Monday, September 25, 2017

let there be shite

This (via Pharyngula) is absolutely tremendous: a new film (called, in slightly oh-what-a-giveaway style, Let There Be Light and starring former TV Hercules Kevin Sorbo) featuring an angry (shrill, even) atheist who writes a book purporting to dispose of the God question once and for all, engages in various ranty pseudo-debates with theists during the promotional book tour and is generally mocking and obnoxious towards anyone professing any form of religious belief. Not sure where they got the inspiration for that idea from.

No, wait: it turns out that this guy's son died a while back and in the wake of that he's been (as well as being a hopeless alcoholic and just generally an arsehole) angry with God! Like all atheists, deep down, right? But when he has a midnight joyride around town while swigging from a hip-flask and ranting at Jesus (again, we've all done it) and drives into a brick wall he has an authentic near-death experience (because these are totally and actually a thing) with the white-robed figures and the aaaahhh-ing celestial choirs and his actual dead son and decides, as you would, that God a) exists and b) wants him to give up the sauce, reconcile with his wife (played, conveniently, by the real-life Mrs. Sorbo, so not too much of a stretch) and get out there and evangelise his freakin' ass off.

Kevin Sorbo has some previous in this area, since he also played a shrill and obnoxious atheist in 2014's God's Not Dead (oh what a giveaway, etc. etc.) - a shrill and obnoxious atheist philosophy professor, in this case, who challenges one of his students to argue in class for the existence of God so that he can tear his puny arguments apart for his own amusement but eventually (hold on to your hats) is revealed to be just angry with God about the death of his mother. Unfortunately it turns out atheists are not only terrible careless drivers but also terrible cavalier jay-walking pedestrians and Sorbo's character gets run over. No near-death experience this time, more of an actual-death experience, but not before there's been time for a last-minute conversion to Christianity (via a handy priest who just happened to be passing at the moment of, erm, passing) and therefore presumably also a last-minute avoidance of the burning fires of Hell for all eternity. Basically these are Chick tracts in glossy film form; God's Not Dead in particular seems to be substantially based on Big Daddy?. That one is mild as Chick tracts go; others are considerably more lurid.

The atheist (probably just angry with God, etc. etc.) caving in and converting to religion (or more specifically Christianity given the culture this stuff happens in) is something of a trope in the evangelical community, largely as a reaction to the host of real-life stories of people abandoning their religious beliefs. As I said here I guess we have to accept that there are people who make the journey in this direction, as irrational as it is, but the overwhelming bulk of traffic is going the other way.

I've saved the most delicious snippet until last, though. Let's go back to the more recent film, Let There Be Light, and try to reconstruct the editorial conversation that must have taken place when the writing team were trying to set up some convincing context for Sorbo's faux-atheist rantings. What book title can we come up with that will give our exclusively Christian audience the biggest frisson of thrilling outrage against the unbeliever, and evoke dog-whistlingly as many other traits as possible that that audience also associates with them? Obviously you've got to have the word God in the title, y'know, like The God Delusion, that's a given, so spitball me a few ideas here. Brett? Erm.....Felching God? Mmmm, not sure how that'll play in Peoria, Brett. Remember when they had to change the title of that Bond film because no-one knew what Revoked meant? Maybe keep the vocabulary a bit more mainstream. Chad? Well.....how about Aborting God?

I imagine an awed silence followed, and then everyone packed up and went home. You have to say that within the bounds of the film's own internal logic it's absolutely brilliant. You should know also that not only is there a God's Not Dead 2, not starring Kevin Sorbo but instead featuring Melissa Joan Hart who has evidently given up the old teenage witchcraft in favour of evangelical Christianity, but that plans are afoot for God's Not Dead 3, in comparison with which being barbecued by the fires of hell for all eternity starts not to seem so bad after all.

Friday, September 22, 2017

headline of the day

I know there's much speculation about the composition of the squad for the upcoming Ashes series in Australia, and England have a few headaches to deal with with regard to batsmen, since they only really have two of their top five sorted out, which is not what you really want at this stage. So it's a bit unhelpful for them to be publicly wishing injuries on potential opening batsmen.



A bit of noun/adjective confusion here, of course, which makes this a classic crash blossom in common with many others noted on this blog (my favourite is this one, though strictly that one is noun/verb confusion).

Friday, September 15, 2017

the headmaster ritual

Last one on this topic, honest. The other thing worthy of mention in the box of old books was this one: Amazon Adventure by Willard Price. The series (of which this was the first, published in 1949) has cropped up tangentially in a couple of earlier posts - back in the day I owned at least a couple of others as well, definitely Underwater Adventure and Whale Adventure but possibly one or two others. In addition to the ones I owned I think I worked my way through reading most of the others, most of them probably from Newbury library. They're pretty good (though Hal in particular is a proper old Mary Sue), and there's lots of good zoological info in there related to the various exotic creatures they capture. These days I get my fascinating creature facts from Octonauts, incidentally.

Lastly, I've found another school prize book on my shelves. My school year was either the last or last-but-one year to take O-Levels (and, for some of the dimwits, CSEs) before the introduction of GCSEs in 1988. It turns out I was the recipient of the school O-Level Chemistry Prize (in what would probably have been 1986), which I think I'm right in saying is second only to the Nobel Prize For Chemistry in terms of prestige.

The book I appear to have chosen is Eyeless In Gaza by Aldous Huxley; my suspicion is that I may have chosen this partly for the small transgressive thrill of having the headmaster hand me a book on stage with an exposed (or, at least, translucently gauzily draped) nipple and arse on the cover. It's a "Gaza strip", hahaha. Oh, please yourselves. Speaking of headmasters, you'll notice that the headmaster's signature is different on this one from the one from three years earlier. Both signatures (the first one in particular) are amusingly illegible, so to clarify the first is that of Basil Cooper (universally known as "Baz" to his pupils) who was headmaster of St. Bart's from 1960 to his retirement in 1985, the second is that of his successor Robert Mermagen, headmaster from 1985 to 1994, and who apparently died in 2004 (I assume Baz is long since demised or he'd be about 200). Some history can be found here - apparently Mermagen's successor Stuart Robinson is still headmaster as of 2017.



the story of my life

Here's part two as promised. Another multi-part book series that I was well into in my formative years was Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine adventures, which comprised twenty books, of which I appear to own fourteen.


Wait a minute, you'll be saying, there are sixteen books in that picture. Well, yes, but if you look closely you'll see that Mystery Mine is in there twice. Interestingly (or not) the Armada edition in the middle of the picture is about 25 pages shorter than the older Merlin edition at the bottom. A flick through the first couple of pages of each reveals that some dialogue has been trimmed, presumably to speed up the narrative for late-1970s kids with their Raleigh Choppers and their Sony Walkmans and their short attention spans.

Wait a freakin' minute, though, you'll be saying, we're still one book over. That's because the barely-legible fourth book down is The Master Of Maryknoll, written by Saville but not part of the Lone Pine series. I can't remember much about it except that its missing-parent-accused-of-some-vague-misdemeanour-resolved-in-tearful-reunion-at-the-end story is somewhat reminiscent of The Railway Children.

The Lone Pine books I don't have a copy of are Mystery At Witchend, Saucers Over The Moor, Sea Witch Comes Home, Man With Three Fingers, Strangers At Witchend and Where's My Girl?. Of those I definitely have read Where's My Girl? and I definitely haven't read Mystery At Witchend; I couldn't say for sure either way about the others.

What I'd say about these books 30-odd years later is that they're a bit prissy (though not quite the full Enid Blyton), some of the characters are a bit Mary Sue-esque (David Morton in particular), the younger Morton twins were irritating characters even when I was in my early teens, and that by the end of the series there were just too many Lone Piners to keep track of, and that as a side-effect of that my favourite character, resourceful but taciturn farm boy Tom Ingles, wasn't in them nearly enough.

What they share with the more spooky books in the previous post, though, is a powerful sense of place, most of them being set around the Long Mynd in Shropshire (here's me and Hazel standing on top of it in 2008). The Garners had Alderley Edge and the Coopers had the Thames valley in The Dark Is Rising and north Wales in the later books.

Onward. Here is my collection of Jennings books. You'll notice that I again have one duplicate (or one pair of duplicates, depending how you look at it), since I have two copies of Jennings Follows A Clue, one from 1959 (the hardback) and one from 1974.


Earlier generations would have obsessively hoarded Billy Bunter books in much the same way, and indeed my father has quite an extensive collection, most of which I have read. Despite there being some overlap in the period in which they were written - Charles Hamilton aka Frank Richards died in 1961, and the Jennings books were mostly published between the early 1950s and the early 1970s - the Jennings books feel much more modern. That's partly because that overlap is a bit of a red herring - while Bunter novels were being published into the 1960s, they reflected the attitudes of when the original material was written back between the wars - but also probably reflects the differing outlooks of the respective authors. The Jennings books have much more of a sense of boys being boys, muddy scabby little herberts constantly yammering away between themselves on a variety of topics totally incomprehensible to adults, rather than swanning around in starched collars quoting Latin aphorisms.

All of these school series have their own argot, and while the Bunter books have their share of I say, you fellows, yarooooo and getting a ghastly impot from old Quelchy, the Jennings books feature old Wilkie getting into a frightful bate, teachers having supersonic earsight, much confusion over rhino and occasional trips to see the Archbeako. It's probably only nigel molesworth who has made a similar contribution to the English language.

Books that I didn't find but which I did own and would very much like to find include:
  • My Roald Dahl books, which I'm pretty sure included Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, Danny The Champion Of The World and at least one or two others;
  • I Am David by Anne Holm - a tale of escape and adventure which I think I'd always assumed was set during World War II but is actually situated somewhat more vaguely in history than that; it also has a Railway Children-style parental reunion at the end;
  • The Cave by Richard Church - oddly enough there was a copy of this book on the shelves at the cottage we stayed at in Pembrokeshire a couple of months back. While I was tempted to nick it my hand was stayed by the terrifying amount of religious literature surrounding it on the shelves; word would be bound to get back to the Big Man somehow. This book (as the name suggests) features some thrilling underground adventures very similar to the antics in The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen, though without the whole being pursued by goblins thing;
  • After The First Death by Robert Cormier - a disturbing story of hijack, kidnap, violence and betrayal, exciting and baffling in equal measure. 

Thursday, September 14, 2017

the loft-hatch is rising

Great excitement here at Halibut Towers this week as a trip to the loft to retrieve some supplies for the boy yielded the unexpected bonus of a box of old books I must have liberated from my parents' loft a while back and then consigned to our loft. Obviously this isn't all the books I owned when I was a wee nipper as I was something of a bookworm and that would have been a lot of books, but it's a selection featuring some key authors and was obviously the result of a careful selection process.

Most importantly, in the light of the most recent book review, here's my Alan Garner collection:


You'll be unsurprised to hear that I got straight in there and skim-read The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath over a period of a day or two, and I'm delighted to report that they are as strange and compelling as I remember them from when I first read them at an age I would guess at being somewhere between ten and thirteen. My copy of The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen bears the sticker pictured on the right on its inside cover, the "prize" (awarded by my school, in case that's not clear) taking the form of a book token that could be spent on whatever you liked. I'm pretty sure that I had already read the book long since by this point, probably after getting it out of the library, and that this version was just me acquiring a copy for my own bookshelves.

Anyway, if you require only one Garner this would be it, the incursion of magical forces into a recognisably real world being far more compelling (to me, anyway) than some wholly imagined world peopled with, say, hobbits. As Garner himself says:
If we are in Eldorado, and we find a mandrake, then OK, so it's a mandrake: in Eldorado anything goes. But, by force of imagination, compel the reader to believe that there is a mandrake in a garden in Mayfield Road, Ulverston, Lancs, then when you pull up that mandrake it is really going to scream; and possible the reader will too.
As well as the supernatural bits, the lengthy section set in the old mines under Alderley Edge where the children and their dwarf companions escape from their pursuers is viscerally thrilling and the bit where they have to crawl head-first into a sump with no knowledge of where (or if) they would emerge into the air still sends a shiver down the spine.

The Moon Of Gomrath is wilder, darker, and probably less good (but still pretty good). The Owl Service is more adult, more opaque and points the way to some of the more demanding later stuff like Red Shift. It's easy for Elidor to get overlooked in this company, but actually I'm pretty sure this was the first Garner I read, so I still have a soft spot for it. It would also have been one of the first "young adult" (rather than "children's") books I ever read, so it sits at a crucial point in my reading life.

It would have been a couple of years later (so at an age of around fourteen or fifteen) that I started reading Susan Cooper's The Dark Is Rising series; I think that it was The Dark Is Rising that I read first, although it's actually the second book in the series. The first, Over Sea, Under Stone, sits apart from the others in many ways - it was written many years before (published in 1965, with the rest being published between 1973 and 1977) probably (I would guess) without being intended at the time to be the start of a series, and has only one character in common with The Dark Is Rising, and that isn't made explicit anywhere until the two sets of characters are brought together in Greenwitch. This is the shortest of the five books and beyond fulfilling the key function of tying the first two books together it's nowhere near as memorable as either The Dark Is Rising or the last two books in the series, The Grey King and Silver On The Tree, which are where the magic (quite lidderally) really happens.


Again, the real trick here is to introduce a wholly convincing supernatural world that sits alongside and occasionally intersects with one that is recognisably our own mundane day-to-day meat-and-potatoes world. As well as the similarities it's interesting to note the differences between these books and the Weirdstone pair - no non-human creatures like svarts and dwarves here, and the mythology that the series draws on is mainly Arthurian and Celtic (and Welsh in particular) while the Weirdstone books mainly draw from Norse mythology.

Anyway, if you want intelligent books for ten- to fifteen-year-olds with a supernatural edge and plenty of excitement I can't think of anything I'd recommend more highly than all of the above. I did find a few more books in the box which are also worthy of mention, but I might save that for part two as this post is already long enough. So be off with you and get off my lawn with your footballs and your fidget spinners and your Snapchats. Bloody kids.

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

hail mary full of grace; watch this stuff dissolve my face

A few things that caught my eye in the last couple of weeks because they put me in mind of previous blog posts. Basically where Electric Halibut leads, the rest of the world eventually follows, even into areas they'd be better off keeping well out of.

So, here's an interesting article about death and the options for clearing up and disposing of its physical consequences, specifically your foetid reeking carcass, lying about seeping noxious fluids into the carpet and generally causing a nuisance. Several previous blog posts have addressed this tricky and sensitive issue with varying degrees of insensitivity, from speculation about using dead people for food to ingesting them in a slightly different way to some slightly more considered thoughts about how ludicrous and wasteful our current arrangements are and what alternatives might be available.

Well, here's a new one: alkaline hydrolysis. As this fascinating article explains, your mortal remains can now be reduced to their component molecules by a process involving nothing more sinister than your corpse being pushed into a giant steel cylinder and liberally marinaded in caustic chemicals for a couple of hours. The resulting residue comprises some powdery bone fragments which you can presumably bag up and take home if you wish to and some soupy liquid which is apparently benign enough just to be flushed down the drain. Obviously that sort of eco-friendliness potentially comes at a price and I don't know how noxious the production process is for the body-dissolving chemicals, or how well it would scale to industrial levels of demand. But the end product is certainly more space-efficient than just burying people, and there are some tremendous buzz-words like "resomator" and "cremulator" to get to grips with. In fact "crem u l8r" is probably how they sign off their texts when arranging the disposal of a loved one.

In a bizarre echo of this post from a couple of years ago, a cricket match between Surrey and Middlesex a couple of weeks ago was abandoned after the arrival of an arrow on the pitch. Technically this one was a crossbow bolt, but it still seems to have been fired from some distance away with little heed to where it might come back down to earth. All good fun until someone loses an eye, of course, and this arrow (unlike mine) seems to have remained fitted with its flesh-piercing metal tip, so it could have done some damage if it had hit anyone.


Lastly, the glory-hole spillway at Lake Berryessa, as mentioned here, was in action for the first time in around eleven years earlier in 2017. Back in the technological Dark Ages of 2007 no-one would have imagined being able to fly a remote-controlled drone out over the lake to have a look down into the mouth of the maelstrom, but of course these days that's as easy as you like, and here is the resulting video. I joked in the original post about inadvertently swimming or boating into the hole and being killed; of course it inevitably turns out that someone has actually done this: Emily Schwalek in 1997. On a happier note, during the decades-long periods between overflowings the outflow tunnel is good for all sorts of other adventures for the intrepid explorer armed with some rope and a skateboard.

So once I've run it past my legal team my will is going to be changed to specify a new method for the disposal of my remains: caustic resomation/cremulation followed by the loading of the residual particulate matter into a small pouch that can be attached to a crossbow bolt and fired in a glorious arc into the foaming mouth of a glory-hole spillway in full spate. What a way to go.

Friday, August 25, 2017

the last book I read

Boneland by Alan Garner.

Colin Whisterfield is a bit of a rum cove. Actually, that's Professor Colin Whisterfield to you, brilliant nucleo-quanto-astro-physicist or some such, working at the Jodrell Bank Observatory. His main work involves making minute observations via the mahoosive Lovell Telescope; Colin's particular obsession is observing the Pleiades, for reasons he only dimly understands, but which involve his sister's disappearance when they were both children.

Colin is not a man generally given to only understanding things dimly, as he has complete day-by-day recall of everything he has ever done. The trouble is this only extends back to the age of thirteen, before which he can barely remember anything at all, and where efforts to remember prompt severe anxiety attacks.

Colin has been passed through the hands of several mental health professionals before he encounters Meg, an unconventional lady psychotherapist much given to motorbike-riding and with a healthy disregard for the normal proprieties of practitioner-patient interaction. With her help (after a few false starts) they start to make some progress in piecing together what happened to Colin and his sister, by the (in hindsight fairly obvious) means of examining local records of the time. And, sure enough, Colin did have a sister, and there was some furore in the local press at the time when she left the farmhouse where she and Colin were staying in the dead of night, took one of the horses, and rode off to who knows where. The horse was later discovered on an island in a nearby lake, but Colin's sister was never seen again.

Let's leave Colin for a minute. Intercut with his bits are some episodes featuring an unnamed protagonist who we are invited to infer inhabits some time period in the Stone Age, though roughly the same Cheshire location. This person appears to be the custodian of some ancient wisdom which enables him to keep the world turning on its axis via some arcane rock-cutting ritual he himself only dimly understands. But, it is implied, if he fails in his appointed duty at its appointed time then some catastrophe will befall the world and some really Bad Shit will happen. As these episodes play out we are invited to infer (well, I think we are) that this guy is only one in a long line of appointed carriers-out of this ritual, and that maybe Colin himself has some connection to it.

One of the ways in which Colin's "issues" manifest themselves is in increasingly vivid encounters with some whispery spectre - sometimes heard, sometimes dimly glimpsed - who may or may not be his sister and whose motives are unclear. She seems keen to warn him away from Meg, though - but why? What is Meg up to? And what of Bert, Colin's taxi-driver friend who seems to know Meg, seems to know Colin's transport requirements before Colin knows them himself, and seems also to work for a taxi firm that doesn't actually exist?

Will Colin solve the mystery of his sister's disappearance? Will Meg's identity be revealed? Will our Stone Age friend successfully complete his appointed task and keep the sky from falling on our heads? Will any of this be revealed to make any sense?

One thing you can say in answer to that last question is that Boneland will almost certainly make very little sense to anyone who hasn't read the two books to which it is a very belated sort-of-sequel, The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen and The Moon Of Gomrath. Those two are, at least in theory, books for children (or "young adults", because apparently that's a thing now); Boneland is most definitely not a children's book. Its writing style and the whole business of the fractured timeline with events in the present echoing those in the past is very reminiscent of Garner's 1973 novel Red Shift, which also involved a stone tool being buried and dug up again as one of the ways in which the story starts itself anew.

Garner is generally pretty scornful about The Weirdstone Of Brisingamen these days, but it was one of the key books of my early teenage years and I must have re-read it well over 20 times over the years. The Moon Of Gomrath is a darker and scarier proposition and certainly carries the implication that Susan's brushes with the magical world have carried her well beyond the point where she can ever be free of it and return to a normal life.

Garner's writing style has gradually become more and more terse and economical over the years, and Boneland doesn't throw the reader any easy pickings. I couldn't say with any certainty, for instance, that I understood any more about Susan's fate at the end of the book than at the beginning. In general the bits of the book that work really well are the flashbacks to the stone age, which are written in a rhythmical, poetic style suggesting stories burnished and refined by being passed down from generation to generation. There's also just a hint of the baton of humanity being passed from Neanderthal man (or some close relative) to his Cro-Magnon successors in the same sort of way as in William Golding's The Inheritors or Jean M Auel's The Clan Of The Cave Bear. Anyway, these sections are great, the lengthy present-day exchanges of dialogue between Colin and Meg less so, largely because they resemble how actual 21st-century humans speak only fleetingly. Meg's identity is hazy - clearly some sort of supernatural entity, it seems at one stage as if we're being invited to wonder if she may be an aspect of the Morrigan, the sorceress from the two earlier books, but her influence seems in the end to have been a benign one.

So while you would think that if the urge took you to finally pick up and write a conclusion to a story you'd set down nearly fifty years earlier, that you'd have some pretty specific way in which you wanted to round the story off. You would think that, but I'm not sure I see what it is; that may of course be a failing on my part. Boneland is intriguing and baffling, and these are not bad things, necessarily. The main thing that I came away from it with, though, was an urge to go back and re-read the previous two books.

Thursday, August 10, 2017

the last book I read

Sweet Caress by William Boyd.

Amory Clay has had a decent enough start in life, born into a pretty privileged upper-class family a few years before the start of World War I. Every family has its little challenges, though, and Amory's comes after the war's conclusion when her father, psychologically scarred by his experiences in a way that no treatment available at the time could have helped with, attempts to kill himself and her by driving his car into a lake.

As it happens, both Amory and Dad survive this experience, at least partly owing to Dad's poor planning in driving into a relatively shallow lake. Dad gets carted off to an institution in the wake of the incident and Amory spends a lot of time with her uncle Greville. Greville is a society photographer and the process of taking Amory under his wing includes taking her on as his assistant for various pretty tedious photo assignments with minor members of the aristocracy at society balls and the like. Amory demonstrates something of a natural aptitude for this and is soon entrusted with solo photography duties for some of the lower-ranking flappers and debutantes, while Greville hangs out at the parties, does a bit of schmoozing and tries to snag assignments with more exciting clients like the Prince of Wales.

Amory decides that she wants to pursue photography as a career, something Greville is happy to help out with by funding a trip to Berlin to get some secret photos of the furtive goings-on in the various late-night cabaret clubs. Greville also arranges the use of some gallery space on Amory's return to display the pictures, but they turn out to be a bit eye-watering for delicate late-1920s London sensibilities and something of a scandal ensues.

Amory finds it difficult to get work, until out of the blue she is offered a job with an American photo agency by its editor, Cleveland Finzi, who later becomes her lover. This first trip across the Atlantic is the start of a whole series of globe-trotting adventures, including some hair-raising ones as a war photographer during World War II. It's towards the end of the war that she meets Sholto Farr, a dashing military officer who just happens to also be the earl of some great tract of Scottish land. So Amory gives up the old photographing game (hardest game in the world, the old photographing game) for a while and devotes herself to being Lady Farr of Auchtermuchty (or something) and rather unexpectedly giving birth to twin girls - unexpectedly because she'd been given to understand that she was infertile after receiving a brutal kicking at the hands (well, feet) of some of Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts while on an undercover photo assignment at one of their rallies in the mid-1930s.

Domestic bliss doesn't last, though, as it soon becomes apparent that the family pile has some crippling maintenance and repair bills that there isn't really the money to pay, and that one of the reasons there isn't any money is that Sholto (traumatised, like Amory's father, by his wartime experiences) is a raging alcoholic who has gambled away significant chunks of the family fortune in drunken visits to various London clubs. Moreover he hasn't been organised (or, to put it another way, sober) enough to get round to writing Amory into his will, so when he dies his first wife inherits the estate. Amory isn't actually too bothered about losing Castle Anthrax but does insist on being provided with somewhere to live (which turns out to be a cottage on an offshore Scottish island, which suits her quite well) and an income to provide for her daughters.

Peaceful semi-retirement doesn't really suit Amory, though, and despite being nearly sixty at this point (late 1960s) she decides that she needs to re-experience the thrill and danger of war photography and wangles herself a trip to Vietnam. We've all seen Apocalypse Now, so we know that it'll be a strange mixture of hanging around seedy hotels in Saigon smoking dope and interludes of shrieking terror when Amory and the young Australian photographer she's been hanging out (and sleeping) with head off on an ill-advised unsupervised jaunt up-country and get shot at by snipers. Amory gets some splendid photographs but quickly decides that she's too old for this shit and heads back home.

On her return she discovers that her daughter Blythe has taken up with some charismatic American guy and headed off to California to join his cult. So she heads off over there, with no especially clear idea about what she's going to do when she gets there, and sure enough Blythe, though a bit thin, insists that she's perfectly happy and in no need of rescuing. So Amory heads back to her Scottish island home and settles, happily this time, into retirement. The only fly in the ointment is the progressive neurological disorder she's been diagnosed with, something which makes her consider carefully the circumstances of her own death and ensure that she has the means at her disposal to bring it about at a time of her choosing.

The first thing to say about Sweet Caress is that it's a successor to Boyd's other two faux-biographical epics The New Confessions and Any Human Heart, though both of those had male protagonists. I'd like to think that the reason I don't think Sweet Caress is as good as either of those isn't just because Amory is a woman, although I suppose it might be a combination of that and Boyd being a man, cross-gender protagonists (in either direction) being notoriously hard to get right. Possibly for this reason it's hard to divine Amory's motivation for some of the things she does; you'd assume that a female photographer, especially an occasional war photographer (someone like Lee Miller, say), would be driven by an unstoppable urge to see and document what was happening, particularly in the face of the wall of institutional male bullshit that would have been placed in her way, but you never really get that impression from Amory, who seems to drift haphazardly into things.

The other problem here is one that's presented as a virtue, the interspersing throughout the text of various "found" photographs from Boyd's own collection, presented as examples of Amory's work. You can see how this must have seemed like a great idea, and an interesting extra challenge in constructing a novel - do you search for a picture that fits a narrative you've already written, or construct a bit of narrative specifically to enable the inclusion of an arresting image? - but it just seemed like a distraction to me. Once you know that these are real pictures you drift into wondering who they really are, and in any case while they're perfectly serviceable candid snaps none of them suggests a quality that could plausibly be the work of an internationally-known photographer.

The framing device (Amory's journal entries written in her Scottish cottage in the late 1970s) seem a bit tacked-on as well: you can see the point of this when the main body of the novel is written from the viewpoint of a different character (as in Birdsong, say), but since the main text is presented as being written, in the past tense, by Amory, it's difficult to tell the sections apart or see what the point of the occasional journal entries was, other than to tee up the last chapter where Amory contemplates a large whisky and an overdose of pills while jotting journal notes.

Enough quibbling: Boyd is incapable of writing an uninteresting book, and this is highly readable and I skipped through its 450 pages pretty quickly (being on holiday for a week helped). It'd be true to say, though, that I'd recommend quite a few other Boyds more highly, including most of the ones in this list, as well as Brazzaville Beach - still the best one, I think, although it was also the first one of his I read, so it's impossible to be objective. Note that Brazzaville Beach has a wholly engaging female protagonist, so it can be done.