More sour remarks about books I tried and found wanting.
Hugh Walpole, Portrait of a Man with Red Hair
This 1925 novel pops up regularly in lists about the supernatural canon as a gem of twentieth-century Gothic horror. It is certainly horrifying, but it’s a novella stretched out painfully beyond the natural length of its story. Was this done for serialisation reasons? Algernon Blackwood did the same with The Human Chord (1910), which is highly praised but should have been half the length: perhaps this is a Weird trait. The endless descriptions dragging out the agonies of tension and suspense may also have been part of the point, but I don’t read stories like that. I want to know what happens and be taken there by the best route, not necessarily the shortest one, and certainly not the one that goes behind the magic mountain and haunted waterfall just because there’s a viewpoint of something I’m uninterested in. Anyhow, I followed Walpole’s hero (sent on a train journey to a particular inn in a remote fishing village to look at something, I’ve forgotten what) into Cornwall just to find out what was going to happen because of this novel’s fame. It took forever. The villain is definitely monstrous but the situation he sets up (I’ve even forgotten the details of that) is really not credible. The young woman married (why???) to the villain’s son is hopeless, crouching in the fog screaming about being lost when honestly, anyone could have got themselves out of that one. The scene of men crushing up sweatily against each other in a traditional street dance, no names and all physical longing, was a quite unexpected fantasy of no-strings gay sex whose place in the plot I’m still unsure about. But despite that I gave up, feeling as if I were reading a novel whose point was a secret shared only by cult members.
Nevil Shute, Slide Rule
This is an autobiography by Nevil Shute of his early years, before he became the acclaimed author of A Town Like Alice and other best-selling novels. I read it because I couldn’t quite believe that such a productive author was also an acclaimed aviation engineer, but he was. As well as designing planes and running his own airplane construction company he was the senior design engineer on the R100, sister airship to the doomed R101. His account of how and why the R100 succeeded and did not crash when the R101 was a notorious disaster is slanted heavily against civil servants and politicians who think only of their headlines and memoranda, and don’t allow the professionals – engineers, pilots, navigators – to do their jobs safely. Shute had already emigrated in Australia when he wrote this memoir, and his narrative voice reminds me strongly of a type of Australian man I have had to listen to: intolerant, exceptionalist, always right, and more than a bit smug. It’s a highly interesting book if you want to read about the development of civil aviation in Britain after the First World War, but you won’t come away wanting to hang out with the author.
Andrew Ziminski, The Stonemason. A History of Building Britain
I may have made a mistake reading this after I finished the massive British Museum book-of-the-exhibition The World of Stonehenge, because the first section of Ziminski’s book is about sarsens, Stonehenge and Avebury. Which authority would you choose to read on those subjects: archaeologists and experienced science communicators, or a stonemason? The first pages of the paperback edition of Ziminski’s book are stuffed with encomia from all the British national papers and literary magazines. Such a torrent of praise suggests the massed mainstream media all cheering on a bandwagon because everyone else is too (ie the views of the dissenting reviewers are not included). The last time I ignored this suspicion and bought the book anyway was when I read Sarah Perry’s The Essex Serpent, which I hated.
Anyway, Ziminski is a darn good stonemason. He really knows what he is doing and saying about stone and mortar, how to use it, where it comes from, and what its use tells you about the practices of stonemasons of the past. The repair stories and case histories are truly excellent. I was boggled at the idea of sarsens growing in the landscape, but perhaps that’s just a turn of phrase in geological time. I loved the idea of him recognising an abraded and weather-worn gargoyle as the creation, centuries before, of the same hand who made another one across the county, so he goes to look, makes the measurements, and uses the surviving one as a template to repair the decaying one. Brilliant. His observations about a particular alignment in Stonehenge with the winter solstice had me confused, but it didn’t matter much. It was an interesting account from a sensible perspective.
But when he started relating potted histories of national events I began to get restive. The jumping about from location to location was disconcerting. The accounts of canoeing to look at a particular outcrop or clay deposit from the water were OK, but dull. But his account of canoeing along the Avon river from Bath to Bradford on Avon stopped me in my tracks because that route is simply not possible, unless you climb (not easy) onto the bank twice to carry your boat past two, possibly three, depending on where he started from, dangerous and significant weirs, which he didn’t mention. Or was he on the Kennet and Avon Canal, which is a completely separate body of water? This casual elision of the facts shook my faith in all his other statements of fact and travelling lore. So I rather lost my enthusiasm after that.
T J Klune, The House in the Cerulean Sea
A civil servant is assigned to observe an orphanage of magical children and check up on their unexpectedly charismatic teacher. This novel is a bag of lightly connected tropes in a Harry Potter knockoff world with no foundation, with a mismatched juxtaposition of an old-fashioned Orwellian office hell. Characters are nasty for no good reason, or merely misunderstood. I got very tired (see above) of the plot being continually deflected from its natural forward movement because the author wanted to add a witty bit of wordplay. Most annoying of all, if a character is the Antichrist, and jokes are made about the dramatic ways this world could end if that character so wished it, and people are genuinely scared of this happening, should that world not also contain people who believe in the anti-Antichrist? Or a cultural remnant of theological belief in which the fear of the Antichrist would naturally find a home? And be the reason why characters, and maybe the reader, should be terrified? Not in this world: calling a magical child with truly appalling powers the Antichrist is one example among many of hyperbolic, lazy writing. This novel is a disconnected jumble of bits, and I could not care enough about any aspect of it to continue much further than the beginning of Chapter Six. One of the cover encomia raved about the wonderful gay love story so I checked the ending, but those characters display absolutely no sexual or romantic attraction, for anything or anyone. Unless that comes later. If more care has been taken to create the world I might have had faith in the storytelling, but both were skimped.
Ann Leckie, The Raven Tower
I absolutely loved Ann Leckie’s science fiction, and her spectacular experiments with narrative and reader assumptions in Ancillary Justice, Ancillary Sword and Ancillary Mercy, and in their related novel Provenance, but I was wary of her first fantasy novel. Great SF writers do not often cross over to create great fantasy, especially fantasy set in a (yawn) medievalised hierarchical world. The Raven Tower received strong reviews, and also some strong caveats: this dual review by the Book Smugglers is probably the most useful one that I found. The novel is about a (quite boring) medieval civilisation on a land mass among seas and a big Silent Forest. The land is inhabited by gods, both Ancient and Modern. Animals and humans also live there, and the human societies have evolved enough to farm and do the usual pre-industrial things, and they communicate with their gods using tokens, which the gods manipulate so that the correct tokens fall out of the bag first. You’d think that telepathy would be faster, and it’s certainly used later, so why not all the time? The novel is narrated in the first person by a very old god, which takes the form of a large boulder in the north. This god narrates the novel to ‘you’, meaning, we think, a person called Eolo, who is the nearest we get to a focalising character.
Eolo accompanies his lord Mawat in battle and on his journey home to the city of Vastai where Mawat expects to be heir to his father. The father (I didn’t get far enough into the novel to learn his name) is the Lease, to the Raven’s Instruction, and there are also men who serve as Directions. There’s an order of women priests who serve the god of the Silent. Mawat’s father has gone missing and his brother Hibal has taken the role of the Lease, and Mawat is furious. I honestly could not see why Mawat was so livid, especially as becoming Lease means you have to be sacrificed with the Raven’s Instruction (the actual living bird? I could not work this out) dies. Why are they all so keen to die? Meanwhile there is an egg on a platform on top of the Raven’s tower and they expect this to hatch in the cold? That seemed over-hopeful, but perhaps it was explained later on. The power balance seemed to be important, but good lord, the stakes were small, just a handful of trading cities. This novel was portentious and heavy and existential and I could not get interested. Apparently it was a reworking of Hamlet: despite all the signposting I couldn’t really see many parallels. It was also apparently a detective puzzle, but it wasn’t remotely like one as far as I could see. Perhaps, like J K Rowling before her, Leckie’s fame and commercial power have allowed her to not have to use an editor even though this novel sorely needed one.
For other intolerant posts about books that have annoyed me, please see: New Year, New Duds, My Gifts to the Oxfam Bookshop, Raging Aggravations, To the Recycling!, From Merely Annoying to Utter Tosh, A Small Pile of Duds, I Vent My Spleen on Duds, A Run of Bad Reading Luck, Three Small Duds, Seven Duds for Seven Dustbins, Sorrow and Anger: Books I Couldn’t Finish Or Wished I Hadn’t Started, Do Not Read These At Home, It’s Not You, It’s Me: More Reading Disappointments, and Three Disappointments for the Dud Pile.
One thought on “I Have Doubts”
You got Nevil Shute and Slide Rule absolutely spot on! I first read it sixty years ago when my father got it from a book club – and as a techie teen I found it fascinating. Re-reading it a couple of years I blinked and thought This guy is something else. I too have met them.
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