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The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux (1975) 355 p.
In 1973 Paul Theroux (an American novelist and the father of Louis Theroux) left his wife and children for a while to take a four-month trip across Europe and Asia by train and ferry, going all the way down to Singapore, then looping up through Japan and returning to Europe on the Trans-Siberian Express. The Great Railway Bazaar is a record of this journey, and is considered a classic of travel literature.
Many other reviews I have read deride Theroux for what might charitably be described as a poor attitude. It’s certainly true that he often comes across as unsociable, malcontent and overly negative, but given my own travel experiences I can hardly fault him for that, and I think he makes up for it by being amusing and entertaining. The Great Railway Bazaar is probably the best travel book I’ve ever read (not including AA Gill’s, which are compilations of shorter pieces) because I generally find travel books dull or disappointing. Theroux, however, is an actual author with a beautiful prose style and acerbic wit, thus making his observations worth reading. The Great Railway Bazaar, while it didn’t entrance me, held my attention to the very end.
Incidentally, I suspect that a lot of the readers who hate travel writers who criticise and complain have never left the developed world. Not all of them, but a lot. I don’t understand how anyone could actually spend a significant amount of time putting up with the crime, filth and corruption in the developing world, and not forever more be sympathetic to a travel writer who doesn’t paint the earth as an idyllic playground of beautiful cultures.
To Have And Have Not by Ernest Hemingway (1937) 262 p.
I had two misconceptions about To Have and Have Not. The first was that it’s widely regarded as Hemingway’s worst novel and even the author himself said he only wrote it for the money. I’m not sure where I picked that up, because as far as I can tell it received mixed reviews and the only suggestion that Hemingway disliked it comes from an interview with Howard Hawks, a director who adapted it for film in 1944, and claimed that Hemingway told him it was “a bunch of junk.” The second misconception was that it was based on the short story “After the Storm,” one of my favourites from The First 49 Stories. But while “After The Storm” is very similar – involving a rough-and-tumble boat captain in the Gulf of Mexico – To Have and Have Not is actually apparently based upon two different stories, which were incorporated into the book.
To Have and Have Not follows Harry Morgan, a forty-something American skipper who divides his time between Key West and Havana and makes a living by chartering his boat for ventures ranging from fishing expeditions to human trafficking. You can tell pretty early that it was developed out of a couple of short stories, because it’s a patchwork novel; it begins with a couple of disparate sections in which Morgan smuggles Chinese immigrants and then a load of rum, oddly switching between first person and third person perspective, and then it warms up to the crux of the novel – a scene in which the Cubans he agrees to smuggle back into the country rob a bank in Key West first and then essentially hijack him. This critical part of the novel is an example of Hemingway at his finest, and even the earlier segments, while unnecessary, were enjoyable in themselves. It’s a shame that during and after this mid-novel climax, Hemingway decided to focus on a bunch of extraneous characters back in Key West who are going through marriage break-ups and bar arguments are various other things that are not as remotely interesting as the lethal conflict between a skipper and his hijackers in the middle of the sea.
To Have and Have Not is a flawed but enjoyable Hemingway novel, with subtle Marxist undertones (hence the title) and a particularly vivid setting – you can almost feel the Cuban sun on your arms and see the light dappling on the Caribbean water. (Or maybe that’s because I read most of it on a beach in Western Australia.) When it’s good, it’s truly great – it’s just a shame that those moments are uncommon. There’s a very good short novel in here, encrusted with a bunch of other rubbish that simply didn’t need to be there. If Hemingway truly did think this book was “a bunch of junk,” he only had himself to blame.
She drifted broadside to the gentle north wind about ten miles outside of the north-bound tanker lanes, gay looking in her fresh white and green, against the dark, blue Gulf Stream water. There were patches of sun-yellowed Sargasso weed floating in the water near her that passed slowly in the current going to the north and east, while the wind overcame some of the launch’s drift as it set her steadily further out into the stream. There was no sign of life on her although the body of a man showed, rather inflated looking, above the gunwale, lying on a bench over the port gasoline tank and, from the long seat alongside the starboard gunwale, a man seemed to be leaning over to dip his hand into the sea. His head and arms were in the sun and at the point where his fingers almost touched the water, there was a school of small fish, about two inches long, oval-shaped, golden-coloured, with faint purple stripes, that had deserted the gulf weed to take shelter in the shade the bottom of the drifting launch made in the water, and each time anything dripped down into the sea, these fish rushed at the drop and pushed and milled until it was gone.
– from “To Have and Have Not,” by Ernest Hemingway
The Boat by Nam Le (2008) 312 p.
It’s well-known in the writing and publishing industry that the reading public is far more interested in buying novels than short story collections. When I worked in a bookstore in 2011, Nam Le’s The Boat was the only story anthology – not the only Australian story anthology, the only story anthology full stop – that I recall ever selling any copies of whatsoever. And it was three years old at the time! It’s a sad piece of anecdotal evidence for the popularity of the short story, but a very nice one for Nam Le.
The Boat won a raft of awards and is plastered with praise across front and back covers, coming from sources as lofty as Junot Diaz, Peter Carey, The New York Times, The Guardian and The Washington Post. And Le deserves it – his writing is instantly, irrefutably excellent, especially for somebody so young (he was 29 when The Boat was published, and most of the stories are from earlier than that.) Le has also received praise for the wide-ranging scope of his fiction, featuring stories ranging from a Colombian assassin to a New York art dealer to an American woman in Tehran. Those stories are bookended in The Boat by two which are clearly drawn from real life; “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” in which a young Vietnamese-Australian writer hosts his father while at a writing workshop in Iowa, and “The Boat,” in which a boatload of Vietnamese refugees flee the country after the fall of Saigon, just as Le’s own parents did in the late 1970s, with Le himself a one-year-old baby.
I was prepared to love Le for the fact that he didn’t simply write what he knows, but it’s ironic that “Love and Honour and Pity and Pride and Compassion and Sacrifice,” clearly the book’s most autobiographical story, is also its best. From there it leaps straight into “Cartagena,” a story about a child assassin in Colombia, and while it feels authentic enough – laced with Latin slang and capturing what I imagine to be the filth and corruption and hopelessness of a Colombian metropolis – it felt somehow obvious; like writing a Mongolian story about a horse nomad or an Australian story about a jackaroo. Crime and corruption is all foreigners know about what is probably a large and complex nation, and crime and corruption is what Le gives us. Stereotype is too strong a word, because Le brings the same skill to “Cartagena” as he does to all his other stories; I believed in the characters, and the situation, and their reactions to it, but I could never shake the feeling that while I, as an Australian, found it to be believable, a Colombian would instantly recognise it as the work of an outsider.
“Cartagena” is thankfully the worst example of that, because for the rest of the book Le is on firmer ground; “Meeting Elise” is set in New York; “Halfhead Bay” is a Wintonesque high school story in an Australian fishing town (which presents its own problems, but never mind); “Hiroshima” is fairly short and told from a child’s perspective in any case; and “Tehran Calling” is set in Iran but features an American protagonist.
These are all good stories; perhaps not as great as the first one, but all worth reading. And in any case, I’d rather read an author who attempts to write about other places and cultures than someone like, well, Tim Winton, who is undoubtedly a brilliant author but ends up writing variations on a theme. Nam Le is well on the way to carving out a future for himself in the Australian literary pantheon alongside greats such as Winton and Carey and Keneally. It pleases me as a reader – partly because it can grow so tiresome, as a 20-something, to spend so long working your way through the 20th century canon – to identify a writer destined for great things, whom I can read from the very beginning of his career and watch develop. I can only imagine what Nam Le’s bibliography will look like when he and I are both in our 60s.
(Although having said that, The Boat was published five and a half years ago and he’s done nothing since then and there are no hints of anything in the works, so who knows?)
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (1953) 190 p.
The title is very familiar, one of those ones everybody vaguely recalls from their school days, even if the content probably isn’t as well-known. Fahrenheit 451 is a dystopian science fiction novel in which the “firemen” of an unnamed American city spend their time starting fires to burn books rather than putting fires out. The protagonist, Guy Montag, is a fireman who has been secretly hiding books out of curiosity and is developing a niggling feeling that burning them is wrong. (Incidentally, the first draft was titled “The Fireman,” which would have been a much better title, since Bradbury was misinformed – 451 degrees fahrenheit is not exactly the temperature at which paper ignites.)
I’d only read a few of Bradbury’s short stories before, in high school, but I barely remembered them. I was surprised to find that his writing style was much more elaborate and literary than I expected:
The concussion knocked the air across and down the river, turned the men over like dominoes in a line, blew the water in lifting sprays, and blew the dust and made the trees above them mourn with a great wind passing away south… in that instant he saw the city, instead of the bombs, in the air. They had displaced each other. For another of those impossible instants the city stood, rebuilt and unrecognisable, taller than it had ever hoped or strived to be, taller than man had built it, erected at last in gouts of shattered concrete and sparkles of torn metal into a mural hung like a reversed avalanche, a million colours, a million oddities, a door where a window should be, a top for a bottom, a side for a back, and then the city rolled over and fell down dead.
As a mid-20th century science fiction writer I’d already pigeon-holed Bradbury in alongside authors like Heinlein or Asimov; he’s actually much more like Philip K. Dick, and that may go some way towards explaining why I didn’t enjoy Fahrenheit 451 all that much.
Which is not to say that I don’t admire it, and don’t think it was an important novel at an important time in history (it was written at the height of McCarthyism). I just found his characters a little wooden – certainly too fond of long, wordy monologues – and his world a bit stiff. It certainly feels much more like a story servicing a concept than a concept which gave birth to a rich and vibrant story. But it’s an important novel of the 20th century, and not particularly long, and is worth reading.
I’ve been back in Perth for about eight weeks now, though it feels like less, since I spent some of that time down south and then in Bali. It’s amusing that all my jaunts have ended with me crawling back to Daddy: teaching in Korea, backpacking the world, and now living in Melbourne. I mean, the first two made sense, but I thought I’d really cut the apron strings and become a grown-up this time. I had an office job and a rental lease and dental insurance and everything.
That’s part of the appeal, of course, something that was joyously swishing around in my head as I counted down my last days at work. I am 25 years old. This is likely the last time in my life I’ll be able to throw myself back on the mercy of my father and live rent-free, without working, for several months. I can, however briefly, recapture those glorious university-era years where I could stay up until 3:00am every night playing video games, sleep in until noon and go to the beach every day.
Of course, reality often fails to meet our daydreams. My Dad’s house isn’t the same as I left it; my younger sister lives here now, for a start, and she took my room. That might seem like a minor thing, but the room I’m now living in has a window that faces east. When you are a night owl living in Perth, you really do not want a bedroom window facing east. The sun rises at 6:00am, with nothing standing between its fiery surface and my bedroom window. By 7:30am the temperature in the room is up to about 35 degrees. Yesterday I papered the window with alfoil, which seemed to work to block the light, but it rustled in the wind all night. My sister also took my desk, which impacts on writing. The most important tool a writer has is a door which he can close, and there was no way I could write in my 35-degree bedroom, sitting on the bed with my hot, whirring laptop on my legs. I went to the tip and bought an old desk for $15.
But it’s not just those mild changes; I still feel restless. I haven’t been able to slip into my lazy endless summer the way I thought I would. One reason would be that now I’ve seen the grim tedium of the workaday world, and realised that if I ever want to break free from it I need to forge a writing career, so I’ve internalised a nagging guilt that sits inside me every time I have leisure time I spend doing something other than writing. Another reason would be that I’m not 17 years old anymore and time goes faster than it used to and this summer doesn’t feel endless – it feels like it has two months left in it at the most, because it does. It was all well and good to look forward to it in Melbourne, but now London looms in April, which also involves returning to the aforementioned grim tedium of the workaday world.
It’s funny, the work thing. People are uncomfortable that I’m spending four months wilfully unemployed. Never mind that I have a plan at the end of this summer sojourn, that I have virtually no expenditures, that I have over $20,000 in cash, stocks and assets, and that I’m trying to use this time (at least in part) to practise what I really want to do for a living. All of a sudden everyone’s a Calvinist. How I spend my days has no effect on them personally, but it bothers them that someone would willingly spend any amount of time outside the economic machine. It goes to show how deeply our society has internalised the supposed value of capital. It’s also interesting that their response when I ask who would hire somebody who’s leaving in a few months is that I should simply not tell my employer; this concept that we’re all just trying to wring as much money out of each other as we can and there’s nothing wrong with dishonesty. It’s also interesting that – depending on the employer in question – I totally agree, from a worker’s point of view. But I would personally never be able to lie like that. Good thing it’s a moot point.
Meanwhile I’ve been at the beach. Perth’s metropolitan beaches are marvellous. In three years in Melbourne I went swimming exactly once – an uninspiring wallow in brown water near Portarlington, which took Chris and I hour to drive to. In Perth I go almost every day. The stretch of coastline between Trigg and Hillarys is as close as you will come to paradise on Earth. Limestone reefs weaving a patchwork of dark indigo against aquamarine water, powder-white sand, the sun sparkling on the waves… I can’t describe it. Its beauty is literally indescribable. You can’t even take a photo which does it justice (I know, because I’ve checked Flickr), because to truly appreciate it you need to stand at the lip of the road and look out over it with polarised sunglasses and feel the warm easterly breeze on your arms. I will never, ever get tired of looking out over the Indian Ocean, and I pause to survey it every time I arrive and every time I leave.
The problem these days is sharks. Regardless of what you may think about the Barnett Government’s cull, it’s hard to deny that the water feels a bit different these days. The statistical likelihood of a swimmer or snorkeller being taken at North Beach (as opposed to a surfer or diver further out) is minuscule. That’s what I know up on the cliffs, looking down on that maze of reefs. Out in the water, though, when you’re snorkelling in the maze, and you look out, underwater, into the limitless blue distance of the ocean… it feels a little different. I don’t venture out too deep. I’m not afraid to admit that when I put the snorkel and mask back up by my towel and just go swimming back and forth (I’m trying to get in shape) I keep a wary eye on the dark shapes beneath me even though I know full well that they’re just rock formations. There was a time back when I first returned, in January, and I was swimming above a patch of sand when I was unnerved to see a blurry dark shape beneath me which seemed to be moving. It took me a moment to realise – and I am slightly ashamed to admit this – that I was literally scared of my own shadow.
What else have I been doing, aside from fruitlessly trying to treat writing like a 9-5 job and lazing around on the beach? I’ve been clearing out the shed, since Dad has grand designs of building a granny flat to live in in the backyard and renting out the house, and he ordered me to get rid of my shit. When I moved to Melbourne I threw some clothes in my backpack and rode my Kawasaki off down the road; apparently Dad later faithfully put all my belongings in waterproof containers and stacked them up in the shed. I have a significant library of books which I need to cull on eBay; I’m fighting a losing battle to convince Dad that books furnish a room and belong on a shelf rather in the shed. Less difficult to toss in the trash were the dozens upon dozens of folders and schoolwork from high school and university, which for some reason I kept. High school feels like a distant dream now, and even university has faded into a dull memory. I spent some time flicking through these old files out of curiosity, and it was startling to realise how much of a colossal waste of time and money my pretentious, infantile university degree was – and how I could have failed to realise that at the time. On the other hand, one of my old creative writing assignments had a character spitting out his line of dialogue by “exclaiming angrily,” so at least it hacked that out of my system.
Speaking of writing, I’m ploughing through End Times, for anyone who still cares. I went from November 21 to December 7 in the space of a few weeks, and I’m confident I’ll finish it in the next month or two.
The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie (2006) 536 p.
I’m trying to read a bit more fantasy after successfully dipping back into the genre with George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series (and less successfully with Gene Wolfe’s Book of the New Sun). Joe Abercrombie’s novels seem fairly popular as swashbuckling fantasy adventure yarns, and he gets extra points for writing a trilogy rather than an ever-extending ten-book “cycle” or whatever they call them these days.
The Blade Itself, first novel in the First Law trilogy, revolves around Inquisitor Glokta, a crippled torturer; Jezal dan Luthar, a spoilt young noble; and Logen Ninefingers, an infamous barbarian warrior. (I feel compelled to point out that if you want to “single-handedly redefine the fantasy genre,” as Abercrombie apparently did, you probably shouldn’t begin with a main character who is a barbarian warrior from “the North.”) Events draw them together in Adua, the capital city of the Union, where preparations for war are underway and magic is returning to the world.
There were two reasons I found this book difficult to get into. The first is the plot, which starts out fairly slow and obtuse, but picks up a bit towards the end (when it irritatingly ends just as it starts to get interesting). The second is Abercrombie’s writing style. I’m not expecting Peter Carey when I read a fantasy paperback, but what particularly drove me up the wall was Abercrombie’s dialogue attribution. Characters in The Blade Itself rarely ever “say” anything. Instead they shout, bellow, scream, thunder, hiss, yelp, mutter, mumble, murmur, snap, chuckle, grumble, blurt, snarl, whimper, bark, stutter, stammer, grunt, croak, wheeze, roar and even intone – fucking intone! I did not make a single one of those up. In one particularly ugly case (page 391) a character actually “froths” his dialogue, which must be very messy. In another (page 98) a peasant manages to mumble “in a broad accent” – quite a trick.
I shouldn’t have to point out why writing Tom Swifties is bad. One of Elmore Leonard’s cardinal rules of writing was: “Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” (I’m also partial to Stephen King’s advice, which is simply: “Don’t do this. Please oh please.”) Personally I believe you can sometimes, sparingly, get away with shouted, yelled, whispered and maybe hissed. But Abercrombie’s use of these words isn’t just beyond the pale, it’s on the Dingle Peninsula. (And maybe I should have saved that obscure description for a time other than criticising someone else’s writing, but whatever.)
This might sound snobbish. This is, after all, a fantasy novel, and the genre is not renowned for the restraint of its prose style. The reason it bothered me so much – beyond the fact that I’m hard-pressed to remember a novel with so many Swifties – is that Abercrombie is certainly capable of better writing. The dialogue that his characters are huffing, crying and yelping their way through is not half bad. It’s not as witty or clever as something in a Martin novel, but it’s not far off, either. His editor should have seen this. As it stands, I was tripping over a bark or a roar or a bellow every other sentence and it was taking me right out of the story, along with his constant use of adverbs and excessive physical descriptions of people and locations.
All this junk hampers what is actually pretty decent writing. Abercrombie’s fight scenes play out with impressive clarity, with brutal clashes and smart manoeuvres and people fucking up and hitting the wrong thing. His characters are all realistic, unlikeable yet sympathetic, and well-balanced against each other – particularly the way that, through cycling chapter POVs, we see how they appear to each other. There is a refreshing lack of Mary Sues, which I didn’t expect from a writer who thinks it appropriate to have a character intone his dialogue. And although he has continued Martin’s modern “dark” fantasy tradition in which terrible things happen and the good guys don’t always win, there’s a strong undercurrent of wit and humour which prevents the novel from feeling bleak.
Despite strong flaws, The Blade Itself is a good novel and Abercrombie – while I would hesitate to call him a good writer yet – certainly shows promise. I’ll read the rest of the First Law trilogy at the very least. I just hope that he tightens up his writing style, or that his editor grows some balls and tells him to.
Dracula by Bram Stoker (1897) 375 p.
Dracula is (as I’m sure you know) a classic work of horror fiction from the 19th century which, while it didn’t invent the concept of the vampire, certainly modernised it and turned it into the contemporary horror trope we’re all so thoroughly sick of today. I must have read an abridged version of it in my youth, because I remembered most of the major plot points. I think it must have been an illustrated version; I distinctly remember the image of Dracula holding Mina Harker’s wrists together with one hand at her bed, and also a vague image of Van Helsing looking heroic at sunset at the novel’s climax (or anticlimax, as I found this time around).
The funny thing about a novel like Dracula is that while it’s a classic today – and is therefore assumed, by people who haven’t read it, to be a great work of literature – Bram Stoker was actually a pop culture writer akin to Arthur Conan Doyle. Which is not to say that his books (or Doyle’s) were bad – merely that they were neither intended to be, nor considered to be, brilliant literature, just an enjoyable way to pass the time.
Dracula begins with English solicitor Jonathan Harker travelling to Transylvania to assist the titular count with his purchase of an estate on the outskirts of London. The first 60 or so pages of the novel, which comprise of Harker’s journal while he is staying at the Count’s castle, are excellent. Stoker develops a deep and foreboding sense of dread as Harker gradually realises that he is a prisoner, becoming more and more desperate as he realises that Dracula knows he knows, and doesn’t seem to care, and eventually intends to kill him. (Mind you, it makes little sense for the plot – if Dracula’s intention is to secure a place for himself amongst London’s “teeming millions,” why arouse suspicion before even moving there by summoning your lawyer’s right-hand man and then killing him?)
After the end of this segment, unfortunately, the focus shifts back to England. There is a brief section comprising a ship captain’s journal and a newspaper report from Whitby detailing the night that Dracula’s vessel comes ashore, all of which is excellent. Following this, however, Dracula enters literary doldrums from which it never recovers. Lucy Westenra, a friend of Harker’s fiancee Mina, is chosen by Dracula as a victim, and her long, weak decline into vampirism is drawn out and tedious. After Lucy, the process is again repeated with Mina. This part of the novel also introduces the insufferable Professor Van Helsing – a verbose, waffling Dutchman who wises up to what’s going on and leads the fight against Dracula, always explaining what’s going on with far more words than necessary, none of which is made any easier by Stoker’s stilted method of expressing Van Helsing’s Dutch accent. See:
“I admit that at the first I was sceptic. Were it not that through long years I have trained myself to keep an open mind, I could not have believed until such time as that fact thunder on my ear. ‘See! See! I prove, I prove.’ Alas! Had I known at first what now I know, nay, had I even guess at him, one so precious life had been spared to so many of us who did love her. But that is gone, and we must so work, that other poor souls perish not, whilst we can save.”
Et cetera. Van Helsing has far more dialogue than any other character in the novel, and his imperfect English is grating to read. And after these boring 200 pages at the centre of the book, it seems to promise to pick up again towards the end as the characters chase Dracula back into Eastern Europe, only to finish on a curiously underwhelming note as two of them kick his coffin out of a wagon and cut his head off while he sleeps. One of them is killed by gypsies in the process, but since he had no character attributes other than “is American,” I can’t say it was one of literature’s more heart-wrenching deaths.
That’s also, incidentally, another clumsy running theme throughout the novel – Stoker continually violates the show-don’t-tell rule in his attempt to pluck at the reader’s heartstrings. The characters are constantly crying and holding each other’s hands and talking about what good, strong, brave people their friends are, and what a great pact of friendship they’re making, and so on. Meanwhile the reader is counting how many pages left until he can be rid of their company.
I can’t recommend Dracula; it may be a classic, but despite a few strong sections it’s not a good book. Simply because a novel is old and enduring and spawned an entire subgenre of horror fiction doesn’t mean it has great literary merit or is even, by modern standards, the easily readable popular fiction it was originally meant to be.
My Man Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse (1919) 125 p.
P.G. Wodehouse is an author I’ve been meaning to read for a while, and was a prime candidate for my current unemployed trend of reading free, public domain ebooks. Of his hundreds of humourous short stories, the most famous is the “Jeeves and Wooster” series, in which wealthy young British aristocrat Bertie Wooster relies upon his far more intelligent manservant Jeeves (the origin of the polite, dependable butler archetype) to extract him from various sticky social situations and conundrums.
My Man Jeeves contains eight stories, four featuring Wooster and Jeeves and four featuring Reggie Pepper, who is effectively the same character as Wooster and apparently served as a prototype for him. It’s always pleasantly surprising to read fiction more than 100 years old (the oldest story in this volume was first published in 1911) and find it easy, relatable, and above all hilarious. Wodehouse is a master of comic prose, with pitch-perfect dialogue and timing, and his stories reminded me not only of Terry Pratchett (who no doubt considers him an influence) but, weirdly, the general plot of many modern sitcoms. All of Wodehouse’s stories revolve around some unpleasant scenario which the protagonist and his friend seek to avert by devising a complicated deception to fool a third party, usually with unforeseen consequences demanding an ever greater web of lies. Put like that it seems like a lazy cliche, but it’s obviously a solid foundation for comedy, since it worked just as well for Wodehouse as it does in countless episodes of Fawlty Towers, Seinfeld and Friends.
My personal favourite line:
I was so darned sorry for poor old Corky that I hadn’t the heart to touch my breakfast. I told Jeeves to drink it himself.
Wholly recommended, and I’ll be reading the rest of Wodehouse’s bibliography.
(As an aside, it’s worth mentioning that many people still disapprove of Wodehouse these days for being a “Nazi collaborator” after he was captured from his villa in France in 1940 and did a few non-political broadcasts for the Germans. He was later cleared by an M15 investigation and even at the time contemporaries such as Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell considered the claims a beat-up. Orwell’s essay about the whole drama can be read here, worth reading as always, and his opinion is good enough for me.)
Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld (2009) 270 p.
I think I looked up Leviathan after seeing Keith Thompson’s wonderful map for the book, portraying an alternative history Europe in which the Central Powers are “Clankers” (utilising enormous, steampunk, mecha-style combat machines) and the Allies are “Darwinists” (who use genetic engineering to create living, “fabricated” war machines).
(You can see a larger, annotated version of the map here, and it’s quite fascinating to read the process behind it.)
The map is perhaps symbolic of the book itself – the only major change is the steampunk reimagining, with most of the novel playing out fairly true to history. Franz Ferdinand is assassinated in Sarajevo, and his (fictional) son Alek must flee Vienna to avoid being bumped off by his father’s rivals. With a stolen walker, he and his loyal retainers make for the Swiss border, as Europe lurches towards war. Meanwhile, young Scottish girl Deryn Sharp disguises herself as a boy to join the military, where she soon finds herself assigned to the Leviathan, a colossal flying whale-like creature which is the greatest airship of the British Air Service.
Leviathan is weighed down with quite a few genre cliches – heir to the throne on the run, steampunk mecha, girl disguised as boy, airships, etc – but Westerfeld is nonetheless a good, imaginative writer who develops his world with relish and spins an enjoyable YA yarn. The book is the first of a trilogy, and does end on something of an abrupt note, but I look forward to reading the next volume, Behemoth.