Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Review: Blue Stockings

Blue Stockings
Blue Stockings by Jessica Swale

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This play dramatises the failed campaign to award degrees to women at Cambridge University in 1897. It's a splendid piece of drama, and can be forgiven for sacrificing realism for dramatic impact.

Most of the characters, with the exception of Henry Maudsley, are fictitious, but the thrust of the story is true enough. Women had been allowed to study and receive certificates from Cambridge since the 1860s, but were not allowed to graduate. Swale's modern play recounts the failed campaign of 1896-7 to change all that.

In a series of short scenes, Swale charts the progress of four female students and the varying responses of their male counterparts. The responses range from guarded sympathy through derision to outright, violent hostility (and the latter, regrettably, is true enough). There are 25 scenes in the play, which helps create pace while making a few difficulties for staging. The script also calls for four young women and at least four young men, which will cause problems for all but the biggest amateur societies trying to stage the play.

Swale opts for vigorous dialogue at the expense of period realism. This would be forgiveable if it were solely for dramatic effect, but I feel she didn't really think it through. One could forgive the young ladies talking of Van Gogh and Einstein, even if it's implausible that teenage students in 1896 would have heard of either in 1896, but the word 'hassle' wasn't even invented then, and no Cambridge lecturer would have said 'millennia' when she meant 'millennium'. The numerous anachronisms seem more careless than deliberate.

Still, it's a vibrant, vigorous play that brings a historical story to life.

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Thursday, October 16, 2014

Review: Neuromancer

Neuromancer by William Gibson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A good friend of mine has seven copies of 'Neuromancer'. He's got the right idea, because I think I'd need to read it seven times just to understand it. There's no chance of spoilers here because hardly any paragraphs revealed the plot to me, such that at the end I had to look up the plot summary on Wikipedia just so I'd have some idea of what I'd just read.

Since the concepts of 'cyberspace', 'virtual reality', 'the Matrix' and computer hacking are so much better understood now than when the book was written in 1984, I'm amazed anyone understood 'Neuromancer' at all when it was published. Yet it won shed-loads of awards and influenced a generation of SF writers, so someone made a lot more sense of it than I did. If you're wondering why no-one writes simple, futuristic SF yarns like Asimov or Arthur C Clarke any more, blame William Gibson.

'Neuromancer' is set in a low-rent, post-apocalyptic dystopia that reminded me of Naked Lunch, with the same drug-addled craziness that blurs the boundaries between reality and nightmare to the point of invisibility. There are also strong echoes of Blade Runner and even, with the barely grasped world of deception and dishonesty, The Big Sleep (it's surely no coincidence that the last lines are almost the same). Characters appear and are discarded; live and die and flip into and out of computer existences where life and death cease to have any meaning. The cyber-heist plot spirals away into a grim battle for survival in the real and virtual worlds and the final resolution is as baffling as the journey that led there.

So why three stars instead of one? Well there was something compelling about the narrative; its confused weirdness somehow mirrored the hero Case's bafflement and warped, drugged-up consciousness. I settled on reading it not to understand it but to go with the flow, rather as one listens to a Beethoven symphony. This is the same approach that worked with Jacob Polley's Talk of the Town and Ulysses. Try to understand it and you're on a hiding to nothing.

Whatever drugs Gibson was on, I don't want them.

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Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Review: My Boy Jack

My Boy Jack
My Boy Jack by David Haig

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Haig's drama succeeds by avoiding the clichéd and simplistic narrative so common in World War I literature. Yes, Kipling is vain, pompous, blindly patriotic and emotionally distant, but he still comes across as likeable, with a boyish enthusiasm for life and a genuine affection for his family. Jack, his doomed son, is a rounded and complex character, desperate to escape the suffocating atmosphere at home, while the daughter Elsie ("Bird") is a vigorous and strong-willed force in the family, rivalling her mother.

The story focuses on Rudyard Kipling's efforts to get his teenage son into the army, even before the war has begun. He has already been turned down by the Navy because of his appallingly bad eyesight. We see Jack enthusiastically following his father's efforts, but for his own reasons. We then see him with his men before going over the top at Loos and being reported "missing believed wounded" to his family. Apart from a tender flashback in which Rudyard shows his favouritism to his son above his daughter, this is the last we see of Jack.

The rest of the play focuses on the quest to find out JAck's fate, including a harrowing scene with a shell-shocked veteran who saw Jack's final moments.

The play's only weakness is the ending, where Haig sees Bird married off and then reacts to Hitler's rise to power, persuading him that his son's sacrifice was wasted. Finally, he reads his own poem 'My Boy Jack'. This feels like three different endings when only one was necessary.

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Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Review: The Last Days of Socrates

The Last Days of Socrates
The Last Days of Socrates by Plato

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Tredennick's translation is getting a little old-fashioned now (it was published in 1954 and last revised in 1969), but this remains one of the more accessible of Plato's works for the non-academic reader. It comprises four short works: Socrates' discussion with a friend before his trial; his speeches at the trial itself; a conversation after his conviction; and his last conversation and death.

What surprises the modern reader is the depth of humour and humanity on show. We expect classical texts to be dry, complicated and formal, but Socrates comes across as a real human being, mixing razor-sharp logic with gentle humour and even teasing. This is largely because his talent was not thinking but forcing others to think. He can also be frustratingly tactless, especially in the Apology (his speeches at the trial), almost goading the jury to condemn him.

After his death sentence, he spurns the chance to escape, arguing with infuriating logic that he is innocent because he has always been a loyal subject of Athens. If he ran away he would become guilty of subverting the laws of Athens and would thereby earn the death sentence he has already been given. His argument falls somewhere between Joseph Heller's Catch-22 and Immanuel Kant's Categorical Imperative.

Phaedo: the final piece and longer than all the others combined; is the report of his final conversations with his followers and ends with him taking the prescribed poison and dying.

It's also the least satisfactory. Partly this is because Socrates' arguments seem too formally structured, giving the impression that this is really Plato's philosophy, and partly because the 'unassailable' logic about the soul and the afterlife is so obviously flawed. Several times he asks his audience whether they have any objections to his reasoning. "None, Socrates," they reply, while I'm jumping up and down saying, "Me, me! I've got one! Your theory is based on a huge assumption that you've said nothing to justify."

Still, if Socrates had all the answers then the next 2,500 years of philosophy would have been pointless. But the genesis of Western thought and critical reasoning is here.

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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Review: Coram Boy: The Play

Coram Boy: The Play
Coram Boy: The Play by Helen Edmundson

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Admittedly, this review is based on seeing the National Theatre's film of its own 2005 production, so not all points hold.

The story plots the 18th Century lives of two boys and their obsession with one girl. One is the heir to a country estate who wants to devote his life to music instead; the other is the son of a thoroughly nasty character who takes money from unmarried mothers to send their babies to the Coram foundlings institution but then murders the children and pockets the cash. Not a nice man.

It's a compelling story, let down slightly by the failure of the two storylines to weave together. The National's production was let down by the intrusiveness of the music, which often drowned out the dialogue and is so prevalent that the show was practically an opera. It's other main failing was the cast, or possibly the director, who seemed to confuse running around, shrieking constantly and falling over with the more subtle art known as 'acting'.

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Monday, July 28, 2014

Review: Wintersmith

Wintersmith by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I'm not sure Terry Pratchett can write a bad book, but Wintersmith is unlikely to be many people's favourite Discworld novel. The plot is hardly gripping and old favourites Granny Weatherwax and Nanny Ogg seem to have been brought in to support a fairly weak cast. These include the Feegles: probably the most irritating characters in the whole Discworld series. If I were Scottish, I would probably find their stereotyped speech and behaviour offensive, but since I'm English it's merely irritating.

The plot concerns likeable teen witch Tiffany, who inadvertently becomes the love interest of the Wintersmith, the god of winter. She ambles around the rural areas of the disc, learning and dispensing witchy wisdom while trying to fend off the attentions of the Wintersmith and rescue summer. Some of the plot seems forced, with characters such as Roland being given a role simply because they were in earlier books and readers would wonder why they had disappeared. Horace the cheese seems to be there for no reason whatsoever.

As an opponent, the Wintersmith seems more of an annoyance than a menace, but the old witch Miss Treason is a lot of fun, keeping Tiffany on her toes while revealing the wicked and funny tricks of the real trade: helping people not through magic but by exploiting their credulity.

Yes, there's some trademark humour and clever philosophical musings that make Wintersmith a fun read, but Pratchett isn't really on top form here.

Note: The publisher deserves some criticism here. The book is labelled "A Story of Discworld". This, apparently, means that it's for young adults, which explains why it sometimes seems simplistic and shallow. But there's nothing to warn the uninitiated that this is YA.

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Thursday, July 17, 2014

Review: Fifty Sheds of Grey

Fifty Sheds of Grey
Fifty Sheds of Grey by C.T. Grey

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

The only joke in this book is in the title. How far can you go with shed-based puns mimicking mild erotica? Not far, it seems. This isn't a book: it's a novelty gift item and you can read it in ten minutes, but the joke wears thin after five. I only read it because a friend left it at a party. I'm a bit embarrassed to have read it at all.

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Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Review: Animal Farm

Animal Farm
Animal Farm by George Orwell adapted by Ian Wooldridge
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I was intrigued to know how Animal Farm could be adapted to the stage. The answer is, it hasn't been. My drama group had great fun reading it, but at no point could I see any drama going on. What we have is Orwell's classic prose in dialogue form, which would make a great radio play, with vague stage directions for the two or three bits of action (e.g. "There is a revolution and Jones is expelled").

The problem isn't that an imaginative director can't portray a cast of animals; it's that nothing really happens in the play. It's all talk with some very long speeches, which seldom makes for great theatre. I didn't think Animal Farm could be adapted to the stage. On this evidence, I still think so.

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Monday, June 16, 2014

Review: The Roaring Girl

The Roaring Girl
The Roaring Girl by Thomas Dekker

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It's fascinating to hear of a Jacobean play with a strong female lead who refuses to submit to her presumed role in society; one who, unlike Shakespeare's heroines, neither recants nor is ruined. But that's as good as it gets. The problem with 'The Roaring Girl' is that it's a weak play, written to cash in on the career of a contemporary celebrity. Imagine a 24th Century revival of 'Jordan: The Musical'.

Dekker and Middleton's prose is as difficult as Shakespeare's can be, but has none of the bard's sublime lyricism or glorious imagery. Often it's hard to work out what the characters are saying or where the plot is going, even though it's a simple, indeed simplistic, story.

The young Sebastian, frustrated by his father's refusal to sanction his marriage to Mary because her dowry is too small, persuades Moll, a notorious figure in the London underworld, to pretend to be his fiancée. The ploy is simple: seeing the unsuitable Moll, his father will decide that Mary isn't so bad after all and relent. And, after a half-baked attempt to lure Moll into theft (foiled by her steadfast virtue), that's what happens.

There's an amusing sub-plot of wives tricking their husbands, and we see the machinations of a rogue called Laxton, but the complexity of the language left me uncertain exactly what he was up to.

The Roaring Girl came from a golden age of British theatre, but then, Hermann's Hermits came from a golden age of British music. It didn't stop them being rubbish.

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Monday, May 19, 2014

Review: Feersum Endjinn

Feersum Endjinn
Feersum Endjinn by Iain M. Banks

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I haven't read much SF since I was a teenage fan of Asimov. I'm a big fan of Iain Banks, so who better to introduce me to the modern form of the genre, especially when I've just finished the magnificent [b:The Crow Road|12021|The Crow Road|Iain Banks|https://d.gr-assets.com/books/1330063373s/12021.jpg|950451], which he must have been writing at the same time as Feersum Endjinn?

SF writers have always grumbled that they're not taken seriously by the literary world, and clearly they're trying to do something about it. I found the complexities of the plot tortuous to the point of bafflement, with the book slowly resolving itself into four main characters operating in different places, with storylines that don't come together till the very end. Each is in a different part of a completely alien future Earth – one that includes its own alternative reality – which makes it a struggle to keep track of what's going on and to identify which details are important to the plot and which are mere colouring. It doesn't help that Bacsule toks in weerd fonetick teckst speek & u ½ 2 konsentrate reel hard coz it goz on 4 payjiz an payjiz lyk dat.

As far as I can grasp it, the Earth is entering a dust cloud that will extinguish all life. Two factions are fighting for control of some power that might save the planet. At various times they can transport themselves into an alternative reality; one that is infecting the real reality and where time moves at about 1,000 times the speed of the real world.

Gadfium works for the king and is trying to decipher the messages from a mysterious plain of stones, which she thinks might be messages from an earlier race of humans who abandoned Earth centuries before. Count Sessine also works for the king but keeps getting assassinated and is pretty soon down to his last life as he tries to work out who keeps killing him and why. Asura has no idea who or what she is but is trying to find out. Bacsule has lost his pet ant Ergates and is trying to find him. One, many or all of them might hold the key to saving mankind and saving the reader from his utter confusion about what is going on.

What Bacsule calls the "feersum endjinn" isn't even mentioned till the last page, and how it works and exactly what it does isn't adequately explained even then, as if Banks had collapsed over the line, mentally exhausted, hoping his readers wouldn't think it mattered.

This is Iain M Banks (he uses the 'M' to distinguish his science fiction from his literary fiction), so the characterisation is brilliant, there is a subtle vein of humour running all the way through and the prose style is masterful. In anyone else's hands this story would have collapsed under its own weight, leaving the novel with as much structure as a bowl of porridge.

You've got to admire Banks for the feat of imagination that created this richly detailed world and for holding it together all the way to the end. Considering the complexities of the plot and the bizarre universe where it takes place, I'm amazed that I understood it at all, though it still needed an unsatisfactory passage at the end where one character explains to the whole world exactly what was going on. That's always a sign of failure in any novel. And two days after finishing it, I'm not sure I could explain to anyone exactly what it was all about.

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Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: HHhH

HHhH by Laurent Binet

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In seeking to be oh-so-clever, HHhH abandons fiction, history and narrative in favour of a post-modern meta-narrative that becomes so tangled and confused that it undermines itself at every turn. Binet claims to despise fiction, yet his book is classified as fiction, yet nothing in it is fictitious – unless the story about how the book was researched is itself fictitious. But if so, the whole premise of Binet’s obsession with truth falls to the ground, because how can a book obsessed with telling the truth require the reader to do his own research to determine whether the author is telling the truth or not? More importantly, it’s boring.

Binet flails between fact and speculation, and despite his stated veneration of facts and contempt for fiction, he gets many of his facts wrong. He claims to have seen the damage to the rear door of Heydrich’s car, even though the car didn’t have a rear door; he says that Heydrich changed the spelling of his first name – a claim found nowhere else – and he declares that the Hussite rebellion was crushed at the Battle of White Mountain, which didn’t happen till two centuries later.

HHhH is confused and muddled, neither fiction nor non-fiction, neither story nor history, with a pedestrian style that’s easy enough on the eye but hardly great prose, and the lack of page numbers is a pretentious irritation.

Binet totters from denouncing fiction to filling his account with baseless speculation. He wants to make his story personal but makes it impossible to care about him, making his account of his research bland, impersonal and tedious. It’s all flat, self-indulgent anecdote and I’m baffled as to how Binet – still less his publisher – imagined that anyone would care. Giving a book an unusual structure isn’t enough to make it a classic, whatever Martin Amis says. Most of the time it comes across as simply lazy, not to mention arrogant and hypocritical.

Considering the fulsome praise it has received, HHhH is a monumental disappointment.

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Sunday, May 4, 2014

Review: The Old Inn

The Old Inn
The Old Inn by Bettine Manktelow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The Old Inn is an old-fashioned, workmanlike play that makes a decent choice for amateur drama. There's nothing much bad about it: the characters are standard types but well-enough created and the plot is sound. I enjoyed it well enough, but the last half-hour could have been cut to ten minutes as character after character re-enters to tie up every conceivable loose end, even irrelevant ones or ones that were so obvious that the audience had already worked them out.

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Monday, March 24, 2014

Review: Glitz

Glitz by Elmore Leonard

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Elmore Leonard is the master of suspense crime thrillers, and 1985's 'Glitz' is the novel the catapulted him into the big time. It's hard to see why, because the author is trundling along in third gear here.

'Glitz' is everything a pulp novel should be: well-plotted with well-defined characters: a story of flawed good people pitched against mundane, low-rent evil; a novel that entertains without ever approaching the status of art. Leonard's world has all the seediness of Raymond Chandler's, with our hero being drawn into a murky underworld and getting mixed up with some thoroughly disreputable characters, but with none of the humour or originality of imagery that raises Chandler to the status of genius.

Miami cop Vincent goes to Puerto Rico to recuperate after being shot, where he finds himself being tailed by bad man Teddy, whom he put away several years before and who harbours a grudge against him based on little more than the look in Vincent's eyes when he arrested him. A girl he meets leads him into the company of a casino owner and his wife, as well as a nightclub singer, which takes him to Atlantic City where he becomes a freelance murder detective after one of the above falls off a balcony. Meanwhile he hooks up with the nightclub singer and gets drawn into tidying up some of the nasty underworld activity associated with the casino. Teddy, perhaps disgruntled that his intended victim isn't giving him his full attention, commits another couple of pointless murders, partly to enhance his status as bad man and partly to give the book a high-enough body count to fulfil the requirements of the genre.

There aren't many plot holes, although some characters do some unlikely things that prove highly convenient to the plot. Some of the characters have annoyingly similar names: Teddy, Ricky and Jackie; DeLeon and LaDonna. The dialogue is excellent and perfectly pitched; the prose suitably economical.

'Glitz' is a fun read, but it's best read without the knowledge that some people think it's a masterpiece, which it clearly isn't.

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Friday, February 28, 2014

Review: The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By

The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By
The Man Who Watched The Trains Go By by Georges Simenon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's my first brush with Simenon, so I'm expecting this 1938 roman dur to be something a bit noir and a bit psychological: somewhere between Albert Camus and Raymond Chandler. I was close on the first call: The Book With A Title Too Long To Quote In Full does seem to foreshadow Camus' [b:The Stranger|49552|The Stranger|Albert Camus|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1349927872s/49552.jpg|3324344], but it quickly becomes clear that this is a satire, not a thriller. Time to reorganise those Goodreads shelves again.

When his boss tells Kees Popinga that the company, and thus Kees himself, is on the brink of ruin, the mild-mannered, responsible family man decides to shrug off all socially imposed conventions and do whatever he pleases. Step one is to abandon his family, step on a train and seduce his former boss's mistress. She has other ideas and laughs so hard that he leaves her gagged on her hotel bed and debunks to Paris. Unfortunately, he gags her too tight and she dies, leading to a manhunt through the streets of Paris.

Simeonon has great fun puncturing Popinga's confused vanity: having declared that he is free from social conventions and the opinions of others, he then sits down and writes lengthy, self-justifying screeds to the newspapers complaining about how he has been misrepresented and misunderstood. In his new, 'free' life he is even more a slave to society's opinion than he ever was before.

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Review: Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung

Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung
Psychotic Reactions And Carburetor Dung by Lester Bangs

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Bangs might have been 'the greatest music journalist ever', but his rambling, gonzo style is still an acquired taste. There was a clue to his limitations in the opening piece in [b:Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader|64668|Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste A Lester Bangs Reader|Lester Bangs|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1386924771s/64668.jpg|62770]: when he's not writing about music, Bangs is self-indulgently tedious. In short, there's a passion to his music writing that evaporates as soon as he strays into other areas.

This book contains plenty of his quirkily brilliant music journalism - hence the three stars - but it's weighed down by far too many rambling pieces with only the vaguest relevance to rock'n'roll. There's even a section entitled 'Unpublishable', and believe me that's an accurate description. One item details how he'd spent every New Year's Eve since 1967; then there's a book review followed by five pages of notes for the same review, which is an unutterably pointless waste of space.

Then there's a rambling, 12-page piece that I think is a movie review - though I had to check on the internet to be sure - which includes four pages of Bangs' own fantasy and a scene-by-scene synopsis of the film. It's tedious as hell.

Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste is a brilliant collection, so how can another collection by the same author fall so flat? Probably because the editors of Main Lines thought of Bangs as a music journalist, while this collection's editor, Greil Marcus, was a friend of Bangs and wanted to present "the story … of one man's attempt to confront his loathing of the world, his love for it, and to make sense of what he found in the world and within himself."

Marcus has taken a great writer and sought out his weakest and most dated writing - thankfully fleshed out with some of his good stuff - in an attempt to create a sort of posthumous autobiography. But Bangs was Marcus' friend, not mine, and I simply don't care.

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Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Review: Sweet Tooth

Sweet Tooth
Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

For a novel by a Booker Prize winner, Sweet Tooth seems, well, slight. McEwan seems to be cruising in third gear here, but then, McEwan in 3rd gear is like an Aston Martin in 3rd gear: exuding easy class while leaving mere Ford Mondeos in its wake. So four stars it is.

The blurb advertises a novel of betrayal and subterfuge; what it doesn't say is that the author is as untrustworthy as anyone. The result is that what seems like a highly readable yet not especially gripping novel has layers of subterfuge and dishonesty that run through every character and extend to the author himself.

The story concerns Serena, who is recruited into MI5 in the early 1970s and finds herself in charge of funding an unwitting author, who is expected to produce work that will validate the West in its ideological struggle with the Soviets. This gives McEwan the chance to find an outlet for the outlines of books he's now never going to write. Fair enough, author Tom's debut From The Somerset Levels looks a bit too close to [b:The Road|6288|The Road|Cormac McCarthy|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/books/1320606344s/6288.jpg|3355573] by Cormac McCarthy for McEwan ever to publish it himself.

As the ending reveals, McEwan has been playing several games with the reader, all of which raise an appreciative chuckle. It's only then that the fundamental dishonesty of the book is revealed, with teases hidden away and lies usually having two levels. It's this that reinstates the fourth star that Sweet Tooth lost by being a thriller that is neither thrilling nor dangerous.

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Saturday, February 22, 2014

Review: Master and Commander

Master and Commander
Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

It's difficult to see why such a grossly flawed book could have won such high praise. Sure, there's a decent story here, but the prose is pedestrian, the action is confusing and O'Brian is obsessed with the minutiae of 1800s maritime life to the exclusion of all else. He doesn't want to tell a story; he wants to show off his research. What's worse, he doesn't even want you to understand what he's writing because his baffling descriptions of how a sailing ship works are intended to show that he's cleverer than you. Being confusing isn't simply an error: it's intentional.

So there are some fascinating actions fought, but O'Brian skips over them so he can get back to the really important business of describing how the topgallants are lanyarded through the larboard fo'c'sle or some other such nonsense.

Characters are introduced by other characters talking about them, so we don't get to learn about their personality; we simply have it explained in a style befitting a school report. O'Brian is clearly an exponent of the 'tell-don't-show' school of writing, and his characterisation is shallow. One of the most important relationships in the novel - that between Aubrey and Dillon - goes sour for barely explained reasons, and the dramatic tension that this could have created is lost by Dillon simply being written out of the book without any resolution, as if the author realised he had an interesting human story developing and wanted to kill it before it got in the way of another few paragraphs about rigging.

The blurb on the back of my copy includes a tribute from [a:Amanda Foreman|183491|Amanda Foreman|https://d202m5krfqbpi5.cloudfront.net/authors/1309990297p2/183491.jpg], which is worth quoting because it describes what a book such as this should do but utterly fails to do:
His novels … embody the cruelty of battle, the comedy of men's lives, the uncertain fears that plague their lives; and yet, not far away, is the vision of an ideal existence.

This is staggering, because O'Brian deliberately fails to do any of these things. Had he bothered with them, then Master & Commander would have been a brilliant novel. Instead, it's frustratingly half-baked.

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Friday, January 17, 2014

Black Sabbath live at the Birmingham NIA, 22 December 2013

"When I say jump, you jump" 

Call me cynical, but I'm almost embarrassed to admit to enjoying Black Sabbath at Birmingham's National Indoor Arena. But I did, and big thanks to George for inviting me and Tim, Guy, Rachel and Naomi for being fabulous company, as always.
Being there matters less than telling people you were there

Sabbath were good, as were the support, but being a miserable old sod I like moaning. It makes me happy. Besides, you can still enjoy a show without losing sight of the hopeless sterility of it all.

It's collusion. It's a conspiracy to ruin the gig-going experience. It's not just the promoters. The venue, the band and dammit the audience are all in on this.

First up, the band. The NIA is a huge stage. Geezer Butler stood on his own, stage right, and looked like the loneliest man in Birmingham except when Ozzy shuffled over a couple of times to check his pulse. When you've got a right-handed bassist and a southpaw guitarist, they should be the other way round. Having the necks of the guitars pointing inwards puts enough distance between the players that they're not a band any more; just a collection of individuals. Audience and band keep their distance, just in case any un-approved human interaction disrupts the carefully planned event.

And that's where the collusion with the venue comes in. They want everything to be well-managed and ordered. The approved brand of beer comes in approved plastic bottles, which have to be swapped for approved plastic glasses before you go into the hall itself, where your wristband gets checked for the umpteenth time. There's no smoking, of course, but you can't just go outside any old door for a puff - there's a designated outdoor area squeezed between a building site and the car park, chosen specially for being the most grim and miserable place to stand on a wet evening in December. It's unapproved fun, and if we can't stop it we'll make it as unpleasant as we can. Apart from every single played on Top Of The Pops in 1975-6, the worst thing about 70s music was the drum solo, but here at least it served a function. I managed to barge my way out of the hall, buy a beer, traipse about three miles to the smoking area, buy some merchandise and still get back in time for the crunching opening chords of Iron Man.

Sabbath make a great noise live, and the acoustics at the NIA are the best I've ever heard in a sports hall, but Ozzy Osbourne has to be one of the worst frontmen in the history of rock. He was in very good voice, but there's more to fronting a rock band than just singing. Ozzy knows this, but someone should have told him years ago that shuffling across the stage in a semi-crouch like an old man queuing for a soup kitchen, clapping his hands and shouting "Yeah!" at every opportunity doesn't make you Dave Lee Roth. A couple of times in every song he approaches the mic and bellows, "Lemme see yer hands!" before sobbing "We love you," at the end of almost every song.

Then there's the bossing of the audience. When Ozzy says, "This is Tony Iommi; shout his name!" you either shout his name, and a few of the audience did, or you shout, "We know it's Tony fucking Iommi," as we did. And when Ozzy shouts "Jump!", you jump. Most of the crowd did. They were distressingly obedient.

Rock now has rules, and the audience obeyed them. Old farts from the first time round (us), some of them with their teenage kids, turned it from a gig into a day trip to a heavy rock theme park. Ozzy bellowed “Lemme see your hands” again, but most people already had their hands up, brandishing smartphones and even the occasional iPad set to record video. They didn’t come to a live event; they’d come to a life event and were determined to record the fact so they could tick it off their list of 1,000 Things To Do Before Finally Admitting You Really Are A Sad Old Git And Probably Always Were. 

And What did they record? A sea of tiny screens in front of them recording the sea of tiny screens in front of them, and way off in the distance, an enormous screen that dominated the stage, relaying live film of the concert for those too far back to see. Just possibly they might have caught the odd band member, but that was incidental. They didn't come to a gig; they came to to collect social-media-friendly evidence that they'd attended An Event. All this so that when they got home they could upload it onto Facebook and YouTube, so all their friends, acquaintances, work colleagues, former schoolfriends and random people they met at a party four years ago could see their amateur film of a professional film of an event they could actually have seen live if they weren’t so obsessed with their iWanks.

Finally there’s charade of the encore: “We’ll do one more song if you make enough noise.” Or, “You’ve paid for it, but you’ve still got to beg.” I said to Guy, “I wonder what they’ll do if we all keep really quiet.” The audience did their best, but it’s difficult to summon up the passion. Rock’n’roll ceased to be a life-changing experience long ago, and it was all a bit forced. Still, Sabbath played their role in the farce: they went off stage long enough to put the kettle on and put four teaspoons of Ovaltine in four mugs before returning to the stage, noodling around with the riff of ‘Sabbath Bloody Sabbath’ and finally asking what we wanted to hear. “Neon Knights!” we bellowed, but they didn’t seem to hear. Eventually they lurched into ‘Paranoid’, which was a bit of a shock. I assumed they’d left it out because they were sick of playing it. “I preferred the Dickies’ version,” said Guy, but we all bounced along just the same.

Then the balloons came down. They were meant to be black, but most of them were a shade that can only be described as deep purple. Maybe Ian and the boys had been in town and had a few left over. The lights came up and everyone queued for the car park while the band went back to the hotel for muffins and bed.

The rituals of rock are getting as rigid as those of the Catholic Church, and the inclusion of ‘Dirty Women’ – complete with ‘retro’ (thus ironic and not sexist at all) topless photos on the huge screens – shows that rock's attitude to women is no more advanced. In both cases the rituals are slick, well-rehearsed and professional, but the original message was lost long ago.   

Track listing
War Pigs
Into The Void
Age of Reason
Wall of Sleep
End of the Beginning
(drum solo)
Iron Man
God Is Dead
Dirty Women
Children of the Grave
Encore: Paranoid