Wednesday, February 06, 2008

The Portable Door by Tom Holt

During the 1990s I read a lot of books by Tom Holt. Some I quite liked, others I loved and one or two I really disliked and, in some cases, never finished. But a sucession of books that I didn't like much, culminating in 'Wish you were here' (published 1998, but I attempted to read it a couple of years later), which I never finished reading, put me off Tom Holt books for a bit.

You know the old cliche that every story should have a beginning, a middle and an end? Well, I found that Tom Holt books generally had good and interesting beginnings, clever and sometimes inspired endings, but often got a bit lost in the middle somewhere. It was as if he had a great idea, wrote it down in full and then thought 'hmm, this isn't long enough, I need to pad it out somehow' and added a few unnecessary twists and turns in the middle somewhere.

But anyway, 'The Portatble Door' got quite good reviews and sounded a bit more interesting than some of his late 90s output, so I finally got around to reading it.

Its good. Its funny. Its clever. It even has moments of greatness. Oddly enough, it isn't the middle of this book that Tom Holt had problems with, it seems to have been the beginning. The beginning of the book seems to go on for ages, indeed, it felt like well past the halfway point in the book before the story got going properly. Certainly its past halfway before the portable door of the title actually comes into the story and we (and indeed the characters in the story) begin to work out what is going on. Or rather, what is going on is revealed to the characters about halfway through the book and it feels like the majority of the actual story doesn't even begin until that point.

The book tells the story of Paul Carpenter, a reasonably talent free young man who has left school but so far failed to find a job. We meet him at his interview to be a general office dogsbody at a company called J.W. Wells & Co. While waiting for the interview he meets a skinny and sulky girl who he is instantly drawn to and, against all probability, both he and the girl (who we eventually find out is called Sophie) get jobs at J.W. Wells & Co. Given his CV, you wouldn't think that Tom Holt actually spent much of his time doing dull office jobs, so I guess he's spoken to a number of people who have done exactly that, and has channeled their experiences into the first half of this book. You see, in the first half of the book, before we really find out what is going on, we find out about Paul and Sophie and the dull, pointless, weird and occasionally inexplicable things they are given to do as office juniors. It is the office job from hell. Possibly quite literally.

But I won't spoil the surprise of what the company actually is and does. You can find that out by reading the book. Despite being a slow starter, it is a good and entertaining book and I'd recommend it to anyone who likes a bit of weirdness in their life.

It even verges close to being 'literature' at some points (not merely 'genre fiction' which most folk will label it as) as the book does touch on big themes in human experience. I suppose the main theme of the book is that you are not defined by what you do (in terms of a job, I mean), or what you look like, or even what species you are, its who you are underneath your skin that counts.

And the story of Paul Carpenter doesn't end there. There are three other books in the series, so far, so I'll probably get around to reading the next one - 'In your dreams' - sometime.

For what its worth, I found the first few of Tom Holt's fantasy books the most entertaining, everything from 'Expecting someone taller' (1987) and 'Who's afraid of Beowulf' (1988) through to 'Faust among equals' (1994). After that things got a bit too weird and convoluted for my liking, although 'My Hero' (1996) was good.

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