ANGELOU, Maya (born 1928) American autobiographer and poet
As a young woman, Maya Angelou was a singer and actress, touring the world in Porgy and Bess and working in New York nightclubs. In the 1960s she became a civil rights activist and spent five years in Africa as a journalist and teacher. Today she is one of America’s most respected poets and writers. Her finest work is the reconstruction of her own past life she has made in her volumes of autobiography. Angelou has triumphed in these not only because she has a lively prose style and writes of extraordinary characters and unusual locations, but because she has succeeded in making her own life seem somehow emblematic of an entire black generation’s progress from the segregation and oppression of the 1930s through the campaign for civil rights to the present day.
I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS (1969)
The first of Maya Angelou’s five volumes of autobiography records . . . Read More
AMIS, Martin (born 1949) British novelist
The novels of Amis fils are icily satirical, cold with rage at the physical and moral sleaziness of the human race. His characters’ preoccupations are sex, drugs, money and success, and they are tormented by failure to win, or keep, all four. Ronald Firbank and F. Scott Fitzgerald found similar prancing emptiness in the ‘gay young things’ of the 1920s. Amis matches those writers’ bilious wit and parades his dazzlingly inventive prose style in his pages but adds a pungent view of his own: that the entire generation born after the creation of nuclear weapons is maimed beyond cure, a race of psychotic moral mutants. Few contemporary writers treat such repulsive subject matter so dazzlingly. Amis’s novels are compulsively nasty, superbly hard to like.
This is the ‘suicide note’ of an obese, deranged and despairing film director, stumbling through a New York inferno of fast food, pornography, . . . Read More
AMIS, Kingsley (1922–95) British writer of novels, poems and non-fiction
In the 1950s, when Amis’s writing career began, British writers of all kinds – the ‘angry young men’ – had begun to rant in plays, films and novels about the unfairness, snobbishness and priggishness of life. Whingeing became an artistic form – and Amis’s novels showed its funny side. The working-class hero of Lucky Jim (1954) tries to conform with his madrigal-singing, right-newspaper-reading, winesavouring university colleagues, and in the process shows them up for the pretentious fools they are. The central character of That Uncertain Feeling, a small-town librarian, thinks that devastating sexual charm will carry him to the pinnacle of local society; the results are farcical. The hero of Take a Girl Like You (1960) finds it hard to persuade anyone else in his circle that ‘free love’ and ‘the swinging . . . Read More
AMBLER, Eric (1909–98) British novelist and screenwriter
Ambler worked in advertising, the film industry and the secret service before becoming a full-time novelist. The deadpan style of his thrillers lets him move easily from violence to farce, and he either sets his books in exotic places (the Levant, the Far East, tropical Africa), or makes familiar European locations seem exotic as the scene of sinister and unlikely goings-on. His central characters are minor crooks, conmen, or innocent bystanders trapped by circumstances or curiosity into a chain of bizarre and dangerous events. His supporting casts are crammed with improbable, unsavoury specimens, very few of whom are quite what they seem to be. Today these kinds of thriller are familiar, but Ambler was one of the first to write them, and his are still among the best in the genre.
THE MASK OF DIMITRIOS (1939)
Although later thrillers continued to be successful (The Light of . . . Read More
ADAMS, Douglas (1952–2001), British novelist
Adams began his career as a radio joke-writer, and also worked for the TV science fiction series Doctor Who. He made his name with a series of genial science fiction spoofs, beginning with The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1979). In this, Earthman Arthur Dent, informed that his planet is about to be vapourized to make room for a hyperspace bypass, escapes by stowing away on an alien spacecraft. This is the beginning of a wild journey through time and space, in the course of which he meets the super-cool President of the Galaxy, Zaphod Beeblebrox, discusses the coastline of Norway with Slartibartfast (who won prizes for designing it), watches the apocalyptic floor-show in the Restaurant at the End of the Universe, and discovers the answer to the ‘ultimate question about life, the universe and everything’. The other Hitchhiker . . . Read More
ACKROYD, Peter (born 1949), British writer
Ackroyd is a biographer as well as a novelist – his Dickens is 1,200 pages long, sumptuously detailed, and acclaimed – and his fiction benefits from a researcher’s eye for extraordinary and revealing detail about the past. Often, he blends a modern story with a historical one, and characters from the past move in and out of the contemporary narrative like ghosts. He sets many stories in London (he is the author of London: A Biography), and superbly evokes its people and atmosphere, both today and in different periods of the past.
This remains the most exhilarating and adventurous of Ackroyd’s explorations of a London in which past and present endlessly intertwine. A contemporary detective (the namesake of the seventeenth-century architect) is driven towards a mystical encounter with forces from the past through his investigations of a series of murders . . . Read More
ALLINGHAM, Margery (1905–66), British novelist
Allingham wrote ‘crime fiction’ only in the sense that each of her books contains the step-by-step solution of a crime, and that their hero, Albert Campion, is an amateur detective whose amiable manner conceals laser intelligence and ironclad moral integrity. But instead of confining Campion within the boundaries of the detective story genre, Allingham put him in whatever kind of novel she felt like writing. Some of her books ( More Work for the Undertaker; The Beckoning Lady) are wild, Wodehousian farce; others ( Sweet Danger; Traitor’s Purse) are Buchanish, Amblerish thrillers. Her best book is The Tiger in the Smoke, set in an atmospheric, cobble-stones-and-alleyways London filled with low-life characters as vivid as any in Dickens. Like all Allingham’s novels, it is not a conventional whodunit, although it contains plenty of mysteries that demand solutions. Jack Havoc, the ‘tiger’ of the title, escapes from jail . . . Read More
ALLENDE, Isabel (born 1942), Peruvian-born Chilean novelist
Allende’s first novel, The House of the Spirits (1985), was a glowing family tapestry in the magic-realist manner of >> Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, spanning five generations and thronged with larger-than-life characters and supernatural events. She followed this vein in Eva Luna, which is particularly evocative of life on a decaying hacienda deep in the tropical bush. Her finest book, Of Love and Shadows (see below) adds politics to the magic-realist mixture, to devastating effect. Paula is a moving account of the death of Allende’s daughter which opens out into the story of her own life and the political tragedies of Chile. Aphrodite is an unclassifiable celebration of food, sex and sensuality which reflects the same delight in the physical world that runs through all her fiction.
OF LOVE AND SHADOWS (1987)
Irene Beltrán, a journalist, and her photographer-lover Francisco Leal are . . . Read More
Aiken In the 1964 segment, Aiken is a player for Delaney High School, against whom Tommy Lewis plays hard.
Annie Annie is Lizzy’s cousin in the 1864 segment of the novel. She does not understand why Joshua and Lem ran away.
Bob Archer At the end of the 1964 segment, Bob Archer drives Tommy home after he spends the night in jail, and then helps guard the Lewis home with a shotgun.
Virginia Bates The wife of Robert Smalls Lewis and the mother of Tommy Lewis, Virginia appears in the 1964 segment. Initially she does not appreciate the offer Tommy receives to help integrate Johnson City State, but ultimately she supports her son in all that he does.
Muhammad Bilal When Muhammad Bilal is eleven years old and living in Africa, he is captured by slave traders, put on a slave ship, and sent to America. He does not know if his parents, Odebe and Saran, have knowledge about . . . Read More
July 1753. Off the Coast of Sierra Leone, West Africa
Muhammad Bilal is traveling on a slave ship from Africa, where he was captured by slave traders. He is trapped with other slaves in close quarters for a voyage of at least a month. Like the others, he suffers from pain and thirst, and longs for the end of the journey.
March 1864. Live Oaks Plantation. Curry Island, South Carolina
Muhammad becomes a slave at Live Oaks, and is one of the first slaves bought by the Lewis family to work their plantation. All the slaves are made to work on a Sunday, harvesting sweet potatoes under the watchful eye of overseer Joey Haynes. This Sunday labor is required in part because Joshua (the brother of elder slave Moses) and Moses’ son Lem have run away, and white patrollers are after them. Lem is found and brought back, then taken off by whites who tie him to a tree overnight so he will reveal where Joshua is. Miss Julia, the Lewis’s . . . Read More