Filler content with Rusty and Dusty

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

Steve Cockayne
Orbit pb, 278pp, £10.99

Cockayne’s debut novel is set in a rather rough and ready reality never referred to as anything other than The Land, a venue that has a Gormenghastian feel to it, but without the rich texture of that work. In many ways it’s a blend of our own world and some other, simpler milieu. The Land is ruled by a King and there are references to a distant war, allusions to religion and mythology, folklore and legend. It’s a place where magic is respected, but technology also has a role to play; there are motor vehicles and the court magician is made redundant by what sounds suspiciously like a computer.

Cockayne has a surfeit of viewpoint characters, three main and several subsidiary. Victor Lazarus is employed by an unknown party to make a great house habitable, a task in which he is at first hindered and then helped by an entity residing in the house’s attic, a being with an agenda of its own in which Lazarus is paramount. The boy Rusty Brown is told a great secret by a young girl, one of the fabled race of Wanderers, which he forgets but will remember when his life is in deadly peril. Rusty travels the world with his faithful dog Dusty (yes, honestly), going off to the big city to learn to be a cartographer, running with a pack of feral children, finding inner peace at a mysterious school, eventually returning to the village of his birth. Finally there’s Leonardo Pegasus, obsessed by the girl Alice, at the start of the book the King’s counsellor, and at its end a potboy at an inn, still working on his Multiple Empathy Engine, a device that will put its user in touch with the feelings of everyone in The Land. The lives of these three overlap in tenuous ways. There’s the suggestion that the house in which Lazarus works is actually part of Pegasus’s psyche. Rusty flits in and out of both worlds, moving from one to the other with ease and blissfully unaware.

This is billed as ‘Legends of the Land: Book One’, and wears its status as curtain raiser badly. Cockayne’s writing is workmanlike rather than graceful. There’s no depth of feeling, no grittiness to the prose, no telling details to stamp events with the mark of verisimilitude. The characters are as two dimensional as their names would suggest; they never came off the page and made me feel they were anything more than creatures of fiction. The Land itself is a patchwork structure, as if Cockayne is making it all up as he goes along rather than filling in the details of some grand design.

Set against this banality there’s the complexity of the plot, with the suggestion of worlds within worlds and the hint of metafiction, intriguing philosophical concepts such as that of the well-shaped future. Yet there’s an artificiality about all this, intrigue arising not out of genuine mystery, but nurtured through having the characters not ask any of the obvious questions about what’s happening to them. I’ll admit to having my interest mildly piqued, but not in a way to give me faith in the writer’s ability to deliver something more substantial in future volumes. There’s so much here you don’t know, that in the end you don’t care either.

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Song for a Saturday – Horses

Patti Smith month ends with the title track from her first album.

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Filler content without the Addams Family

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

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:-

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:-

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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