August 18th, 2013


August Books 15) Far North, by Sara Maitland; 16) Far North, by Marcel Theroux

I was tickled by the thought of two books with similar titles by rather different authors to the extent of deciding to read them at the same time. They are, however, very different in format. Sara Maitland offers a series of short stories and vignettes, reworking various classic themes including various fair stories; Marcel Theroux's novel is a post-apocalyptic tale of survival against the odds in Siberia after civilisation has collapsed.

Yet they do have something pretty fundamental in common: both are told from a female perspective. All of the Maitland stories are narrated by women either in first person or very tight third; Theroux's first person narrator, Makepeace, is one of the few survivors of a wave of American settlers to arrive in Siberia just before things changed forever.

Maitland's stories are good, and exemplify her English take on magical realism, but I found myself more engrossed in Theroux's single narrative. He isn't really known as a genre author, so I was hoping that he would do something a bit different with the post-apocalypse theme. He didn't really - he advocates a general well-rooted suspicion of authority, plus some well-worn sexual clichés - but it is well enough done as it is.

The Theroux Far North was up for the Clarke award a few years back, but lost (fairly) to The City & The City, whose author is a fellow alumnus of Clare College Cambridge - indeed Marcel Theroux and I were exact contemporaries as undergraduates, though the only time I remember talking to him at any length was as I moved into a house in Eltisley Avenue that he was moving out of immediately after graduation. I may try some more of his work. (I am already a Sara Maitland fan.)

August Books 17) The Dalek Generation, by Nicholas Briggs

Very nice to get a book by the bloke what does the voice of the Daleks, which is actually about the Daleks, autographed by him including the word "EXTERMINATE", which you have to imagine being read by Briggs doing his Dalek voice.

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As with a number of the recent Who novels, this is aimed at a slightly younger readership, with the Doctor's co-adventurers being three children rescued from a spaceship by him after their parents' death (no novel with Clara yet, as far as I know, although she has been on the show since April, or perhaps longer depending how you count). I was very interested to note that, like Malorie Blackman's The Ripple Effect published last month, The Dalek Generation presents a situation where the Daleks are perceived as a force for good rather than evil, with the Doctor frustrated in his attempts to warn against them. I do wonder if this is a subtle (or maybe even unsubtle) hint about a storyline we can expect for the two episodes due to air later this year.

That apart, it's quite a different story from Blackman's; it's clear to the reader from the first chapter that the Daleks really are evil here, but the story of what they are looking for, and how the Doctor and his traumatised young friends thwart their plans in the face of a wilfully ignorant totalitarian society which won't believe them, is nicely convoluted and also evocative of various previous Who stories. If you are happy to adjust for the target readership, it is very enjoyable.

It is interesting that although there has been no Eleven-on-his-own TV story (unless you count Closing Time) there have been several books and audios now featuring neither Amy nor Clara. This does give the writers a chance to demonstrate their skill in catching the nuances of Matt Smith's portrayal, but I'm not really a fan of the Doctor-on-his-own stories. They can sometimes work very well - indeed, The Deadly Assassin is one of my personal favourites - but the interaction between Doctor and regular sidekick is an important part of the show's dynamic, and should be omitted sparingly, if at all.

August Books 18) Resistance, by Anita Shreve

Top ten books available in English tagged "Belgium" on LibraryThing:

King Leopold's Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
The Sorrow of Belgium, by Hugo Claus
The Lady and the Unicorn, by Tracy Chevalier
Villette, by Charlotte Brontë
Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Travel Guide: Brussels, Bruges, Ghent & Antwerp
Resistance, by Anita Shreve
The Angel Maker, by Stefan Brijs
Asterix in Belgium, by René Goscinny
The Folding Star, by Alan Hollinghurst
The Misfortunates, by Dimitri Verhulst
Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb

It will be apparent that I am working very slowly through the fiction on this list. (Cloud Atlas comes in at #12, by the way.) Resistance is quite a decent wartime romance, American pilot inevitably has a secret love affair with the woman who saves him, and some quite interesting dynamics around the villagers, with everyone's loyalty open to suspicion, especially with the (graphically described) brutality of German reprisals. I did not feel completely satisfied with the Belgianness of the setting, but I suppose it is a fair try from an American writer writing for an American audience who is interested in aviation rather than Belgium.

August Books 19) The Mysterious Affair At Styles, by Agatha Christie

Written in 1916, set in 1917, published in 1920, this was Agatha Christie's first murder mystery and also the first novel starring Hercule Poirot - already described as old and a refugee from occupied Belgium, yet with another fifty years of detecting ahead of him. It's a little rough around the edges - in particular, the narrator's infatuation with one of the suspects is a bit overdone - but as John Curran says in the foreword to my edition, it has a lot of the ingredients of Christie's future success in place: "an extended family, a poisoning drama, a twisting plot, and a dramatic and unexpected final revelation." Still, I suspect its popularity rests on its crucial place in the chronology of the Christie canon and on a couple of decent screen adaptations rather than on general quality. I had read it as a teenager but completely forgotten any of the details.

My edition also includes the deleted original version of the final scene, where Poirot would have unfolded the solution while testifying in court; Christie's publisher told her that this was too implausible (this, in a novel with time-travelling robots a Martian invasion three different people accessing strychnine the day the victim decides to change the terms of her will) and she opted instead for the grand revelation scene in the drawing room for which she was to become famous. It's also notable that the story is illustrated with maps and handwriting samples, to add verisimilitude, a bit reminiscent of the way we are told that Tintin in the Land of the Soviets is a montage of our hero's own photographs; there's probably a micro-study to be done of how and why Christie moved away from that technique.

This is the fifth most popular of Christie's novels on LibraryThing, and the fourth starring Poirot, but only the first in which the perpetrator(s) of the crime are actually handed over to the police and judicial system at the end. And for all that Christie is seen as the poison queen, this is also the first which solely features poisoning - Roger Ackroyd is not poisoned, nobody in Death on the Nile is poisoned, and the victim on the Orient Express is drugged but done away with by more physical means. I shall keep tracking these statistics (if I keep up my Christie reading).