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wot I red on my hols by alan robson (sfnal sfnull)

Ce N'est Pas un Titre (Avec Mes Excuses à René Magritte)

The Prestige has long been one of my favourite Christopher Priest novels. It is also the only one of Priest’s novels that has been filmed. The Magic is a small book that Christopher Priest has written to describe and discuss his involvement with the making of the movie. He actually had almost no direct involvement at all with the production of the film – wisely, he left that work to the professionals – but he did spend a lot of time on the periphery of the process. Indeed, at one point he set up an automatic google search to keep him up to date with everything the internet could report about the doings of the director, Christopher Nolan, which, unfortunately, meant that he got bombarded with far too much irrelevant material about Batman, another film which Nolan had directed. Priest describes this material as "puerile", a judgement with which I whole-heartedly agree, and for a time he wondered if Nolan really was the right person to direct a movie based upon The Prestige. Would Nolan be able to turn successfully from the banalities of Batman to the complex subtleties of The Prestige? It was a worrying thought.

Probably because he was very much on the outside looking in, Priest found the manner in which his book was adapted for the screen to be quite a fascinating process in its own right. After all, nobody knew better than Priest himself just how complex and cerebral the novel actually was, and for the life of him he really couldn’t see how a film could possibly be made from it, so when he was presented with the first draft of the script he was satisfyingly surprised to see just how well and how cleverly his story had been adapted for the screen. His doubts about Nolan as a director disappeared and when the movie finally appeared, Christopher Priest watched it in open-mouthed wonder. He really was very pleased indeed with the final result, a statement that I suspect a lot of novelists who have had their books adapted for the screen would not be able to make!

The Magic discusses the differences between the film and the book in quite a lot of detail. Priest tells us how he came to write the original novel in the first place, and he describes just what he was trying to achieve with it. He then goes on to talk about what the movie makers did to his book and he tells us why he felt comfortable with the changes that they made. All in all, The Magic is an utterly fascinating insight into the process of turning a novel into a film.

But what about the original novel itself? What is there about The Prestige that might have drawn Nolan’s attention to it in the first place? It’s certainly spectacular enough, full of sound and fury and special effects both on the page as well as on the screen. But there’s a lot more to it than that.

The novel was originally published in 1995. The film appeared just over a decade later in 2006. It tells the story of a prolonged feud between two stage magicians in the late 1800s in England. It is epistolary in structure, being made up, for the most part, of a collection of entries from diaries kept by the protagonists. The title derives from the novel's (fictional) definition of stage illusions having three distinct parts: the setup, the performance, and the prestige (the final effect) itself – though in the manner of all the best magicians, Priest has something that you can’t see cunningly concealed in plain sight up his sleeve, which leads to an extra twist in the tail. The prestige turns out to imply something rather more concrete than just the final effect of a complex illusion.

The novel faithfully follows the structure of a stage illusion and, like the stage illusion, it successfully persuades you that what you are seeing is the truth even when it isn’t. Consequently, The Prestige is one of the very few novels that genuinely repays a slow, and careful re-read after you finish it for the first time so that you can see just how cleverly you have been manipulated. Both narrators are unreliable and nothing is what it seems to be (though the magicians never lie, at least not directly) because that is their stock in trade. Illusion and reality, reality and illusion. Where does one end and the next one begin? The answers to these kinds of questions are just as much the prerogative of a novelist as they are the prerogative of a stage magician, and this novel makes it abundantly clear just why that is so. All his writing life Priest has been struggling to come to grips with the shifting nature of truth. The Prestige is probably as close as he has ever come to pinning it down.

Joanne Harris’ novel Gentlemen and Players belongs in the grand old British tradition of boarding school novels crossed with a kind of a detective story. It is set at St Oswald’s , a boarding school somewhere in the North of England. Confusingly, the story has three distinct first-person narrators, two of whom, it quickly becomes apparent, are the same person 15 years apart. I’m sorry if that sounds complicated, but it’s a complicated story and the different narrative voices really are required to tell it properly.

The first narrative, set in the present day, is told by Roy Straitley, the Latin master who is about to clock up his 100th term of teaching at St Oswald’s.  He may be nearing retirement, he may be old and eccentric, but he is no Mr Chips – although he finds himself increasingly sidelined as modern educational priorities diminish the importance of classical studies in general and of Latin in particular, his length of service at the school has left him well prepared to cope with the crises that are now starting to arise. He’s seen scandals, improprieties and tragedies before. He may lose battles, but he refuses to lose the war. The anonymous narrator will find Roy Straitly to be a formidable foe...

It quickly becomes clear that the second narrative voice belongs to a person whose father was once the school caretaker. This second story flits backwards and forwards in time – sometimes it takes place in the present day and sometimes the narrative voice comes from the past and we see the caretaker’s child become more and more fascinated by the boarding school world of cricket and of Latin prep. Because of this fascination, the mystery narrator begins to masquerade as a St Oswald's pupil, attending school events whenever possible and mingling with all the boys and the masters. Eventually this leads to a torrid, but unrequited love affair with a genuine St Oswald's schoolboy who has floppy hair and a wickedly cruel streak (bullies gotta bully). The consequences are tragic and now, 15 years on, our villainous narrator has returned to St Oswald's with a fake ID and a phoney CV, ostensibly to teach but really to wreak a murderous revenge on the school which our narrator loathes with a fierce and furious passion.

The first steps in the revenge are quite innocuous, but they become less so as time passes and it isn’t long before masters are disgraced and dismissed, and people begin to go missing – perhaps they have died. Some rather grim details come to light and at least one body has to be disposed of in a rather interesting way. The school seems to be set on a road to disaster. Will it have to close down? Will Roy Straitley be able to resolve the mysteries and save the day?

And just who is the second narrative voice anyway? When you find the answer to that interesting little question, I promise you that it will take your breath away.

I’ve been reading a couple more of Max Allan Collins’ novels about Nathan Heller, a private detective from Chicago who gets himself involved in the investigation of many of the major scandals, crimes and mysteries of the twentieth century. Collins really has two major problems to solve with each of his Heller novels. Firstly how does a relatively ordinary person find himself so closely involved in the doings of the wheelers and the dealers, the movers and the shakers and the powers behind the thrones of the world? And secondly, how can Collins come up with satisfying explanations for mysteries which even today remain largely unresolved and unexplained? That he succeeds in solving both these problems so convincingly every time in every novel makes these books fascinating and quite addictive. A large part of their appeal comes from the skilful way in which Collins weaves so very many real people and real events into his story. This has the effect of blurring the lines convincingly so that fact becomes quite indistinguishable from fiction. And, of course, that means that everything in the books must be true. Nothing else could possibly make any sense.

Majic Man is set towards the end of the 1940s when flying saucers were seen in the skies over New Mexico. What are these strange craft? Are aliens being held at Roswell? Nathan Heller wants to know. Naturally, being a science fiction fan, I was predisposed towards the idea of aliens and I felt quite excited as the evidence mounted up in favour of aliens. The final explanation of the flying saucer phenomenon proved to be deeply satisfying and it perfectly fitted the facts as both Heller and I understood them.

Angel in Black was a rather different kettle of fish. It was about the so-called Black Dahlia murder of 1947. Elizabeth Short, an aspiring actress, was found murdered in Los Angeles. The case was highly publicized at the time and it became quite notorious because it was so gruesome. Elizabeth had been horribly mutilated and abused. And as a final insult, her corpse was bisected at the waist. The murder has never been solved...

Unlike the Roswell incident, details of which are well known all over the world, the Black Dahlia murder was purely a local phenomenon with very little impact outside of Los Angeles in particular and America in general. I was barely aware that it had ever happened and I certainly didn’t find it very interesting. Furthermore, Heller’s solution was rather too much of a deus ex machina for my taste and I found it unconvincing.

I’m not saying that Angel in Black is a bad book – as always, Collins sets his scenes absorbingly and the story flows well. I certainly don’t regret reading it. I just found it much less interesting and much less involving than the other Nathan Heller novels because the Black Dahlia was not part of the folklore I grew up with.

If your name is Geoffrey Archer and you have a yearning to write novels you probably ought to change your name to something else. John Smith might be a good name to choose. Plugging "Geoffrey Archer Author" into any internet search engine will overwhelm you with results for Jeffrey Archer who is a completely different and much more famous person and writer. Consequently it can be rather hard to track down Geoffrey Archer’s novels. However I did manage to stumble across Dark Angel and I enjoyed it a lot.

Tom Smedley’s sister was murdered on 14th September 1948. Her death marked him and haunted him all his life long. A tramp was convicted of killing her and he was sentenced to hang, a sentence that was later commuted to life in prison, though that didn’t do him much good – he was killed by another inmate not long into his sentence. Tom had never been completely convinced of the tramp’s guilt and the mystery of his sister’s death continued to blight his life. His suspicions about his closest friend Marcus Warwick destroyed their friendship and cast a shadow over everything that happened to him. Many years later, more than forty years after her death, Tom stumbled across his sister’s diary when he was packing up his late mother’s house. The diary contained a lot of intriguing hints and Tom finally began to get a glimpse of what might really have happened all those years ago…

Despite the fact that this is a murder mystery spread out over a whole lifetime, it remains much more Tom’s story than it is his sister’s. Tom grows up, is called up for national service, fights (and nearly dies) in Korea and goes on to lead a rather eccentric but ultimately quite successful and satisfying life after leaving the army. Marcus, although he initially showed a lot of promise as an artist, never quite lived up to that promise. He too fought in Korea and despite his feud with Tom he was directly responsible for saving Tom’s life when Tom was attacked by a Chinese patrol. But once he left the army, things went from bad to worse for him.

Nevertheless, the events that happened to both of them in Korea reverberate down the decades and in the opening years of the twenty-first century everything comes to a head. Tom finds out what really happened to his sister and Marcus finds out that youthful indiscretions can have enormous ramifications.

The campaign in Korea is central to resolving the issues that plague both Tom and Marcus and a very large section of the novel concerns itself with the strategies, tactics and politics of the Korean war. I found this section of the novel to be utterly fascinating and as I was reading it, it occurred to me that although I’ve read countless novels about WWI and WWII and Vietnam, I’ve never read any other novels about the Korean war. It seems to have been largely forgotten by the literary world. I have no idea why that should be. There’s M*A*S*H, of course, but that’s only peripherally about the war. And there’s The Manchurian Candidate but that’s much more about American politics than it is about Korea even though it is the bogeyman of North Korean brainwashing that drives the plot. Apart from those two, I can’t think of any other Korean war novels. One of literature’s little mysteries I suppose…

Bentley Little made his name as a horror novelist so it comes as a little bit of a surprise (pun not intended) to find his name attached to The Consultant, a novel in which a consultant is called in to save a failing computer company. However it quickly becomes apparent that this person is no ordinary consultant – his recommendations become increasingly bizarre and he himself becomes distinctly more forceful, more menacing and more terrifying as his consultancy progresses. The final scenes definitely take the story into rather straightforward (and therefore quite predictable) supernatural thud and blunder horror territory which is a little bit of a shame because up to that point the novel had been a very clever and quite biting satire about modern business practices.

I’ve worked with three companies that had begun to go down the gurglers and which tried and failed to bail themselves out  by calling in consultants. So it is quite clear to me that Bentley Little must have suffered through exactly the same nonsense. He never puts a foot wrong as he documents the ever increasing idiocies of the consultants’ schemes and the consequent rapid fall in morale of the people who are subject to them.

As far as I can tell, by the time a company calls the consultants in, it is generally too late to save anything. All the consultants will be able to do is paint over the cracks by writing reports that consist largely of platitudes camouflaged in jargon. Then, while everyone is puzzling over what their recommendations actually mean, the consultants will take their money and run, hoping all the while that they can get safely away before everything falls down around everybody’s ears. In my experience, in every single case, what the company should have done is listen to advice from its own employees, the men and women at the coal face who are getting their fingers dirty every day. Nobody knows better than they do what the company is doing wrong and nobody knows better then them how to fix it. But corporate culture always wants to call in outside "experts" to analyse their performance because deep down they don’t really trust their own staff. Advice from the shop floor is generally disregarded even though that is where the expertise really lies. If the implications of this novel are to be believed, it seems quite certain that Bentley Little shares my opinion. So it goes…

In some ways The Consultant is a very bitter book. Bentley Little seems to be working out his own frustrations in it. But for the same reasons, it’s also quite a comical book and apart from the predictable ending I enjoyed it a lot.

The Lick of Love is the second volume of Julian Clary’s autobiography. It takes up where the first volume (A Young Man’s Passage) left off and it stops in the early months of 2020, for obvious reasons. What makes this volume so special is that Julian has structured the events of his life around the dogs that he has lived with. More than anything else, this book is a biography of his dogs with peripheral information about Julian’s life and times as he interacts with them. It’s really quite touching as well as informative.

His first dog, of course, was Fanny the Wonder Dog who was an integral part of his stage act for many years. But she was much more than just a stage prop, she was very much an important part of his life as well as of his act and when she retired and eventually died he was, quite naturally, devastated. He had many other dogs in the years that followed but none of them were incorporated into his stage performance because they made it quite clear that they didn’t want to be part of it and Julian respected their wishes. That’s the kind of person that he is. Fanny the Wonder Dog insisted on joining him on stage and thoroughly enjoyed herself while she was there, so he was happy to have her with him, but as she got older the magic and the glamour of stage life lost its appeal for her and she stopped wanting to perform. So Julian changed his act and she retired with dignity. The dog always comes first as far as Julian is concerned. You have to admire and respect him for that.

I saw Julian live on stage in Auckland and I laughed so hard I almost wet myself. He’s flamboyantly gay in both his public and his private life and on stage he milks that persona for all that it is worth. Single, double and sometimes even triple entendres pour out of him. He’s very much a seaside postcard brought to life – it’s a peculiarly British form of humour, extraordinary wit disguised as smut, and Julian’s camp nature really brings out the best (or possibly the worst) of it. Perhaps not surprisingly he’s done a lot of pantomime. It seems to me that he’s ideally suited for it and the book makes it clear how much he enjoys doing it.

I don’t share Julian’s lifestyle – promiscuous gay sex and lots of drug taking has no appeal to me – but I do share his politics and his general outlook on life and how to live it. I admire him a lot and I wish him well.

I’m also dead jealous of his looks – he is so handsome and so pretty. It’s not fair!

Woof, woof!

Christopher Priest The Prestige Gollancz
Christopher Priest The Magic GrimGrin
Joanne Harris Gentlemen and Players Black Swan
Max Allan Collins Majic Man Signet
Max Allan Collins Angel in Black Signet
Geoffrey Archer Dark Angel Century
Bentley Little The Consultant Cemetary Dance
Julian Clary The Lick of Love Quercus
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