Thursday, 15 August 2019

Books: The Literary Reflection, XVIII

And so the wheel turns once again, and another batch of books makes it into 'The Literary Reflection'. Perhaps, in days gone by or days still to come, some of these might get a post all their own, but for now they will get a snippet each. Reading four novels over fourteen hours of coach travel is a bit draining to the grey cells.

'The White Company' (1891) by Arthur Conan Doyle

Expectations were mixed when I decided to get 'The White Company', but it turned out to be a very good adventure novel, albeit it one with a slightly disappointing ending. Set during the Hundred Years War, and chronicling the adventures of a young nobleman called Alleyne upon his leaving monastery life, the novel is in many ways an epic. Alleyne becomes the squire of a gung ho knight called Sir Nigel Loring, who is asked to take over the command of a mercenary troop called the White Company and participate in the war against Spain, and the story is about the journey to find that command and about Alleyne's love for Loring's precocious daughter.

It really is an unexpectedly good read, which shouldn't be surprising at all for something written by Doyle, but it's also quite slight. It's probably best to consider it in the same bracket as 'Ivanhoe', which is a compliment, and class it as a adolescent adventure story. A good one. The supporting characters are good, and some of the episodes during the narrative are gripping, but there is a significant problem with the ending, wherein several heroic sacrifices were reversed in order to provide a happy ending. It seems rather strange for me, the advocate of not killing people in stories, to say that!

'Below Suspicion' (Gideon Fell) (1947) by John Dickson Carr

It's time for another story with Dr Gideon Fell, the almost supernaturally smart sleuth with no boundaries. On this occasion, Fell is tangentially connected with a string of poisonings, along with ace counsel for the defence Patrick Butler. In fact, Butler becomes far more involved than is wise, being interested in two consecutive suspects. Dr Fell doesn't appear heavily in the story, until near the end, and it would be deeply counter-productive to reveal the denouement of it all. His involvement is, however, a pivotal part of the story. Really, it's a Patrick Butler story, as he is confounded by his belief in his own infallibility, and the perils of falling in love. Overall, this is very good, with not much mystery except for one key misunderstanding. The final confrontation is a doozy, where suddenly that misunderstanding is overturned and all makes sense, and no more can safely be said.

'The Trials Of Rumpole' (Rumpole) (1979) by John Mortimer

This second set of Rumpole stories doesn't stick in the mind nearly so much as the first, which might be because it was read during a long and sleepy coach journey, in a bit of a determined rush. The one story of the six that definitely sticks out is the last one, 'Rumpole And The Age Of Retirement', wherein a family plot to make the loquacious barrister retire is twinned with another Timson family plot to force one of their venerable clan into retiring from fencing goods.

Actually, in retrospect, details of some more of the stories do come to mind. There is the unforgettable liaison between Guthrie Featherstone and a rebellious clerk, the doomed engagement of the perpetually wimpy George, and the inexplicable relationship between Erskine-Brown and the delightful Phylidda Trant. Oh, and a parallel between working as a barrister and working in the theatre! There is a lot here, after all.

Why, Miss Trant? Why was it Erskine-Brown? I sigh in confusion.

'The Stainless Steel Rat For President' (Stainless Steel Rat) (1982) by Harry Harrison

Jim DiGriz returns once again, in what might have been the chronological end of his adventures, as Harrison went back to fill in the beginning of his story after this episode. Filling in prehistory is a disgusting habit, isn't it? Perhaps they will be good books, anyway? In any case, in 'The Stainless Steel Rat For President', Jim is lured to the newly rediscovered planet of Nuevo Paraiso (New Paradise) by the discovery of a corpse with his name figuratively written all over it. Nuevo Paraiso isn't quite the paradise it claims to be, however, since it has been ruled by a democratically elected (and nefariously re-elected) presidential dictator for more than a century. Thus, taking this as a crooked challenge, Jim decides to out-rig the election and bring the (pun-laden) world to its honestly democratic fate. This is another decent episode in the solid Rat series, but on this occasion the DiGriz family unit really feels bolted on, and we miss the Special Corps background a little. Sometimes, you just want that rogue running alone and in great danger! Also, the Rat is clearly beginning to feel his age, which is a bit sad. Oh, horror, horror indeed.


Thursday, 8 August 2019

Books: The Literary Reflection, XVII

There's no way around it. There are three weblogs worth of book posts to write, and this first one has been gathering dust since April. Oh, the shame, the infamy, the dawdling while mildly sick...

'The Stainless Steel Rat Wants You' (Stainless Steel Rat) (1978) by Harry Harrison

On this occasion, Slippery Jim DiGriz and his now grown family have to save the known galaxy from an invasion of non-humanoid aliens. Yes, they do exist! However, there may be an even more nefarious threat behind the aliens, and even more special Corps than Jim's own Special Corps. This latest instalment in the series is as entertaining as the previous entries, and is a touch more substantial as we get to grips with the true story behind the sinister Grey Men. It's still funny, still some of the more fantastic science fiction that you might easily find, and still completely daft.

'Galileo's Daughter' (1999) by Dava Sobel

This is an interesting read. Apparently almost all of Galileo's correspondence was lost, but the letters from his daughter to him still exist, which are reproduced and translated here in relation to his story. The description and title of the book are rather deceptive, though, as this is almost entirely about Galileo at its heart. Yes, there is some information about Virginia, and life in her convent and local area, but there's no doubt who the star of the history is. Still, if you want a primer on Galileo without diving deep in a more serious account, then this is a good place to start. Superficially, Galileo was certainly a genius, but he definitely seems to have partly destroyed himself by playing games with his own religion in an era when that Church utterly dominated his land. He did poke the bear. Never poke a bear without a pressing need.

'Right Ho, Jeeves' (Jeeves And Wooster) (1934) by PG Wodehouse

Back in the Wodehousian lands, we reach 'Right Ho, Jeeves', in which Bertie first becomes entangled in the romantic web between Madeline Bassett, the bringer of insipid chaos, and Gussie Fink-Nottle, the king of newts. Oh the horror and confusion that ensues when Bertie decides that Jeeves has lost his touch, and opts to tackle the tangled webs himself! Tuppy Glossop and Cousin Angela torn asunder, Aunt Dahlia separated from her prized chef Anatole, the dreaded Basset turning to past (imagined) loves when Gussie stumbles, strange faces leering in through windows, and even more strife. This is not quite as good as 'The Code Of The Woosters', being a bit more forced in its contrivances, but the first appearances of the Bassett and the Fink-Nottle surely raises it to a higher level. Oh, the stars really are a bit like a god's daisychain, aren't they. I shall retire now, to wax poetic.

'Rumpole Of The Bailey' (Rumpole) (1978) by John Mortimer

This first set of short stories, adapted from the first series of the television series, is very interesting. Despite being rooted in a time long ago, the misadventures of John Mortimer's loquacious barrister are still shockingly prescient, and his ability to speak truths (and sometimes other things) without being hampered by what we now call political correctness can be shocking. Without having viewed the episodes in advance, it is impossible to write about the amount of adaptation necessary to get from screen to page, but you can still hear Leo McKern wandering around in his signature role. Good old Leo.

John Mortimer covers a lot of ground in these six stories, ranging from criminal dynasties and children being allowed to choose their own destinies, to alternative societies being allowed to flourish in their own little bubbles, via a quandary or two for Rumpole in rape cases and his own marital life. More words will be reserved for the television series, when it finally gets here. If it's even only comparable to this prose version, then it will be excellent. Come to us, McKern, come to us. Bring your quotations with you.

For now, you should definitely read this first set of stories, and see what you think.