Monday, 28 May 2012

The Grounding of Group 6

Title: The Grounding of Group 6

Author: Julian F. Thompson

Year of publication: 1983, Magnet edition 1984

Back cover blurb: 'Coldbrook Country School is a highly exclusive boarding school.  To be there you have to have rich parents.  And it's a very nice place.  It treats you like an adult and expects you to behave like one.  With its beautiful mountain setting and its caring staff, it should be just the place to straighten out a difficult kid.
   For the five sixteen-year-old misfits in Group 6, Coldbrook was the last resort.  But it took them some time to realise that Coldbrook's solution to their problem was going to be very final indeed.  And when they found out who was paying - it seemed impossible.  But it was all too terrifyingly true.'

Quick flick reveals:  Not really a lost book, as it made a considerable impact on its YA audience in the US at the time and has been held in affection by Generation Ws ever since, I'm including it here because it didn't quite so much of an impression in the UK.  And besides, I paid my 20p, as you can see.
   Essentially I'm just in love with the concept of SPOILER ALERT a school for problem children trying to kill the problem kids.  It seems like a way-ahead-of-its-time cross between Battle Royale and what I imagine The Hunger Games to be about, which probably has nothing to do with what The Hunger Games is actually about.  Bet it's amazing.

Random paragraph: '"My strategy," he said to Mrs. Ripple, "is simply to eliminate, eliminate, eliminate.  Every time I know a place they're not, I'm that much closer to the place they are."'


Tuesday, 22 May 2012

A Garden of Sand

Title: A Garden of Sand

Author: Earl Thompson

Year of publication: 1970, W.H. Allen edition 1971

Inner cover blurb: 'Readers of A GARDEN OF SAND will not be surprised that the book is dedicated to Nelson Algren, for like Algren, Earl Thompson writes in rhythms and accents uniquely his own and, also like Algren, exposes the public to a level of American life generally closed to the pages of fiction.  Thompson's world is that of the poor, semi-urban Middle West (and later the South), the world of people who run truck-stop cafés, work in oil-fields and shipyards, and live in cheap rooming houses and dubious hotels.  They are people who die "in rented side-street rooms as stylelessly and miserably as they lived.  A son in the Marines.  A daughter who isn't speaking - like that."  To them Earl Thompson has imparted the dignity born of desperation and a will to survive adversity that ultimately becomes a tribute to the human spirit.
   The story he tells will no doubt shock some and perhaps even offend others, containing as it does a rawness and candor incompatible with gentility.  If its central theme is the formation of a young boy's obsessive sexuality, its even greater power lies  in its depiction of people and places at a time when "girls who scorned bandeaux beneath their middy blouses hung a Wings on their lip, rolled their stockings below their knees and cocked a man's hat over one eye....  Their heroes were John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, the Barkers, Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, Alvin Karpis and Homer Vanmeter."
   Just such a girl was Wilma MacDeramid, who got her ideas of class from the movies ("I'm no nickel and dime dollie.  Gimme a fifty, you crumb, for the powder room") and her satisfactions wherever she could find them.  Her father, John MacDeramid, was hybrid, part Populist, part Wobbly, and his own man.  Her son Jacky was born out of wedlock.  The happiness that each could seize lasted no longer than a night or a day, and it is Jakcy's frantic efforts to find warmth and love in a world of deprivation and casual brutality that provide the continuing thread of the narrative.
   As a novel of social and sexual realism, A GARDEN OF SAND marks the debut of a major new American writer.  Even in this day and age, its power is remarkable, its evocations overwhelming.   It stands out boldly in the line of American fiction from Sister Carrie to Studs Lonigan to Last Exit to Brooklyn that will force the complacent to realizations they have previously chosen to deny.'

Reading reveals: Not so much a lost book, it's been reprinted a few times over the years, it is however a somewhat neglected one, with US writer Thompson pretty much a non-figure on this side of the Atlantic.  The first part of a trilogy, it explores the life of a sexually precocious young boy growing up during the Depression, sprawling out to include the exploits of his family along the way.
   When I watch a film featuring Sean Connery or Jeff Bridges or whoever playing a distinguished American author holed up in a university somewhere, working on a novel they've been hammering away at for years, this is exactly the sort of book I imagine them writing, with a broad historical and geographical sweep, and muscular imagery such as 'the glaring, heat-bleached denim sky'.
   This is a beautiful novel that takes you into a world and surrounds you with fantastic details and great characters and engrossing situations etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.  More than this, though, it captures perfectly a sense of falling through the cracks, of the loss of integrity and dignity needed to survive when at the very bottom of a society in trouble.  It really is quite frustrating to see A Garden of Sand languish, while something like Ironweed by William Kennedy is canonized, when the difference in quality between the two really isn't that great.  In fact, I would go so far as to say I think you should read this book.

Random paragraph: 'In May the castor beans hung like sleeping bats in the lop-eared trees.  A shimmering river of asphalt ozzed past the door.  With a kitchen knife Jacky could dig up a chaw of butyl-tasting tar from the edge of the highway that would last all day.  Men carried raffia fans in the street.  Lemonade was consumed like air.  Kids were set out in yards in tubs of water.  No one wanted to go anywhere.'


Friday, 18 May 2012

Lost Book Library Reading Round-Up no. 2

Another summary of my attempts to read the books featured in the Lost Book Library.

Moral Tales by Giocamo Leopardi

Status: Completed

This is one I actually read before I started the library, and I have already sung the praises of it elsewhere.  Just to say it's a remarkably imaginative work, in which multiple ways are found to make possibly the most depressing philosophical point ever.

Hers by A. Alvarez

Status: Abandoned p. 142

Although a noted poet and critic, on the evidence of this book Alvarez is a truly dreadful author.  The main character, a German child of WWII transplanted to Cambridge as a grown woman, is as much a stranger to Alvarez as she is to the reader, and the psychology is basic, somewhere along the lines of 'I have unresolved issues from my past.  I'll have an affair!'  The sex, meanwhile, is of the troubling seventies variety where it all starts off quite rapey, but by the end of it everyone's having a whale of a time.  There is also possibly the most unconvincing reaction to tragic news in the whole history of literature.
  I did, however, make it nearly three-quarters of the way through because of a truly deranged subplot in which the protagonist's husband, a professor of literature, is menaced by a motorcycle gang straight out of British cult horror Psychomania, and declares war on the entire younger generation.  This bit works rather well, in a pulpy kind of way.  Alvarez, however, fails to realise his talents lie as a schlockmeister and continues trying to be a serious author, with woeful results. When it became obvious the motorbike gang weren't going to come back, I made my excuses and left.

Too Long a Sacrifice by Mildred Downey Broxon

Status: Completed

While Alvarez's work reeked of the will-this-do attitude an author can only achieve when they are so well connected they stand a good chance of knowing their reviewers on a personal level beforehand, it is obvious that Broxton put heart and soul into every word of her tale of a husband and wife from Ancient Ireland transported into the Twentieth Century.   Plonking them down in the middle of the Troubles and getting them mixed up in sectarian violence may not have been the most tasteful move, but it kind of works.  The story occasionally feels like it's being narrated by Yoda ('Comely they both were, and young'), and the lack of a solid villain except for something called the Hate Beast who turns up occasionally and 'gibbers' means that at times the narrative meanders when it needs to be tightening, but there's a startlingly imaginative idea every few pages and it's all quite breezy and fun.  My favourite moment is when the pagan healer from 1500 years ago has the NHS explained to her.

Return to Elysium by Joan Grant

Status: Abandoned, p. 26

This tale of a proto-feminist Ancient Greek cult leader seemed competently written, but I'm not that big on historical fiction at the best of times, and I still haven't even read I, Claudius.  It simply wasn't glaringly mad enough for a book allegedly inspired by the memory of a past life, and I just couldn't be bothered with it.

Far Memory by Joan Grant

Status: Completed

Grant's autobiography, on the other hand, is truly a wonder.  It begins with an anecdote of her mother throwing tissues to French peasant children from a motorcar in 1906, wrapped around stones so that they don't blow away, and pretty much stays at that level of craziness for the rest of the book.  Born to wealthy parents in the early years of the 20th Century, Grant's dubious paranormal abilities (which seem uncannily close to 'making stuff up') are actually one of the least interesting things about her life, taking in as it does meetings with HG Wells and Aleister Crowley, Brazilian sex/dinner parties, Egyptian dust storms and a deranged snake expert.  Sometimes a terrible snob, looking down on people who eat 'buns out of bags', Grant is also something of a character, repeatedly attempting to purchase a cheetah and parade around London with it in an open-topped car, and being discovered naked somewhere she shouldn't be with alarming regularity.  This is a masterpiece of improbable autobiography, right up there with Confessions of a Dangerous Mind by Chuck Barris.  Highly recommended.

The Caretakers

Title: The Caretakers

Author: Dariel Telfer

Year of publication: 1959, Corgi edition 1968


   It is the story of men and women who live and work behind the locked doors and barred windows of a mental hospital.  It is a novel of people trapped in a world where emotions fester and tensions explode into murder and violence.  These are the strong and the weak...


   Dariel Telfer wrote THE CARETAKERS out of first-hand knowledge and passionate concern.  She has herself worked in a large mental institution, been a witness to events such as those she so candidly describes.

   "Her obvious sincerity is more convincing than the slick platitudes of professionalism.  And her rough-drawn characters may well be more true to life because drawn from fact."


Quick flick reveals: Love-triangle soap opera plot.  And a mental hospital.

Random paragraph: '"God!" she said, hooding her eyes.  "Is this ever going to be a day.  The office is sending us six patients from Surgery and we have to transfer two to Untidy.  I tell you, I've been going around this morning like a cockroach in a bowl of chili."'


Saturday, 12 May 2012

Emu and Little Red Riding Hood

Title: Emu and Little Red Riding Hood

Author: Michael Sullivan, illustrated by Elphin Lloyd-Jones

Year of publication: 1977

Front cover blurb: 'ROD HULL and his EMU present...'

Quick flick reveals: The story of Little Red Riding Hood we all know and love, with Rod Hull's Emu inexplicably wedged in.  Despite his getting top billing, he contributes little to the narrative, and is, frankly, a weak protagonist.  Book is presumably meant to be read with Rod Hull's voice in your head.  This is quite easy for me to imagine, as Rod Hull's voice is constantly in my head anyway.  Illustrations are as Disney-esque as you can get without the lawyers calling.
   Other titles in this series were Emu and the Beanstalk, Emu and Goldilocks, and Emu and the Three Little Pigs.

Random paragraph: 'Emu felt like nipping and snipping that tail.  But he did something else with his beak instead.'


Wednesday, 9 May 2012

The Memory of Eva Ryker

Title: The Memory of Eva Ryker

Author: Donald A. Stanwood

Year of publication: 1978, Corgi edition 1979

Back cover blurb: 'APRIL 14, 1912   The TITANIC sinks after it strikes an iceberg.  Among the survivors are young honeymoon couple, Jason & Lisa Eddington...
   NOVEMBER, 1941   The Kleins, a middle-aged couple holidaying in Hawaii, are brutally murdered in one of the most sensational unsolved crimes of the decade...
   SEPTEMBER, 1962   As a multi-million dollar salvage operation explores the wreck of the TITANIC, an elderly couple scheme to lay their hands on a fabulous treasure they know will be found in the rusting hulk...
   One woman - Eva Ryker - has the answer.  The only witness to events so horrifying, so painful, that she has spent a lifetime erasing them from her memory.
   One man - Norman Hall - is determined she WILL remember.  Who'll stop at nothing to uncover the monstrously evil plot that has already taken seven lives and threatens to claim yet more.

Quick flick reveals:  Fantastically high-concept Titanic-themed thriller that sadly escaped being revived for the Centenary celebrations of all those people dying.  Was made into a TV move starring Natalie Wood.  I refuse to draw attention to the fact that ironically she herself would drown several years later for reasons of taste.

Random paragraph: 'Loosening my tie, I walked around the end of the bed.  Naked except for sunglasses, William Ryker was a burned red lobster.  Surrounded by olive green sheets, his gnarled body looked like a strip of bacon floating in a bowl of pea soup.'


Saturday, 5 May 2012

A Sunset Touch

Title: A Sunset Touch

Author: Howard Spring

Year of publication: 1953, Fontana edition 1971

Back cover blurb: 'A moment of madness...
   Suddenly, there on the moonlit cliff, I came face to face with Kitty.  I longed to talk to her, but could only ask stupidly: "Where have you been?"  She answered coldly: "I've been walking - Good night."
   Before she could move, I threw myself upon her.  I kissed her violently, such kisses as she had never before had from me.  Though she resisted, my strength slowly overwhelmed her until she cried out in pain.  With a singing in my ears I let her goa nd she struck me a blow in the face that left me dazzled and sick.
   "You learned your lessons in the wrong shop.  You musn't try them out on me."  She turned and went quickly away.'

Quick flick reveals: Nothing screams 'Lost Book' than a novel by a man packaged like it's for the Mills & Boon market.  Going by the cover, I was prepared for some seventies ridiculousness, so was quite surprised to find that the book is originally from the early fifties.  Howard Spring was an esteemed and successful author in his day, whose work was adapted for a number of British and Hollywood films and was the source material for TV series right up into the eighties.  As the century progressed, however, he has gently slipped into obscurity.
   This book looks a perfectly solid piece of work, and seems to be a would-be bawdy picaresque in which the randy hero isn't allowed to get bawdy.  I hope it turns out to be good.  Maybe it is time for a Howard Spring Spring.

Random paragraph: 'She wasn't young, and I said to myself, "Thank God for that!"  I was not happy with young women: I was happy with Kitty.  Indeed, I had never been happy with a woman before, young or old.  But she wasn't old.  I wouldn't have that.  She wasn't young, but she wasn't old.  I thought of her as a flower, not a bud; but a flower that had not shed a petal.'


Thursday, 3 May 2012

The Reproductive System

Title: The Reproductive System

Author: John Sladek

Year of publication: 1968, Mayflower edition 1970

Back cover blurb: '$u¢¢e$$!?  Sign on a wall at Wompler Research Laboratories
  Project 32 set in motion an autonomous, self-reproducing mechanism - a 'Reproductive System'.  Identical cells were constructed, equipped to repair infracellular breakdowns, convert power from their environment and create new cells.  Then suddenly the grey metal boxes began to crawl about the laboratory, feeding, trembling, sliding, multiplying...
   The Reproductive System became an army of metal-eating monsters, controlled by a scientific genius hungry for world dominion!'

Quick flick reveals: I very rarely bother acquiring science fiction for the Lost Book Library, for the simple reason that it's magnificently hard for a sci-fi novel of any interest to stay lost.  The sci-fi community is just too good at keeping books in circulation in some way or other and for awareness of them to stay constant.
   I thought I'd struck pay-dirt with The Reproductive System, however.  It had the 'aura' of a lost book when I saw it, and indeed, it pretty much had been lost for several decades.  Turns out, however, that it was rescued from obscurity and reprinted a while back.  Still, I paid my money, so here it is.
    It looks like the sort of sci-fi that I find appealing.  An artificial system that gets out of control, and infects humanity like a virus.  Predicts the logic of early David Cronenberg, only with boxes instead of vaginal mouths. (Is there an early Cronenberg film with vaginal mouth openings in peoples' flesh?  I feel there ought to be.)  Anyway, I look forward to reading it.

Random paragraph: 'The cells had multiplied - better than doubled their original number - and had grown to various sizes, ranging from shoe-boxes and attaché cases to steamer trunk proportions.  They now repoduced constantly but slowly, in various fashions.  One steamer trunk emitted, every five or ten minutes, a pair of tiny boxes the size of 3 x 5 card files.   Another box, of extraordinary length, seemed to be slowly sawing itself in half.'