Friday, 31 July 2015

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Oedipal fun for all the family!
Haruki Murakami and I should really get along well. Me and his novels, I mean, not Mr Murakami himself, as he runs too much and is too fussy about his coffee–that would likely bug me. We have much in common; we're both mysterious, otherworldly, filled with wonder and mythology; we're both light on the eyes but heavy on the brain; and we both like wearing white*. But I have a history of missing the point with Japanese literature, something I am trying a little to rectify. Much like Japan's famed Noh theatre, I know I like what's going on, but I don't know why, and it is a source of irritation. Am I obtuse? Is it all too subtle and refined for me? 

Someone told me that in a Western theatre tradition, acting comes from inside–it's driven by emotions–whereas the Japanese tradition is cerebral, actors becoming the essence of characters and the literal ghosts of ancestral beings. I think I might just lack the cultural references to fully grasp what I see and read. I hope it's as simple as that. What I do trust though is that I love the alienness that this little misstep of comprehension creates. 

Circuitously, I came by this novel because of a post somewhere about a new translation and edition of Sōseki Natsume's short novel The Miner and about how the titular Kafka Tamura discusses it with the librarian of the private library which serves as the hub of the action and through which nearly all actors pass at one point or another. Funnily enough, sitting on my shelves, along with I Am A Cat and The 210th Day was this novel, in hardback, untouched since I liberated it from the damaged stock bin at my bookshop in 2005 (along with 1Q84 and the more recent Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, both unread as yet)Enough of a intertextual coincidence to nudge me into trying again to understand what the hell is going on in a Murakami novel.

This one, luckily, starts out fairly straightforwardly, with a boy talking to a crow about running away from home. Then come some transcripts of interviews about a strange incident during World War II about mass and unexplainable unconsciousness. Then an old man who we eventually realise is one of the children affected by the mysterious occurrence talks with cats. Then the boy, Kafka Tamura, runs away from home and the old man murders something that he thinks is the physical embodiment of the man on the label of Johnnie Walker-brand whisky but turns out to be Kafka's father. Then it rains mackerel.

Okay, so I lied, it's not at all straightforward, but for once, I was being swept along, understanding not an impediment to a deep and satisfying enjoyment. It was like being in a forest in summer, moving from patches of luscious green shade into hot summer sun, insects skittering and fizzing around, birdsong bright in your ears, and not caring that you don't know how and why it all came to be. You have only a ghost of an idea, that's all.

But it's not all simply a transient, sensory feast; there's cement beneath the snow. When Kafka meets Oshima and Miss Saeki at the Komura library, or even before that, in a bus during his flight from Tokyo, we stumble on to a terrible Oedipal prophecy; the old man is given a quest he can't understand (being not bright at all); there are characters offering profound insights and deep understanding, like a Greek chorus explaining the action throughout for the dullards like me, and peppering the story with discussions on irony, philosophy, classical music, writers and artists, showing off Murakami's own diverse and eclectic interests and learning; and there are concepts striding purposely about, both literally and metaphorically, directing the course of characters' lives and even scoring a hooker for one. It's a densely layered cake of a novel, filled with mythological jam and creamy erudition, drizzled with love and loss, passion and pain. It's a wonderful book, haunting, and both cerebral and visceral, bridging the divide between Eastern and Western literature. 

Maybe I've been too stupid in the past, too young and impatient to properly appreciate the work of Murakami. But then maybe he's being deliberately enigmatic? I say, what's a little bit of mystery between friends?


*Or at least we did, until Vintage gave him a new wardrobe.

Monday, 27 July 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Survival is insufficient
I've been lax, slack, lacking in both areas of duty and equality, when it comes to reviewing to this, the fourth novel by Canadian author and person who is both younger and more successful than me, Mandel comma Emily St. John (presumably pronounced 'Sin Jin' just like le frère perdu of stalwart 1980s airborne action adventure hero Stringfellow Hawke*). Frankly, I blame jazz. 

You might consider it odd that I choose to blame an entire musical genre (have you learned nothing?), but specifically, I'm talking Miles Davis, Charlie Parker** and Charles Mingus, to whose music I have been listening almost non-stop for four days after a visit to Brecon Jazz festival. I consider them pretty much the embodiment of the genre and to those who loudly shout 'WHAT ABOUT BENNY GOODMAN AND BIX BEIDERBECKE?!' I say you make a good point, you racists.

I'm digressing. What I mean is that for the last week I have been working ten hours a day to make that trip to Brecon Jazz possible, and that herding 37 young 'cats' throughout (and to the festival itself) has left me receptive to the calls of alcohol and sleep, nominally in that order. It also left me missing the Savoy & Dial Studio Recordings CD that in my former place of work was rarely if ever off the six-CD changer and which provided the soundtrack to much bookselling. So of course, not having a spare tenner with which to part, I found much cheaper versions of this and Miles Davies, and Charles Mingus, and had a splurge. Of money. On jazz records. And subsequently, jazz has pretty much been pushing all sensible thought and notions out of my head. 

All of this has meant me doing a disservice to what is, genuinely, a thought-provoking and authentic post-apocalyptic tale. Eschewing popular themes–zombies and the like– Mandel instead focuses on what might be important to those left behind after a perfectly plausible extinction-level event in the form of a virus that kills 99% of the people on Earth. In that, she produces the Travelling Symphony, a troupe of orchestral players and Shakespearean actors who circle a Great Lake playing to the dishevelled populations of the ramshackle chain of towns along their route. Their motto, pleasingly lifted from the mouth of ex-Borg hive member Seven of Nine in Star Trek: Voyager, is 'Survival is Insufficient'. Indeed, this is the motif of a novel in which art is considered in the Churchillian context–perhaps apocryphally, Churchill is reported to have pondered the purpose of war at all if art funding was cut in favour of further military spending. All of the things we thought we needed, desperately wanted, were conditioned to purchase and consume, are suddenly rendered obsolete. Music so thoughtlessly digitised is no longer accessible as there is nothing to power the digital music players, so people flock to hear 'real' musicians; people turn out to see A Midsummers' Night's Dream because they yearn for the storytelling and drama of Shakespeare once more. All that is gone is missed no doubt, and is encapsulated in the whimsical but profound nostalgia of the Museum of Civilisation, but it is no longer important.

And running through the whole novel, perhaps the least plausible but, honestly, most integral part, is the human story of actor Arthur Leander, whose death on stage presages the collapse of civilisation. His family, friends, fellow actors and even the man who tries to save him on stage, are the principals in what is a strangely gentle story of disaster and aftermath, culminating in a glimpse of redemption. I say gentle, but there is danger and death a-plenty, however in this vision of the future, the lawlessness is receding, groups are beginning to settle down and form communities which trade and enjoy gingerly coalescing relationships with one another. But one last great danger lies ahead, rooted in the messages of a limited-edition graphic novel, written by Arthur Leander's first ex-wife, Station Eleven.

In trying to pull together a synopsis, I realise quite what an achievement this novel represents, and the speed at which I raced through it belies it's genuine depth. I just wanted to read on, read more, find out what happens. And as I say, hope is there, despite the destruction, seen as a glimmer of light over the hill on a dark night. 


*Portrayed by squinty actor Jan-Michael Vincent, whose refusal to wear his prescription glasses on set forced him to peer myopically at pretty much everything including Ernest Borgnine***.
**Not the PI out of the rather good John Connolly novels, the other Charlie Parker.
***Now, just because I love Ernest Borgnine AND Airwolf, here's the theme tune.



Thursday, 16 July 2015

American Gods by Neil Gaiman

'Then he grinned, like a fox eating
shit from a barbed wire fence.'
God knows, you don't want me going on and on about my peccadilloes when it comes to the writing and groupies of Neil Gaiman*, but I do need to get something off my chest. In some respects, it's a criticism, but then Mr Gaiman had abso-fucking-lutely nothing at all to do with it. My disappointment, for it is such, stems from the fact that this is the first book by Neil Gaiman that I ever read, and because I chose it to start me off, has com-fucking-pletely ruined for me everything else he's written, and has actually put me off reading his other stuff. I can't help but admit I enjoyed watching Stardust the movie, and I did read with much relish the Jonathan Carroll-esque Ocean At The End Of The Lane after I found it in a charity shop for 99p. Oh, and his excellent children's picture book The Wolves in The Walls. I have found myself nodding knowingly as I pass the Gs on bookshelves but never pausing to pick up another Gaiman, because I'm afraid it won't be as good as this. 

Because this is GOOD. I trust the shouty lettering gives the lie to this understatement. Having read it first in the nineties, I wandered the literary landscape with a dream of it in my mind, gently guiding me to writers like Jim Dodge and Jonathan Carroll, from whom I inherited new fantasies, until the original dream began to fade, much like Shadow's revelations, learned during his nine-day vigil on the tree of life, and I found myself wondering what did happen in the end, just who Mr World was that Shadow recognised his voice, and what was it again that gave me the creeps about the town of Lakeside. 

And now I remember. 

It's a chunk of paperback at over 600 pages, but it never feels like a long book, so tightly packed and expertly corralled is the content, writhing about over itself like a sack of anacondas, all power, threat and mystery under the burlap. Shadow is a big, dumb guy with enough smarts to make him dangerous, the patsy of ancient ideas made flesh by the worship of millennia. A road trip, a folk story, a lament for the passing of the old ways and the inescapable encroachment of the new, it's also a slice of wintry Americana, filled with vivid portrayals of small town life and the personifications of deities old and new. There are images of suffering, of rebirth, heart-aching passages of loss and betrayal, humour and wit aplenty, and through it all an over-riding sense that here is a writer who understands the land about which he writes, who knows its peoples and traditions, its peccadilloes and peculiarities, and celebrates it all, good and bad. 

It also has the rare distinction of being a book I'll read again in another ten years, without doubt.

If you're a reader, and I mean someone who reads, not one of those who consumes the latest pulp bulk-bought by supermarkets and filling cardboard bins by the check-outs, you'll know about Neil Gaiman already. But if you've any friends who haven't cottoned-on, please do send them my way. Or better yet, buy them this book. But be prepared for them to have a similar reaction to mine.

*Of course, if you do you can read all about it over here.

Saturday, 11 July 2015

Neuromancer by William Gibson

Nothing what so ever to do with 
magicians bringing dead brains
back to life to perform evil. Ah. Hmm.
Maybe also the opposite.
Two things have stopped me from enjoying this novel for longer than I care to think about it. The first is frankly ridiculous. The second only marginally more so. Number 1: my brother loved it (I believe, or else my memory is misremeberating). Therefore, being a littler brother than him, I was to refute immediately anything he enjoyed*. And number 2: because he loved it (I believe) I grew to hate the cover and went out of my way to avoid reading anything which looked even remotely similar, which over the years has been, mainly, other Williams Gibson novels.

A disservice both to William Gibson and to myself, then, perpetrated by a youthful reactionary who robbed me of years of smug sanctimony whenever some twat mentioned how The Matrix changed his or her life***. Indeed, as far as I know, this novel contains the first gem of the literary idea of an alternate, virtual reality created by and in the streams of data flowing between linked mainframes and servers, ridden by hackers called cowboys, thrill seekers looking for the rush in avoiding ICE (that's online security measures to you and me although I forget what the acronym means) and by guzzling stimulants. Amazingly prescient considering it was first published in 1984, a full 14 years before the incorporation of Google, and 15 years before the Bros. Wachowksi cottoned-on and cashed-in.

Our link to this dubious world is a suicidal ex-cowboy named Case whose predilection for bucking authority leads him to an injudicious betrayal of an employer who in return decides to destroy his ability to connect to the matrix with a viscious virus - no claims to be the first to use the term virus however as work on self-replicating programs was underway by the end of the 1940s by John von Neumann. Case, wandering the streets of Night City, losing friends and influencing people (to kill him), is an easy mark for a team of specialists looking for a cowboy with motivation to make a big score, a huge score, but of course, nothing is quite what it appears, especially when he learns that there's AI involved.

There are clunky terms, overuse of what might be now almost archaic brand names (but highlighting the trend towards the use of such as common nouns and even, in some cases - shudder - verbs) and of course, with recent advances in technology, some aspects of the tech described are anachronistic given the advances outlined in neurological sciences. But screw that shit. This is a bloody marvellous novel, whether you like sci-fi or not, whether you're into the internet or not, whether you're a gamer or not. It's a crime caper, a spy story, a dystopian view of the future; it's a hipster novel, a jazz novel; it zings and pops with latent energy, and I gnash my teeth together that I didn't pick it up in the nineties when my brother left it lying about the house (I think). Of course, I did pick it up, back in the noughties, when my own prejudices were challenged by some twat I met in a bookshop, who told me what I wouldn't enjoy (which was this book) and what I should stick too. I nearly told him what to stick and where. And what makes me cross, makes me fizz with embarrassment and shame, is that it took one tweet from the lovely Scarlett Thomas:

AND a surprising but not unreasonable cameo appearance on screen for a mere five seconds in AMC's decent series Halt And Catch Fire (set in 84 and 85) to make me remember how much I loved it and how I longed to read it again. Why oh why did I wait? Well, now I have finished waiting and I can only urge you to follow suit. Don't be put off by covers or family or allow yourself to be goaded into things by people in bookshops. Just do as I tell you.


*Except for music for which I had no frame of reference other than his so mostly adopted*. 
**'Mostly' is quite important, as he had (and still has as far as I know) a penchant for terrible Manc-folk Indie bands with flutes and tin whistles and whatnot, and I damned well did/do not. That much I could figure out on my own.
***And I don't think I'd deserve a challenge here if I were to drop the 'or her' part.

Friday, 3 July 2015

Speechless by Stephen Puleston

Nice cover, shame about the rest.
Once, as a bookseller, I made the foolish decision to take pity on a self-published author who was finding it very hard to get his 'thrilling mystery novel' into bookshops. I quietly agreed to a book signing, one where we provided the space for the author to actively sell their book to the itinerant and duly wary book buyers whilst stepping back and accepting no responsibility for the poor sales, but also accepting praise for my compassion and support in the process. I ordered a very modest number of copies, and gave them a date in store. Imagine my surprise when the book arrived, not a £6.99 A-format paperback as promised, but an £11.99 trade paperback, emblazoned with a monstrous swastika (it seems the husband and wife team designed the cover themselves), bearing the incorrect ISBN and received without checking on an invoice that clearly stated FIRM SALE. Needless to say that sales were very disappointing, and despite weekly calls from the author and his wife encouraging me to push their wider readership, no further sales were forthcoming. They then languished hidden under a table until a write-off of dead stock took them into a clearance bin, and from there, hopefully into an incinerator somewhere nasty.

In many respects, authors who choose to self-publish are those who fail to convince a publisher that their work is a) good, b) relevant or c) sellable, and as such, tend to be overlooked, sometimes unjustly. As someone who has spent far too much time reading 'great' novels from 'local' authors, I thought my days of pandering to them out of guilt and a loosely held notion that I might be one of them in the future had long gone. But it seems I can still be hoodwinked by freebies and so downloaded this novel, by Anglesey-based author and former solicitor Stephen Puleston. 

Reading his website bio has left me feeling like a complete twat. It seems he's worked damned hard on his craft, participating in short writing courses and polishing his drafts until fit to publish, but has still struggled to get his work recognised and read. He's worked with professional editors and has submitted countless chapters to agents and publishers, to no avail. And here I am, daring to look another gift-horse in the mouth and trashing his novel. Because it's not good. 

No, that's unduly harsh. There are many good things about this novel. 

  1. It was free
  2. It is based in Cardiff–a great city which is underrepresented in modern fiction, John Williams' trilogy notwithstanding
  3. The plot is actually quite good
  4. The life portrayed of the frustrated police detective is remarkably believable
  5. Splott!


However, on the other side of the scale there are many bad things about this novel.

  1. There are basic mistakes, including quite close to the start where the author says a tongue was found in Leon's flat, when in fact it was in Michal's flat, and a few (in)definite articles missing here and there
  2. There is awkward repetition of words in consecutive sentences that shouldn't have been allowed and makes me wonder if this one ever made it to the desk of a professional editor or proofreader
  3. He keeps saying people drink from beakers
  4. The choice to rebrand South Wales Police as the Wales Police Service is an very odd decision and makes me not wish to believe anything else, particularly the random geography of the action
  5. The ancillary cast are a bit rubbish, and despite attempts to fill them out with a bit of back-story remain two-dimensional, and DI John Marco is an archetype, or composite of literary detectives (recovering alcoholic, music taste at odds with those around him, emotionally distant, philanderer, absentee father etc.) as is his criminal nemesis


Reading that back I cringe inwardly as the last thing I want to do is put someone off reading a book, any book (except Ayn Rand–no-one should be exposed to that filth), or indeed writing as a means of self-expression. I hate myself for being critical of someone who has really put in some work to get a novel in print, no matter how he does it. But I can't say that I enjoyed this novel. There were parts that drove forwards, carrying me along hurdling over the barriers to appreciation as if they weren't there, and then DI Marco would light another cigarette and count how many he'd had that day, or mention Top Gear, and a part of me died inside. However, there is enough that is good here that with continued work, Mr Puleston might yet attract the attention of someone willing to take a chance on a 'local' author. It just won't be me.