Dan Sandman

Archive for September, 2014|Monthly archive page

39: The Magician by W. Somerset Maugham

In Books, Fiction, Horror on 26/09/2014 at 12:00 pm

The Magician by W. Somerset MaughamArthur Burden is a sensible doctor with a scientific mind who does not believe in magic. In a bohemian Paris cafe, Arthur meets the enigmatic Oliver Haddo, a deceptive magician and practitioner of the dark arts. In between the two men stands the virginal Margaret, innocent victim of Haddo’s horrific actions. As the story develops, moving from Paris to London to Monte Carlo, Haddo tightens his evil grip upon his victim Margaret. Back at the magician’s country estate, in a remote place called Skene, the horror reaches its exciting climax.

Writing at the start of the twentieth century, W. Somerset Maugham was first trained as a doctor. It was not until the success of his first novel Liza of Lambeth that Maugham decided to commit to working as a writer. To write this novel, Maugham drew on his experience as a doctor and spent many hours studying the occult. The writing comes across as well informed, purposefully constructed, and influenced by the popular gothic horror stories of the past. Apparently, the evil Oliver Haddo is based upon the infamous, real life character Aleister Crowley – who wrote a wrote a review of the novel in Vanity Fair, which he signed ‘Oliver Haddo’.

In conclusion, I found The Magician to be an intriguing novel, with memorable characters and a strong story line. For me, it successfully sets the pretensions of polite society against the decadence of bohemian society. With great style, W. Somerset Maugham focuses his descriptive skills on creating a realistic setting, which the writer then upturns by introducing supernatural elements to the story. In this way, Margaret’s delicate sensibility represents all that is good in the world, a goodness which is corrupted by the evil powers of Haddo. I think Maugham believed that Aleister Crowley was a fraud, but thought that giving Crowley real magical abilities would be a great idea for a novel.

Escapism at its very best and an absorbing page turner.

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38: Morality for Beautiful Girls

In Books, Crime, Fiction on 19/09/2014 at 12:00 pm

Morality for Beautiful Girls by Alexander McCall SmithIn this, the third book of the series, Mma Ramotswe investigates a case of poisoning, whilst Mma Makutsi is asked to solve a case involving morality for beautiful girls. Meanwhile, an orphan has been found smelling of lion and Mr. J.L.B Matekoni has caught an illness called depression. Once again, as with the previous two novels, this book is a generous homage to Botswana that brings to light the moral questions facing Africa today.

This series of books, with their attractive and colourful covers, are skillfully crafted and easy to read. Alexander McCall Smith is an expert storyteller, his stories strike the correct balance between plot and character development. The plots are carefully constructed to give the reader a sense of satisfaction, as crimes are solved by examining moral questions. In these crime stories, the detective’s job is to think about why characters are acting strangely or hiding the truth. Once the reasons for the strange behaivour or dishonesty are uprooted, the problem can be solved.

When I pick up these books, I can’t put them down because the stories flow so easily. I start to get involved with the characters and I begin to imagine an exciting world where Mma Ramotswe and co. can warm the hearts of cold government men and rescue children from orphanages. These books teach that people are on the whole good, and all that bad people need is help from a kind person. It is a world where morals are clearly defined, where people who know about cattle are good, and where those who pick up members of the opposite sex in bars are bad. This unreal world, a beautiful place, somewhere in a sunny part of an author’s imagination, is where these books take me. It looks like this world, it might even share a common history with it – perhaps crimes can be remedied with kindness and understanding – but I am not entirely convinced that this is the real world.

And what more could I ask for from a crime fiction novel – brilliant.

37: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson

In Adventure, Books, Fiction on 12/09/2014 at 12:00 pm

Treasure Island by Robert Louis StevensonTreasure Island is an incredible example of no-nonsense storytelling. Vivid characters jump off the page, the exciting seafaring adventure hurtles along at an incredible pace – this is an exciting story written for boys or girls who like pirates, treasure, mutiny, schooners, &ct. Written at the turn of the 19th century, and yet set directly in the middle 18th century, in some ways, the story presents a romantic version of a Georgian past. Something of a digression for Robert Louis Stevenson, this novel, aimed at children, ignores any psychological complexity and offers no comment on Victorian society. This is pure escapism at its very finest.

In these kind of rip-roaring adventure stories, ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’ are plainly defined, whereas, in reality, these terms are more difficult to determine. On Treasure Island, the pirates (baddies) are all murderous heathens with significant rum or brandy addictions and, when speaking, use a strange dialect – call it pirate speak, if you like. Whereas, on the good side of the fence, the goodies speak the Queen’s English and act honorably according to their duties. And Jim Hawkins, the young lad telling the story, is what every boy wants to be: i.e. adventurous and heroic; occasional disobedient to adults, but saving the day and finding the treasure in the end.

And so, this exciting adventure story is a male fantasy, where the idea is to create a world – indeed, an island – away from woman and away from politics. A place where children (of all ages, as they say) can escape to, and can reenact swashbuckling cutlass action inside the vaults of their imagination. I eagerly picked up this Penguin Classics edition at the Greenwich Maritime Museum whilst enjoying a day out with my parents. At the back of the book, there is an interesting appendix called “My First Book” (1894) in which Stevenson writes about the veneration he used to feel towards the three-volume novel before he completed his first novel, and about struggling to capture ‘one of those hours when the words come and the phrases balance of themselves’.

Evidence that writing a first novel, even a ‘bad novel’, is not an easy task and should still be rewarded by society.

36: A Sentimental Journey by Laurence Sterne

In Books, Comedy, Fiction on 05/09/2014 at 12:00 pm

A Sentimental Journey by Laurence SterneLaurence Sterne (1713 – 1768), the son of an army ensign, went to grammar school and received a BA from Jesus College, Cambridge. Always an academically gifted man, Sterne went on to receive an MA and was ordained as a priest. He later wrote a series of nine volumes called The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentlemen, which has been celebrated for deliberately breaking formal conventions. A month before he died, in 1768, Sterne published A Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy, by Mr. Yorick, a book that no doubt would have expanded beyond two volumes, had he lived past his 54th year.

During the 18th century, the definition of the word sentimental changed from meaning ‘moral’ to meaning ’emotional’. Many sentimental novels and travel books were being published at the time, A Sentimental Journey is partly written as a response to these books. It is fun, includes many memorable set-pieces, and a fair amount of innuendo and irony. In other words, it is a quintessentially British piece of humorous  prose, loosely masquerading as a sentimental novel, and mostly concerned with Mr. Yorick’s reaction to the French people he meets on his travels.

I was amused by the erotic suggestiveness of some parts of the novel and found Mr. Yorick’s encounters with French woman particularly entertaining. One is never quite sure whether anything happens – sexually speaking – or not; it is left up to the reader’s imagination. I can also recommend this book for its inclusion of toilet humour, after all, nothing could be more British than poking fun at the French for using a bidet. Pick up this highly successful experiment, turn to a page, and Sterne’s digressive style will jump up to greet the reader with refreshing warmth.

Brilliant and remarkable.