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Ian R Macleod

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Rabbhit Redux by John Updike

Updike is one of my favourite writers, and I’m returning to the Rabbit series after a gap of a few years. These books are snapshots of the later decades of the last century in the USA – daily life, one might almost say, although Updike’s vision is far to surreal and broad-ranging to be merely that. 2001 A Space Odyssey and the moon landings feature here, along with the fading echoes of hippydom and the Summer of Love. The tone, though, is small town, and it’s this friction between big events and little lives from which the Rabbit books gain a lot of their power. That, and Updike’s writing, which, although always fine, reaches its magnificent peak in the Rabbit books. It swoops and soars. It twists and turns. It surprises and, occasionally, disgusts. What struck me this time was how painterly Updike’s approach is. That, and how fearlessly and, indeed, recklessly un-PC he’s prepared to be, even allowing for the book having been written thirty years ago. Black people are treated as threatening and alien, women and old people almost equally so, and sex – well, sex is everywhere. Some commentators say that Updike’s merely getting his own sour obsessions out on the page, and I must say that the thought did cross my mind occasionally as I read Rabbit Redux this time. But people do think the thoughts Harry Angstrom thinks, all of us do in one way or another, and Updike turns them into a dazzling urban poetry which defines much of what is wrong, and right, about the modern world.

 
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Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman

I didn’t get on at all well with Gaiman’s previous book, American Gods, perhaps because the blurbs and reviews had raised my expectations too highly. This far lighter work is a much more rewarding experience. Gaiman swims happily in the mainstream of what is, despite the Afro-Caribbean mythology, essentially a very British plot about the amiable everyman dragged in far above his head into extraordinary events. His comedic touch is occasionally a bit clodhopping, but the warmth of his feeling for his characters shines through, and the threads of the fantastic which he weaves amid all of this are very fantastic indeed, and remain vivid and convincing. All in all, Anansi Boys shows that there is still hope for modern fantasy

 
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The Asquiths by Colin Clifford

Herbert Henry Asquith was British Prime Minister in the lead-up to, and through most of the years of, the First World War. Was the man an idiot, a war-monger, a bombast, a slave to the forces of history? This excellent book, which concentrates on the Asquith family’s private tragedies and triumphs, raises the question in many different ways, but, inevitably perhaps, leaves it unanswered. Asquith comes across as a decent sort, and very much a product of his era. He’s distant with his sons, stiff and decent with his colleagues, and always hard-working, but possesses a weakly sentimental side which allows him to have gushy semi-platonic affairs with a succession of younger women. What he most seems to lack is any true sense of vision about what’s really going on in the world. Intellectually, he understands the growing likelihood of war, and he also has some inkling of what modern industrialised warfare will be like, but he seems too bound to what, with hindsight, seem like trivial concepts of loyalty and duty to anything more than oil the wheels of catastrophe with a moderately incompetent administration. Far less impressive (and that’s saying something) is his wife Margot, how seems to be incapable of phrasing a sentence about anything without including the word “I”. Their children, on the other hand, and especially his sons, who served and suffered bravely in the trenches, come across as men from a newer and more ambiguous age, and are all the better for it. Pity that the ramrod of supposed duty and moral certainty which Asquith had up his back is still to be seen in the outlook and demeanour of so many modern politicians…

 
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Was by Geoff Ryman

An elliptical plot revolves around the loose pivot of the Wizard of Oz – both the film and the book. There are some fascinating interludes, although for me the overall sense of drive which would have made Was a more coherent work was lacking. What we get instead, though, are Vemeerishly bright miniatures of the lives of people such Judy Garland’s make-up girl, and, indeed, her mother, whilst the “real” Dorothy goes though hell in Kansas. Ryman’s always an interesting writer, and this novel has touches of greatness, even if the whole is less than the sum.

 

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