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Bad Men by John Connolly

John Connolly is a lovely man. In the couple or so interactions I've had with him as bookseller and bookshop manager-type person, he has never been anything other than polite, respectful and very willing to put in a shift when it came to signing his backlist and meeting the general public. In addition, and I choose to consider this not to be an author sucking up to the people who are responsible for moving units but rather as further evidence to support my opening statement, he is genuinely nice about booksellers. Indeed, booksellers get a nod in the acknowledgements of Bad Men, and, to my surprise as I'd not remembered him doing it, he wrote a very pleasing dedication in my copy referring to me as a bookseller as someone with a proper job (and not, as it might be interpreted, as possibly one of a marginal group of people living in Cardiff in full time employment). I don't know if it's a trait of genial Dublin-born Irishmen, if his parents had something to do with it, …

Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil

In my triptych of black satires informed by the atrocities of the Second World War, I had high hopes that this oft-neglected author would offer something as equally entertaining as that of Vonnegut and Heller, showcasing the rational humanism alongside the absurd and insane with a dash of gallows humour. It certainly starts out that way, with a low level municipal officer in occupied Prague being tasked with the removal of a statue of the 'Jewish'* composer Mendelssohn from the roof of the Prague Academy of Music by the office of Acting Reich-Protector of Bohemia and Moravia, SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich. Of course, he knows nothing of the likeness of Mendelssohn, so chooses instead the statue with the largest nose, which unfortunately belongs to Wagner.

I was salivating at the prospect of another comic masterpiece from Central Europe in the veins of Hrabal or Čapek, but sadly this is the high tide of comedy in the novel, and it occurs at the very beginning. What foll…

Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut

I'll lay my cards down from the off, so you are under no illusion about where my loyalties lie. I love Kurt Vonnegut novels, and I love Nick Nolte movies. I haven't read / seen a bad one of either. True, some have qualities in excess, some are deficient thereof; but none are so bad that I wouldn't watch or read them again. Considering the intertextual currents on which I've been adrift recently, this convergence of preferred author and actor is a pleasant one. For a starter, it's not often that one can post a picture of Nick Nolte wearing a swastika arm-band without a cease-and-desist order following shortly behind. Secondly, as I realised on re-watching the movie another time, the poignant music of Arvo Pärt's Tabula Rasa features throughout, which just so happens to be one of my favourite pieces of music with which to accompany fits of self-pity. Thirdly, Vonnegut manages to cast SS Obersturmbannfürher Adolf Eichmann in what must be his only comic role in lit…

Over-excited Post

I just received this in the post from the lovely people at Brit-Books and am very pleased that I can now put it on the shelves and stare at it until finally motivated to read it by some quirk of cosmic coincidence. 

Because that's how I roll.

Don't expect a review any time soon.

The Numbers Game by Chris Anderson and David Sally

Non-fans of football might wish to look away now. 


Are they gone? Okay then, on with the story. I am very pleased to read things like this. Not that it's well written or a thrilling read; far from it. The authors are slightly lazy with their style, throwing out a reasonable-sounding punter / pundit myth which they then bust in a rather predictable fashion. It's all a bit, "You'd think this is self-evident, wouldn't you? But, AHHHHHHHHHHHhhhhhh! You're wrong." Yawn. To be fair to them, it's hard not to do just that with what is basically a myth-busting big-data-for-the-footballing-lay-person-type book. You set the reader up in his* comfortable assumption, plump up his cushions and get him a nice cup of tea, and then dash the cup to the floor, up-end the sofa and strip his clothes off as you push him out into the cold, hard light of statistical reality. It's how it's done. But it's still a bit repetitive over the course of X chapters, each de…

Closing Time by Joseph Heller

I wonder if my new-found bachelordom is the reason that I have seemingly embarked upon a morbid trend in my reading. I have long avoided reading this novel, billed as the sequel to Catch 22 and, from the publisher blurb on the back, dealing with the tying up of ends in the lives of the characters from the first novel as they move towards their own deaths - not an uplifting prospect, Heller's acute and acerbic wit notwithstanding. What did I read after this? Mother Night by Kurt Vonnegut. And next? Mendelssohn Is On The Roof by Jiří Weil. I suspect you'll see a trend. In my defence, I would posit that there is a deep, atavistic humour to be found in all three novels, something that everyone can access and recognise, the hangman's joke, the infantryman's bluster. That all three deal on one level or another with the atrocities of the second World War might raise a tired sigh from my estranged wife, who has long been disturbed by such trends in my literary taste (or lack, …

Dreams From My Father by Barack Obama

I have long been a quiet admirer of Barack Obama. Not just for the obvious race-guilt reasons, which creep into my thoughts on occasion, for no other reason that I'm white, of the lower middle class (or upper working class) and smugly safe behind my liberal WASP upbringing and need something to feel guilty about. Firstly for his role as a reluctant trail-blazer for African Americans; in a country where there are [fill in the number yourselves] million people of African descent, it's quite amazing that one of them hasn't been voted in as POTUS before now, so being the first is not only a great victory for equality, much like when Obama got his job at a law firm it is also a burning shame. For America. Me, I couldn't give a monkey's, race-guilt or no race-guilt. Secondly, he looks and acts like a man of class, in the non-pejorative sense, a man who would make a good friend, be noble and upright about the right things, and flexible about the others. Nothing in this au…

Lowside Of The Road: A Life of Tom Waits by Barney Hoskyns

It’s not a coincidence that, during one of the lowest points of my life of late, I reached out to Tom Waits, both for a soundtrack for my misery and to read more about his life and music. Having discussed, agreed, and facilitated a separation from my wife of six years, and in the middle of a temporary period of not seeing my son due to the complications of the move, I had no access to diversions other than my music and books – of course, who actually needs more than that? No TV, no internet, no telephone, no money. Had I been out of a job too I could have cracked open a bottle of white port and pretended I Henry Chinaski! 
Waits’ early beat-jazz style, his circus-freak albums, his junkyard phase; his bawlers, brawlers and bastards* have been ever-present since I first started working in a chain bookstore in 1997 and was introduced to Waits through the oxide-fatigued cassettes on semi-permanent repeat in the stock rooms (along with early Aphex Twin albums and, perhaps less excitingly, E…

Memories Of The Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

Having read the introduction by translator Joanne Turnbull, I was excited to begin reading Krzhizhanovsky, an author whose published output was stymied no fewer than four times by the strictures of the Communist regime and / or World War II, and is only recently available to buy (thanks in no small measure to NYRB who have at least two selections available). The introduction and the website reviews promised surrealism, dark subversive humour and avant garde satire. What I found was all of these things, but also, an obliqueness that prevented me from truly enjoying it. 
I wonder if it's just me. At the time, I was going through the dissolution of a six-year marriage, so justifiably my mind may have been elsewhere. I was reading whilst waiting in the car for other people, at my desk in my noisy office during my 'lunch hour',and at home only as a distraction given my new bolt-hole had yet to be graced with Ethernet or Wi-Fi connectivity. I was also reading the unauthorizedTom …

The Wooden Sea by Jonathan Carroll

Jonathan Carroll poses two problems to me, as a book reviewer. The first is not the usual one with which I’m faced when contemplating a favourite author, but rather one of device, trope, hook – in short, a theme for the review. Carroll’s works are large in scope even when centred in small, parochial settings. They are not easily pigeon-holed, despite the complacent person’s tendency to bung them into the fantasy genre (indeed, I have an aged Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks version of The Land of Laughs), and are as spiritual as they are fantastical. They have an ease of language that often belies some hard-edged writing, and pretty much anyone in any given book could die or is already dead, even and sometimes especially the ubiquitous bullet-headed English Bull Terriers. So, what then, should I do to properly frame this review and subsequent Carroll critiques (for there will be more, with at least TheGhost in Love and A Child Across The Sky waiting in the wings)? Perhaps theme-less-ness i…

The Explorer by James Smythe

I suspect that James Smythe has seen his fair share of science fiction movies. There are definite echoes here of Solaris (the original 1972 film) and even Dark Star, John Carpenter's rather off-beat long-short-film, from which the idea was formed for the now remaining Scott sibling's Alien (at least the bit about something scrabbling around loose in the spaceship). I suspect he's read a few sci-fi novels and short stories too. I pick up Ray Bradbury, and maybe Vernor Vinge, in the vastness of space and all the cold, hard, emptyness of the universe. And there's Robert Reed too, Marrow, things unknown and unknowable, exploration without end. 

But it's all well and good doing a literature review, putting this compact novel into context. What's more difficult to do is to review this novel without too much reference to the plot, which is tight and unfolds quickly, satisfyingly, once the red herring is out of the way. The red herring you ask? Yeah, sorry, spoiler. I c…

In-House Weddings by Bohumil Hrabal

There’s a term in Czech, coined to encapsulate Bohumil Hrabal’s particular headlong rush through sentences and ideas, skipping over syntax and playing with somewhat surreal juxtaposed ideas and images. In and of itself it is a beautiful word – Hrabalovština. According to Adam Thirlwell*, Hrabal preferred the term ‘palavering’ – talking unnecessarily and at length, or prolonged and tedious fuss or discussion. I suspect that’s just Hrabal’s way of dismissing his own work with typical wry modesty. In another of his books, Dancing Lessons For The Advanced In Age, this palavering style is taken to the extreme, the author using digression and repetition to basically write one novel-length sentence. Playful is my preferred description, and in In-House Weddings, volume one of three fictionalised biographies** of the writer, you come across multiple digressive compound conjunctions where you’d expect some stronger punctuation and the words simply tumble over each other, clause after clause rai…

Selected Holiday Reading - The In-Betweeners Abroad

I always try to travel light, a goal, something with which those among you with bookish leanings will empathise, that is challenging for someone intending to do as much reading as they can whilst ignoring as much culture and scenery as is possible. So huzzah and indeed hurrah for the generic e-book reader and its market competitors. Ten years ago I would likely have suffered a paroxysm of disgust for any apologist of the hated technology. Now, it seems, I must take one everywhere I go for more than one night.



The trip to which I am coming, an August sojourn by ferry to Santander and then by VW through Calabria, the Basque country, and north through Aquitaine, Poitou-Charente, Pays de la Loire and Bretagne, was a chance to get some serious reading under the belt. Twelve days of driving, drinking, books and beaches. The only 'real' books that made the trip were The Vagabond's Breakfast, of which more anon, and All The Days And Nights which, as I was on a deadline, I quickly …

The Vagabond's Breakfast by Richard Gwyn

I enjoyed The Colour Of A Dog Running Away, Richard Gwyn's first published novel. This was partly because the city in which sections of it are set, Barcelona, is one of my favourite cities in the world - an outsider city, forging its own path despite a murky and unsavoury history, full of life and energy, invigorated by the Olympics but gradually settling back into its grime and soot under which one can glimpse flashes of coloured tiles and murals with enigmatic messages in Catalan, plus home to my favourite and now sadly deceased captive albino primate - and partly because I felt I owned a little bit of the novel, having arranged its launch event on behalf of a chain bookstore with his publishers Parthian Books. In fact, this event is mentioned in the pages of this meandering memoir as an example of his state of derangement due to his illness (some of the writing is collected from pieces written as he was waiting for a liver transplant, in a mental fog from the various accompanyi…

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…