Sunday, September 11, 2011

Tarzan Of The Apes - Edgar Rice Burroughs

 I'm sure the name Tarzan needs no introduction! I stumbled across this, the first of Edgar Rice Burroughs's 24 Tarzan novels, in my library last week. I wasn't really looking as such, and the title just sort of leaped out at me as I passed the B section! Suffice to say I grabbed it and read its 241 pages in two nights. Of course Tarzan spawned any number of film adaptations over the years. In the process he has become iconic cultural figure.

 Born in Chicago in 1875 Edgar Rice Burroughs initially attended several military academy's, but failed the entrance exam to Westpoint. He instead ended up enlisted in a cavalry unit in Arizona, but was later discharged due to a heart problem in 1897. He spent the next few years drifting from one aimless job to another. It was during this time he started to read the then very cheap, readily available, pulp fiction magazines of the period.

A very typical cover.
 These were inexpensive fiction magazines published for about 50 years, from the late 19th Century, into the early 1950's. As such they provided cheap entertainment to the working classes of the times. They were typically seven inches by by ten inches and 128 pages long. The term 'pulp' came from the cheap wood pulp paper on which they were printed. Magazines printed on better quality paper were called 'slicks' or 'glossies'. The 'pulp' magazines were the successors to the 'penny dreadfuls' and were initially priced at 10 cents ( 'slicks' being 25 cents ). Many respected writers wrote for 'pulp's', but they are best remembered for their lurid and exploitive stories, and sensational cover art. They often featured illustrated novel length stories of heroic characters. The modern super hero comics are considered descendants of these 'pulp heros'.

 After reading these stories Burroughs thought to himself  "....if people are paid for writing such rot as I read in some of those magazines, then I could write stories just as rotten". His first story was entitled Under the Moons of Mars and was published in All-story Magazine in 1912 as a serial. He was paid the princely sum of $400 ( approximately $9000 today!! ). By the time Under the Moons of Mars had finished, he had written two novels, including Tarzan of the Apes. It was first serialised in October of 1912, and first published in book form in 1914. In the process Tarzan became his biggest seller in a writing career that encompassed sci-fi, historical fiction, westerns, etc.

 Tarzan quickly became a sensation and Burroughs became determined to capitalise on this. He planned to exploit Tarzan through comic strips, movies and merchandise. Remember this is before the era of movie tie ins, with the subsequent merchandising we see today. Burroughs was very much a man ahead of his time, even when he was advised against such an undertaking. Hence Tarzan is still hugely popular and successful to this day.

 Interestingly in 1915 or 1919 Burroughs purchased a ranch north of Los Angles, California, which he named "Tarzana". As a community grew around it the citizens in 1927 or 1928 formally voted to adopt the name for the town!! Burroughs went on to form his own company in 1923, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. and began printing his own books. He was living in Hawaii at the time of Pearl Harbour, and despite being in his sixties, applied to become a war correspondent. His request was granted and he was one of the oldest US correspondents of the war. After the war he returned to Encino, California, where he died in 1950 from a heart attack, aged 74. He had written over 70 novels, and has had a crater on Mars named in his honour, Burroughs Crater. 

 So what about the novel?? Well it sure is 'pulp fiction'!!! Burroughs sure took to the idea of writing 'rotten' stories'!! But no seriously Tarzan isn't rotten, it is more extremely dated, with a total lack of factual accuracies. For instance in the novel Burroughs has Tarzan facing a Tiger, which of course are not found in Africa! Also Tarzan throws around coconuts and pineapples, which again are not found in the jungles of West Africa!! And Tarzan kills several Lions, which again are not native to the jungles of Africa!! But this was cheap, quick writing for the masses, so such things were unimportant, and yet to me quite laughable.

 Overall as a novel Tarzan of the Apes is completely implausible. It has dated very, very badly I'm afraid. Yet it is still worth reading. Burroughs was actually an accomplished writer, and the novel is a genuine piece of literature. Whilst the implausibilities stretched me the writing style was a real joy. But I can't escape the feeling that the novel is a mash up of Mary Shelly's Frankenstein, Rudyard Kipling's The Jungle Book, William Defoe's Robinson Crusoe, and Johann Davis Wyss' Swiss Family Robinson. Burroughs feels to me to have borrowed very heavily from these novels.

 The novel also incorporates a degree of cliche and racism. I mean all the blacks of the African Jungle are just obviously going to be cannibals.......and they are!! But Burroughs adds in his sentiments of blacks being all but sub-humans. He even goes into how the religion of Islam was to blame for the decline of the Moor's scientific and cultural learning's!! ( pg 122 ). It's absurd stuff and reading it today, post 9/11, it is quite inflammatory stuff. I wonder what he would think now about his sentiments is thiserror'?

 The Frankenstein feel comes from the way Tarzan observes the tribe of blacks that come near his cabin. It felt to me like the scene in Frankenstein where the monster is observing the family, while he is hiding in their wood pile ( or was it their shed? ). Burroughs has Tarzan observe and judge the tribe as Mary Shelly did the family through the monster. The Jungle Book feels comes through in the way Burroughs gives all the creatures names as Kipling did. there is Saboy the Lion and Tabor the Elephant for example. And all the apes he lives with are named. I suppose even Tarzan may have his genesis in Mowgli?!! The Robinson Crusoe feel is obvious since the premise revolves round a stranded couple, who die after the birth of their son. Of course this goes for The Swiss Family Robinson, which I thought was an absurd book that took implausibility way too far. Sure it is kids book, but even so!!

 But for all the implausibility Tarzan is still worth reading. It can be a hard slog, especially when you have to buy into Tarzan teaching himself to read, just from the few children's book he finds! But if you realise the 'pulp' background of Tarzan the novel is somewhat more digestible. It wasn't written as a serious novel but as a cheap, easy piece of escapism. To my modern senses it was still difficult to take at times, but i still recommend you read the novel none the less. I mean like so many well known characters our perceptions of them have been shaped by film. The Tarzan story is not the one we think we know unless we read the original source. I found this out with reading Ian Fleming's Bond novels.

 Dated, implausible, but still a recommended, easy read. If anything just to get the 'real' Tarzan story. Oh and if you are wondering, 'Tarzan' translates as 'White Skin' in ape language, of which Tarzan speaks in throughout the novel!

Click here for a website by Edgar Rice Burroughs' late nephew. It is very thorough and goes into greater depth about his writing of the Tarzan novels:

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Octopussy & The Living Daylights - Ian Fleming

Cover of the first edition.
 Well that is it then!! I've now seen every Bond film, and read every Bond novel....well the ones Ian Fleming wrote anyway. They are the ones that really count right??! This particular edition contains four short stories, namely Octopussy, The Living Daylights, The Property of a Lady, and 007 in New York. When released in 1966 first editions only contained the first two stories. The Property of a Lady was added into the first paper back editions in 1967, and 007 in New York wasn't published with the three until 2002 editions.

 Of course the novel was published posthumously. The title is sometimes know just as Octopussy, with the story itself first serialised in the March and April editions of Playboy in 1966. Even though Fleming wrote the stories after many of the novels, it is believed there is a chronology to them. For instance The Living Daylights comes just after Thunderball. Octopussy supposedly follows The spy Who loved Me, then 007 in New York and The Property of a Lady, before On Her Majesty's Secret Service. Fleming is believed to have done so to keep Bond's age at roughly 37.

 Of course both Octopussy and The Living Daylights are names of two Bond films. But like several other Bond films, the stories have little in common with their namesakes. Octopussy is based in Jamaica and is about an ex soldier, Major Dexter Smythe. He is implicated in a murder and theft of two gold bars at the end of WW2. Bond only appears in a few pages, with the story  told through flashbacks from Smythe's point of view. He is a dying alcoholic. Instead of returning to England to stand trial,  he dies after being stung by a Scorpion fish, and then drowned by an octopus. In this story Fleming yet again uses his personal knowledge of diving, and the sea life around Jamaica.

 The man Smythe had murdered had been a friend of Bond's. He had taught him to ski before the war. In the film of the same name a female protagonist is introduced. She is the daughter of the man just to tie the film and novel closer together.

 The Living Daylights sees Bond sent to Berlin to kill a Russian sniper ( code named 'trigger' ). Trigger is assigned to kill a British agent, '272', who is trying to get back to West Berlin. Bond is morose and unhappy about the job. He views it as murder. He watches the kill zone for several days and has a fantasy about a beautiful cellist he sees on the other side. On the night of the escape attempt Bond sees that the girl is in fact 'Trigger', and instead of killing her, shoots her through the hand. He hopes 'M' will sack him for intentionally disobeying his orders to actually kill 'Trigger'. This story was adapted to the film of the same name, and Timothy Dalton plays it much as the novel plays out. He even mutters the novel's line from which the title is taken, ' I must have scared the living daylights out of her'.

 The Property of a Lady was adapted into the Octopussy auction scene. Much of the story is played out in the film. The Faberge Egg and the Sotheby auction are the same. But in the novel Bond is there to identify a Russian agent. Interestingly the idea of the novel's double agent was incorporated into Rosamund Pike's character, Miranda Frost, in Die Another Day, and M's body guard, Craig Mitchell, in Casino Royale. 'The Property of a Lady' was to be the title of third Dalton film, which was to be released in 1991. I've read around and about that it may be considered as the title for Daniel Craig's third film.

 The final story is a few pages long and sees Bond flying into New York. He muses on what he does and doesn't like about the city. In all reality it is Fleming's own views of course. His mission is to warn a female British MI6 agent that her boyfriend is actually a KGB agent. In the story a character 'Solange' is mentioned. This name was adapted into a character in Casino Royale. Also the female agent would be adapted into Quantum of Solace, but instead she would be Canadian, and her boyfriend working for 'Quantum Corporation'.

 Like previous Bond novels Fleming delves into his prejudices. In The Property of a Lady one character is tagged as homosexual, just on the way he dresses!! And in The Living Daylights Fleming lives out his misogyny within a novel Bond reads. The female character is used and abused 'most thoroughly'!! God he was a prick, and one thing I won't miss about the novels is his dis-tasteful views.

 All four stories are well written, and if anything 007 in New York is the only Bond story/novel that includes a humorous air. The first story Octopussy isn't really a Bond heavy one. But the next two are and are very strong stories. I liked both immensely because they were adapted so well into the films, and were still identifyable to the original source.

 The amazing thing is that with only 14 Fleming books to work from, and all of the novels titles used up, the producers of the films can still tap into Fleming. But it must be said the well is now dry, and all future Bond films will be without any Fleming influence at all.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Fan-Tan - Marlon Brando & Donald Cammell

 Yes you have read correctly...Marlon Brando. THE Marlon Brando! I never knew that he had turned his hand to a novel. Suffice to say the name alone just leaped out at me from the spine of the book when I was in my library several days ago. Brando obviously starts with a B, and when I quickly perused the F's I saw that Carrie Fisher ( Leia of Star Wars fame ) also had a novel sitting there. She has actually written several novels which I shall read one day given the chance.

 So home came Marlon's novel. But like so many other dual authored books, it is difficult to truly ascertain how much is Brando, and how much not. In this particular copy there is a piece at the end on its development etc, but it doesn't really say how much input Brando had. All I could gather was it was written over a long period with Brando supplying ideas and Cammell writing them up. That is my understanding anyway ( it was published 1n 2005 after Brando's death ). Of course with this being Brando I couldn't help but feel as I read it that it was a vehicle for a film. Well it was but due to Brando's enigmatic nature it never came to fruition.

 But unlike many novels written solely for filming purposes, Fan-tan isn't overly simplistic in plot or prose. In fact the prose is a little too flowery at times as Cammell searches for deeper literary sense than the novel needed. I feel as if he is trying to make the novel more than just a story, but also a piece of literature in the process. I do admire the attempt, but unfortunately Cammell has tried too hard, and at times the style is a bit too difficult to swallow. Many of the reviews I have read pertaining to the novel all state the same thing. It isn't the lot or storyline that is the problem, it is the way it is written

 But style aside I found the rest of the novel really good. Apparently Brando and Cammell did immense research on the era, namely 1920's Hong Kong. It comes through loud and clear that they did, because unlike many historical novels, Fan-Tan takes you into the world of Chinese pirates and the Hong Kong underworld ( for instance the Chinese woman as pirate lord was based on a real woman ). For this alone I could tolerate the difficult writing style as the strength of the research more than compensated. One last word on the writing style is seen in the fact that it took me three nights to read its brief 227 pages! It really was a difficult book to sit down and read over long periods . I read a bit put it down, read some more, clawing my through it like that.

 The plot is excellent and I really enjoyed it. The whole feel of the novel is superb because the atmosphere is so well described. This is like a James Clavell novel based in the 1920's. Of course James Clavell wrote some of the best novels on the Far East with King Rat, Noble House, and in particular the brilliant, Sho-Gun. If you have read books on the Far East, or just love that part of the world, then I'm sure you will like this novel. I myself aren't a reader of Asia as such and yet this novel impressed me for its authenticity and feel. I mean I could quite literally smell the incense, burning opium, and other exotic smells of 1927 Hong Kong.

 The plot revovles around American Anatole 'Annie' Doughtry who saves the life of a Chinese man in a Hong Kong prison. On his release he is offered the share of a silver hesit a local woman pirate lord is about to undertake. After much negotiating he agrees to take part and the heist is undertaken. But to their horror there is no silver, only later is found out there is onboard the equvilent monetary value of rare pearls. Through a sex scene involving the pearls,  'Annie' steals them and sails off into the sunset.

 But there is a serious problem with the novel because it does delve into some unnecessary perversity at times. Somehow Brando's own real world views creep in and blight the novel. Just certain sentences are overly crude, feeling tacked on to the narrative without being a really valid part of the plot. And unfortunately the last few pages really go over broad. There is a warning from Cammell to skip them if you don't like graphicness, but since I'm open minded I read on. What did I get? Well a sex scene that was crude and poorly executed. The novel's main protagonist 'Annie' Doultry wakes up in the morning after having a night of having a pirate woman  sticking pearls up his bum. He reciprocates with her 'orifices' . Getting the picture? Then the worst bit of crud ever written. Annie finds, as he slept, she has pooed on his chest!!!!!!! You read correctly.......she has shit on him!

 H then carefully scoops it up, excretes the pearl from his bum, and places it on top for her to find ( I won't go into the why as it will be a total spoiler ). But you get the idea. This is the novels crudest moment, but there are other slightly smaller parts dealing with 'assholes' throughout. This turgidness is a low point, and with the overly  flowery prose the novel trips itself up because it undoes the superb research and authentic feel. I really did feel myself transported back to 1920's Hong Kong and smell the opium wars, see the junks, the pirates, etc, etc. This is the novel's high points and I recommend it for that alone. But if you don't like overly crude writing, then this may be one to avoid, because it does go overboard with the perversity.

In such a short novel there are  alot of strengths. The characterisations are good, the feel is superb, the plot solid and plausible. But it is let down in trying too hard to be taken seriously as a piece of literature. With less flowery writing used then it could be assessed as a novel alone, but it wants to be both a novel, and a piece of literature. Then it really tests the reader with its perversity's. These were unnecessary, and they will force away many readers who may otherwise have stuck the novel out.

 Ultimately then Fan-Tan can be only recommended to those with a very broad mind, and who love novels about the Far East. It is not an easy read and the style is again a test. If you can get through the first 30-50 pages you will read the rest. If you don't then you'll give up in despair. Personally I enjoyed the story and setting, but the writing and turgidness left me somewhat cold.

 Amazon has this with 3 1/2 stars from 10 reviews. Of those 10, 4 are 1 out of 5 reviews! I think 3 1/2 is fair. A lot to like but lets itself down. The hardest thing to fathom is if Brando envisaged filming this, how did he expect to put in the perversities??

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Secret History Of Elizabeth Tudor, Vampire Slayer - Lucy Weston

 I like vampires...hang on a minute, no I don't!! And since everyone knows vampires are real, I hope that I never actually meet one of the bloodsuckers. Ha ha ha, anyway vampires as a fictional creation are quite cool, and open up an incredible field for a writer to explore imaginatively. Lucy Weston is yet another who has jumped into the vampire genre, and in doing so has written a worth while novel, the first of a series.

 Lucy Weston has taken a not wholly original approach to the novel, but it is still good enough to work for her. She purports to actually be the Lucy Westerna of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula. She has changed her name to Weston to avoid detection in her vampire form. She has apparently come into possession of Elizabeth Tudor's diaries which reveal she was a vampire slayer. Hopefully this hasn't put you off as sounding too preposterous, but remember is only a story!

 Weston opens the novel on the night Elizabeth was crowned Queen of England. She is called away unexpectedly that night to her mother's grave, Anne Boleyn, and finds she has a dark secret. The novel's premise basically infuses historical fiction with dark fantasy, and Arthurian legend. The result is very readable audacious mash up. It is written in the from of a first person narrative. Elizabeth is of course the main narrator but her vampire equivalent, Mordred, the son of King Arthur, also narrates his point of view of events as they transpire.

 As stated the novel is a fusion of historical fact and fantasy. King Arthur's bastard son, Mordred, after the battle of Camdon, makes a deal with a vampire in the hope it will enable him to become king of England. It doesn't transpire and 1000 years later he has re-gained enough strength to enable him to make another attempt. Queen Elizabeth is related to Morgaine, Mordred's former lover through Anne Boleyn. It transpires they were vampire slayers and the power has passed on to Elizabeth.

 Mordred approaches Elizabeth offering her a deal. Become a vampire, rule with him, and save England from the never seeming end of enemies that England has arrayed against her. As avampire Mordred is apparently a very beautiful creature, and Elizabeth is almost unable to resist him. The novel owes a debt to Dracula, as a character arrives who has been studying vampires in Europe called, Francis Walsingham. He is a quasi Van Helsing of course! If you know Dracula you'll recall one scene where a vampire nest is found in a big house brought by Dracula. In this novel the scene is replicated somewhat in homage in Southwark House.

 But overall this novel, whilst acknowledging Bram Stoker, is its own animal. It is beautifully written, and whilst not overly original, Lucy Weston has a writing style that is well above competent, and simply a delight to read. This is what I take away from the novel the most. The text is elegant, flowery, with a quiet seductiveness that mirrors the seductive air of the novel. This is written from a females point of view and yet can be read by males equally. The sex scenes are quiet, lacking explicitness, and yet are quite clear on what is what. I liked them as Elizabeth comes across as a viable, believable 25 year old woman.

 As a vampire novel don't expect loads of garlic, crosses, stakes and the likes. The plot is more historical based and the vampires a more seductive, classy creature than often portrayed. They drink fine wine, converse in educated manners, and sit by warm fires. Sure they 'feed' but not in the gruesome manner we would imagine. The thing here is Mordred's attempts to win Elizabeth over to vampirehood in order to gain the throne.

 My only gripe is that this novel is one of a series. At 300 pages it follows the modern manner of being too short. And whilst I appreciate Weston's need to make a living, I wish she had written a longer novel with a definite conclusion. It would have for me been more satisfying than the ending of this.

 So what do I think in conclusion? Well it is first of all beautifully written. Lucy Weston's prose is seductive, elegant, and very womanly in its point of view. But it isn't solely a chick's book as I found it immensely readable. I like the fusion of historical figures, with legend and the paranormal. But it is definitely too short, and I don't think serialising it is justified. I think a good solid tome would have been more satisfying, and Weston has provided more than enough premise to have done so. But overall a well written, easy reading novel.

 Amazon has this with 3 1/2 stars from 19 reviews.  I think that is a fair grade. I would give it a definte 4/5 if it was longer, and a stand alone novel with a conclusion. ( many don't like the writing style, but I think it is the novel's strongest trait ).