Future style and set pater’s mind at rest about a few things. After that he’s pulled forward into the body of his ninety-year-old self, but with none of that worthy’s memories, and so has to make sense of a strange future world. Finally, with our hero on his last legs, a boy scout troop of young McCabes steps in to help him out. And, as at the conclusion of Titan, Carroll presents us with a mind boggling concept at the back of it all, but whereas Vonnegut’s offering was a witty and ironic comment on the absurdity of life as we know it, Carroll seems to intend his to be taken seriously, the metaphysical raison d’être for all that takes place.

One of Carroll’s great strengths as a writer is that he takes time to create a believable reality before tampering with its structure, but with this book we’re in The Twilight Zone by page twenty (you could of course argue that the characters have already been introduced in Carroll’s two previous novels). In the promotional material much is made of the different outlooks of a seventeen-year-old and his mature self, but in the book this intriguing idea is simply a throwaway piece of invention, good for a few pages chat about what type of women McCabe Sr and Jr each prefer and how they take their coffee, but not a lot more than that. Most of the really good ideas in this book, the ones that would’ve made a cracking novel if they had been explored in any depth, are abandoned along the way as we race to the ending. Characterisation throughout seems perfunctory, so that it becomes hard to actually care what happens to these people as the shit keeps on keeping on. For all that Carroll continually ups the stakes you’re left with the impression that from the viewpoint of the individuals involved it all remains academic. And at the end we’re no further forward, just left clutching at the hint of yet more to come. This is a ramshackle novel from a writer capable of much better, one for whom sophistication is usually a defining quality. His method here seems to be to throw as much oddness as he can at the page in the hope that some of it will stick. Unfortunately it all sticks, resulting in a right old mess.

Anyone familiar with Carroll’s work is going to want to read this book, and never mind what any smart aleck reviewer has to say. Certainly I would. But for those who haven’t yet tried him out, please don’t start here.

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Trailer Trash – Colossal

Interesting idea.

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Filler content with bullies

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #29:-

A BIG BOY DID IT AND RAN AWAY
Christopher Brookmyre
Abacus pb, 502pp, £9.99

Raymond Ash is a school teacher, a responsible man with a wife and baby depending on him. His dreams of fame as a rock star are firmly in the past. Then one day, loitering at Glasgow Airport, Ray sees his old ‘friend’ Simon, a prima donna he used to be in a student band with. There’s only one problem: Simon died three years ago when terrorists blew up the plane he was travelling on. For Ray it’s the start of an adventure for which his computer game skills have ideally equipped him , one that brings him together with policewoman Angel X in a fight against the world’s leading terrorist, ‘the Black Spirit’.

Recent events have given Brookmyre’s novel an unhappy topicality and it has perhaps the worst opening sequence I’ve ever read, the whiny, egotistical rant of an embryonic terrorist that almost had me abandoning the book by page twenty, but fortunately I persevered and was rewarded with a fast paced and credible crime thriller, one laced with humour and hefty dollops of satire. However what makes the book stand out is the author’s understanding of his three leads, their aims and motivations, filled in piecemeal as Brookmyre lays out the back story. Simon is the ultimate poor sad wannabe, made bitter and twisted by failure, hungering for recognition even if only as a murdering psychopath, blaming everyone except himself when things go wrong. Contrast that with Ray, outwardly a failure, the paradigm of male doubt, a bundle of neuroses and unfulfilled longing, but muddling through the best that he can and trying to do what’s right by everybody, thus acquiring a dignity and worth forever beyond simple Simon, no matter how many innocent people he blows up. And then there’s Angel X, the gorgeous Angelique de Xavia, the most redoubtable female super-agent since Modesty Blaise last slipped a pistol in her stocking top, a karate black belt and the scourge of bullies everywhere, a straight talker who shoots from the hip. Confronted by psychobabble about the motivation of the Black Spirit Angel X cuts to the quick with, ‘He’s a wanker!’ If you want she can be more precise, ‘He’s a big wanker!’ More insightful, more truthful, and definitely a lot more fun than a hundred TV documentaries about Osama Bed Linen.

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