Catch Up

25 Feb 2006 06:32 pm
mtvessel: (Default)
31 Dec 2005
I've got rather behind on my reviews, so here are brief comments on the two and three star books I've read recently.

Flashman on the March - George MacDonald Fraser - HarperCollins, 2005
* * *
Sir Harry Flashman, the much-decorated Victorian hero who is secretly a coward, lecher and poltroon has to be one of the finest and funniest fictional historical characters created in the last forty years. That said, the novels tend to be somewhat uneven, steering a course as they do between (admittedly interesting) Victorian military history and the far more engaging character and exploits of Flashy himself. Unfortunately in this one the balance isn't quite right. The book covers the extraordinary Abyssinian expedition of 1868, when a British army travelled some two hundred and fifty miles along mountainous roads to a mighty fortress where a handful of British citizens were being held captive by Theodore, a certifiably insane and bloodthirsty monarch. Flashman is sent as an emissary to Masteeat, the queen of a tribe opposed to the Theodore, in the company of the comely Uliba. The usual quota of fornication and adventure results. The second half of the book is chiefly about Theodore and the events which occur when the British arrive, with Flashman being an uncharacteristically passive observer. The whole thing feels slightly tired, as if Fraser were only going through the motions with Flashman so that he could tell the military tale.

So why did he write the book? A clue is given in his introduction: "For Flashman's story is about a British army sent out in a good and honest cause by a government who knew what honour meant. It was not sent without intial follies and hesitations in high places, or until all hope of a peaceful issue was gone. It went with the fear of disaster hanging over it, but with the British public in no doubt that it was right. It served no politician's vanity or interest. It went without messianic rhetoric. There were no false excuses, no deceits, no cover-ups or lies, just a decent resolve to do a government's first duty; to protect its people, whatever the cost." I think we can safely deduce what Mr Fraser thinks of the invasion of Iraq.

Thinks - David Lodge - Penguin, 2001
* *
A disappointment, this - I've enjoyed Lodge's previous campus novels with their combination of high intellectualism, catholic angst and low sexual comedy, but this one felt like he was reprising the same old themes without having anything radically new to say. As usual there is an attraction between two sparky and intellectually dissimilar individuals, in this case Ralph Messenger, a professor of cognitive science, and Helen Reed, a recently bereaved novelist who is teaching creative writing, and various shenanigans as they interact with the other staff members in the university. The story is told in several different styles: a series of rather irritating stream-of-consciousness recordings by Ralph, conventional diary entries from Helen (rather too literary to be believable), some present tense third person descriptions and examples of the exercises that Helen sets her class. The cognitive science vs creative writing theme is interesting but doesn't really go anywhere, and the novel falls back on the tried and tested routines of revelations of infidelity and a surprise illness.

Morality for Beautiful Girls - Alexander McCall Smith - Abacus, 2003
* * *
Radio can be evil - my view of these books has been influenced by the vicious but accurate parodies of the radio adaptations by Dead Ringers, which poked fun at the thinness of the detective plots and the repetitious nature of the dialogue. The latter is more a fault of the adaptations than the books but the former charge has some truth. As usual there are several plots. Mma Ramotswe moves her office to Tlokweng Road Speedy Motors, just in time to help Mr J.L.B. Maketoni who is being uncharacteristically moody. There is also a mysterious boy who turns up in the bush smelling of lion, a government man who thinks his brother is being poisoned and a beauty pageant proprietor who wants to make sure that the contestants are as virtuous as they say. None of these mysteries is exactly intellectually taxing (the boy in the bush almost gets forgotten), but the denouement of the government man story is quite touching.

Only Forward - Michael Marshall Smith - HarperCollins, 1998
* * *
On the face of it, this is another of those rather irritating achingly cool post-cyberpunk SF novels by the likes of Steve Aylett, Jon Courtenay Grimwood
et al. It is set in a whimsical world of Neighbourhoods such as Colour, where the streets change colour to match your attire, or Action Centre, which is full of energetic people Getting Things Done. We have a hero, Stark, who seems to know it all and is constantly being complimented on his choice of clothing. He is sent by his sort-of girlfriend Zelda to locate a missing high-up Actioneer called Alkland. After that, things get more complicated (the subtitle on the cover - "ever wondered where you go to dream?" - gives some clue in what way). Stark and the other characters are reasonably engaging and witty and the novel does eventually sort of explain the otherwise completely implausible world of the Neighbourhoods, but I anticipated the final plot twist about a hundred pages before it happened.
mtvessel: (Default)
25 Jun 2005
The Full Cupboard of Life - Alexander McCall Smith - Abacus 2004
* * * *
This is another Botswana-set tale about Mma Ramotswe and her No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency, though it must be said that the whodunnit pretext is growing progressively thinner with each passing volume. The detective plot here concerns a successful businesswoman who wants Mma Ramotswe to check out four possible suitors for her hand. Do they really love her, or are they just after her money? The plotting is so perfunctory that two of the four suitors never appear at all and the ending is disappointing and rushed.

Fortunately there are other storylines that compensate. The main one concerns the attempts of Mr J.L.B. Maketoni, Mma Ramotswe's everlasting fiance, to extricate himself from a sponsored parachute jump on behalf of the local orphanage, into which he has been talked by its wily matron Mma Ptokwani. There are other plots to do with shoddy workmanship on a car and a significant event for Mma Ramotswe which need not detain us here.

Despite the disappointing plotting, this is still an enjoyable read. The deceptive simplicity of the style and the basic decency and politeness of the characters is very engaging. In an age where most images of Africa are negative - starving children, AIDS victims, corruption, war - it is a breath of fresh air to to have a series that celebrates the positive features and strengths of its people. I am sure that the Botswana portrayed in these novels is far from the reality - McCall Smith has undoubtedly downplayed the chaos and squalor - but I for one would like it to exist (and I am certainly now interested in going to see what it is really like). It is probably sensible, however, that the books are so short. Any longer, and like a sweet dessert, they would become cloying.

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