Filler content with magic terror

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #27:-

MAGIC TERROR
Peter Straub
Harper Collins pb, 335pp, £9.99

After the merely average pleasures of The Hellfire Club, this collection, consisting of two superb novellas, ‘Porkpie Hat’ and ‘Mr Clubb and Mr Cuff’ (reviewed in previous issues of TTA, so no need to wax lyrical on their account), plus five long stories, sees Straub back at the top of his form with a showcase volume containing some of the finest writing he’s produced.

‘Ashputtle’ takes the story of Cinderella back to its sinister roots, with a deranged teacher murdering the youngsters left in her charge in a narrative that effortlessly blends dream and reality, madness and sanity. A more realistic note is struck with the ironically titled ‘Isn’t It Romantic?’, a story set in the murky world of espionage, with a veteran intelligence operative on his last assignment and playing the odds to come out on the other side unscathed, all a bit familiar perhaps and certainly the weakest here, but for all that well written and enjoyable. ‘The Haunted Village’ returns to Vietnam pre-Koko, recording an incident that bears witness to the essentially outré quality of that place and time. Straub explores old themes in ‘Bunny is Good Bread’, for my money the best story in the book, a grim and harrowing account of the childhood of a serial killer, one that, with its powerful images of abuse and religious mania, makes the reader care deeply about this poor, tormented child, even as we recoil from the terrible thing that he becomes. Finally there’s ‘Hunger, an Introduction’, a remarkable exercise in tone of voice, the monologue of a whining, self-pitying ghost culminating in a revelation about the true nature of the afterlife.

Those familiar with Straub won’t need convincing. Those new to his work can ask for no better introduction than Magic Terror.

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Filler content with Veronika

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #26:-

VERONIKA DECIDES TO DIE
Paulo Coelho
Harper Collins, £6.99

Veronika, a young Slovenian woman, who in her own mind at least has everything to live for, decides to kill herself rather than hang around waiting for it all to slip away. She takes an overdose, but is revived in Villete asylum, where the doctors inform her that she has damaged her heart and has only a week or so to live. Under sentence of death Veronika is led to reassess her options, to reflect on the life she so nearly threw away and recognise its worth. At the same time she acts as a catalyst to precipitate change in others, her presence in the asylum having an effect on the inmates, many of whom are cured but have become institutionalised.

Coelho is currently the best-selling writer in the world after John Grisham, and it’s easy to see why. This slim volume I suspect contains more of lasting value than can be found in Grisham’s entire oeuvre. Using Veronika as his point of departure, through several interlocking stories Coelho presents an oblique approach to madness, asking exactly what it is and why we should fear it, and by inference illuminates the thorny problem of life itself. A Brazilian, Coelho’s work is rooted firmly in Western literary tradition. Ideologically Veronika brings to mind the Camus of The Myth of Sisyphus, while its plot owes much to Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but Coelho appeals more directly to the emotions than either. The author he most resembles is Vonnegut. There is the same lightness of touch about the prose, the same compassionate perspective, the same overlap of the author’s life with his fiction, the same sense of spirituality minus a smug religiosity. Beautifully written and packed with insight, Veronika Decides to Die is a book that is wholly and unconditionally life affirming, inviting the reader to take a leap of faith, to live on one’s own terms rather than those of others. Buy it, if for no better reason than to knock Grisham off the top spot.

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Filler content with Egyptians

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #24:-

STONE OF LIGHT: NEFER THE SILENT
Christian Jacq
Simon & Schuster pb, 390pp, £10

Set in ancient Egypt at the end of the reign of Ramses the Great, the story centres on The Place of Truth, a secretive community of artists and craftsmen, whose activities are vital to the country’s spiritual wellbeing. It concerns the attempts of three people, the sculptor Nefer, his wife Ubekhet and friend the painter Ardent, to be accepted into this exclusive community, and of a fourth, the aristocrat Mehy, to destroy it.

This is a historical novel with fantasy elements, though as yet it’s unclear how significant these are, and it’s also the first volume in a series. There’s a setting the scene feel to the proceedings, so that while an awful lot seems to happen at the end we’re not much further forward. Egyptologist Jacq is the author of the bestselling Ramses Series, but on this evidence his literary skills are not commensurate with such success. The characters are unengaging and the prose is dull, with few of the telling observations that bring time and place, people and events to life, no vivid strokes of colour to make it all feel real. The book’s structure is artificial, as if somebody told Jacq he’s only allowed to use so many words per chapter, so that we get some scenes teased out over three chapters and other chapters that are a mishmash of several, creating the illusion of breakneck pace but no real sense of drama.

Given Jacq’s professional standing one assumes the facts are correct, but as fiction the book is worse than indifferent. The Place of Truth is based on the historic community of Deir el Medineh, revealed in a C4 series and book by John Romer, which I’d advise anyone who’s interested in Egyptology to seek out instead of wasting time on this tosh.

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Filler content with Greek philosopher

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #22:-

THE PLATO PAPERS
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus hb, 139pp, £12.99

Ackroyd’s latest novel is set 2,000 years in the future and is the tale of the orator Plato, who is charged with investigating the past and revealing its secrets to the citizens of London. Plato’s speciality is the unhappy era of Mouldwarp (AD1500 – 2300). His knowledge of this time is enhanced by a visit to an underground cavern where the people of Mouldwarp London still live, but when Plato returns to tell of all he has seen he is charged with corrupting youth.

The Plato Papers isn’t so much a novel as a series of skits and literary pastiches, set within a framing device borrowed from the Greek Plato’s account of the last days of Socrates. Ackroyd is the farceur, playing to the gallery and shamelessly cannibalising the Western cultural tradition he knows so well. At its core is a philosophical search for truth, in and around which are set Plato’s often hilarious interpretations of documents and artefacts recovered from Mouldwarp. Poe’s Tales are taken as a factual account of life in America, that section of the book developing into a skilful parody of Melona Taunta. Sigmund Freud is believed to have been a vaudeville comedian with a straight man called Oedipus. Charles Dickens was a novelist whose comic masterpiece was The Origin of Species, its survival of the fittest doctrine seen as a satire of social conditions.

While a slight book compared to much of Ackroyd’s work, The Plato Papers is a witty exercise in seeing ourselves as others might come to see us and a richly inventive slice of fiction that will reward more than one reading.

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Filler content with safe houses

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #21:-

SAFE AS HOUSES
Carol Anne Davis
The Do-Not Press pb, 246pp, £7.50

Davis’s second novel is an accomplished psychological chiller, one that focuses on the reasons for crime rather than simply cataloguing its excesses. David is a man in need of a reality check. He believes himself to be a hugely talented songwriter, an intellectual of the first water and indispensable member of staff at the health food store where he works. The reality is that his songs are crap, he flunked university and gets sacked from the store for petty theft. David compensates by ringing sex lines and abducting women to brutalise in his hideaway, the safe house. As his meek wife Jeanette comes out of her shell, thanks to the influence of student friend Wanda, her demands of David make him feel even more insecure and he is driven to increasingly desperate measures.

An interesting novel, if slightly awkward in places, it presents a portrait of a psychopath that is insightful, convincing and totally unglamorous. David is no Hannibal Lecter or Norman Bates, no victim of some grand obsession, but a sad little man who resorts to murder simply as a way of affirming his own worth. His story is a demonstration of Larkin’s observation that ‘Your parents fuck you up’, and so much of his behaviour is down to emotional traumas that were never satisfactorily resolved in childhood. The same is true of Jeanette, but to a lesser degree, and much of the book’s dramatic tension arises out of the different responses they make. Recommended.

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Filler content with barnacles

Another review that appeared in Zest #4 way back in 1998:-

BARNACLE BILL THE SPACER AND OTHER STORIES
Author: Lucius Shepard
Publisher: Millennium
Price: £5.99 Paperback (292pp)

Widely acknowledged as one of the finest prose stylists currently writing Science Fiction, Shepard has the ability to blur and ultimately rise above genre boundaries. This is his third collection of stories. The two previous volumes, The Jaguar Hunter and The Ends of the Earth, received World Fantasy Awards, and the title story from this book the Nebula Award.

‘Barnacle Bill the Spacer’ is the story of a poor boy who did good, its eponymous hero a mentally handicapped outcast, reviled by the population of the space station on which he lives, but Bill manages to save them all from destruction. There’s a fairy tale quality to the story, rendered convincing by the cynical and world weary voice of its narrator. Equally impressive in ‘Human History’, in which the survivors of the human race battle each other and their secret masters in a grim post-Apocalypse world. Neither story has much to offer in the way of new concepts, but the sheer quality of the writing, the depth of characterisation and wealth of incident help them to triumph over the clichés inherent in the material.

These two long stories account for more than half of the book. The remaining five stories are not of the same high standard, and three are not properly regarded as SF, though still illuminated by that ethereal quality which is this writer’s hallmark. ‘Sports in America’ is the story of a contract killing that goes wrong, with dialogue as gritty as anything to be found in the pages of George V. Higgins, while ‘Beast of the Heartland’ is the swansong of a boxer at the end of his career, a poignant and memorable celebration of grace under pressure. Less convincing is ‘All the Perfumes of Araby’, about an American in the Middle East getting involved in drug smuggling. ‘A Little Night Music’ takes an interesting premise, zombie musicians playing jazz, and delivers a satisfyingly ambiguous ending, while ‘The Sun Spider’ is an oblique but highly readable account of the discovery of a solar lifeform.

Though not on a par with Shepard’s earlier work, much of which is being reissued by Millennium (I especially recommend vampire novel The Golden), this is nonetheless a collection that is well worth seeking out.

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Filler content with five for the price of one

A review that originally appeared in Zest #4 back in 1998:-

EDGE OF LIGHT
Author: Robert Silverberg
Publisher: Voyager
Price: £9.99 Paperback (980pp)

Silverberg’s career spans over forty years, during which time he has produced an enormous body of work and been accorded every honour the Science Fiction community has to offer. Those new to the field will probably know him best for the Majipoor series of novels and other books in an epic and science fantasy vein, but older readers will remember the ground breaking work he produced in the late 60s and early 70s, and perhaps feel a sense of regret for the commercial road he has taken since. Voyager have reissued five of his best novels from that period in this bumper value for money omnibus.

My personal favourite, the Nebula Award winning A Time of Changes, portrays a society in which any form of intimacy is taboo and takes us along on one man’s journey of self-discovery. Downward to the Earth, chosen by Interzone editor David Pringle as one of the hundred best novels in the genre, is the story of a man’s attempt to understand and be reconciled with an alien civilisation. The Second Trip tells of the struggle between two completely different personalities for control of the body they share, while Dying Inside, considered Silverberg’s finest novel by many critics, is an account of the life of David Selig, a telepath who finds that in middle age his ability is fading. Finally there is Nightwings, a fix-up of three novellas, one of which won the Hugo Award, which takes us into the far future where the remnants of fallen humanity await an alien invasion.

These novels are an example of the best Science Fiction has to offer, as readable and thought provoking now as when they were first published. Voyager are to be commended for making them available again, and in such an attractive and affordable package.

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