Thursday, 25 May 2017

Stoner by John Williams

Currently reading...

Friday, 19 May 2017

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Currently reading...

Monday, 15 May 2017

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

Awaiting review...

Tuesday, 4 April 2017

The House Of God by Samuel Shem

GOMERs go to ground
but they never die.
This book is as old as I am. Not necessarily the copy I own (that was reprinted in the 1990s and I got hold of it through the amazing Free Books Carmarthen initiative that is keeping books from adding to landfills), but it was written in 1978, a good year for the world by all accounts*. Back then, it wrought much anger from the medical community in America, leading the author and psychiatrist Stephen Joseph Bergman to assume a pen name to avoid suffering the professional backlash - it didn't work, but then he says his patients didn't seem to care.

Told in flashback, from the sunlit terraces of a holiday in France where the narrator still feels the spectre of his internship haunt his every waking moment, it is a riotously, bawdily furious work. Dr Roy Basch is a mature** intern at The House of God, the best Jewish hospital in the city. He and other interns are grist for the hospital mill, often taking the worst cases and saddled with the care of the hospital's GOMERs - that stands for Get Out Of My Emergency Room, a reference to the old and infirm who clutter up the admissions and wards but ironically, never get so ill that they die. Basch's first senior resident is the iconoclastic Fat Man, whose teachings inspire Basch and his colleagues to great heights of patient care, again ironically by doing as little as possible in terms of actual care. By the end of the book, the Fat Man's list of LAWS of the House Of God reaches thirteen:


  1. GOMERs don't die.
  2. GOMERs go to ground.
  3. At a cardiac arrest, the first procedure is to take your own pulse.
  4. The patient is the one with the disease.
  5. Placement comes first.
  6. There is no body cavity that cannot be reached with a #14G needle and a good strong arm.
  7. Age + BUN = Lasix dose.
  8. They can always hurt you more.
  9. The only good admission is a dead admission.
  10. If you don't take a temperature, you can't find a fever.
  11. Show me a BMS (Best Medical Student, a student at The Best Medical School) who only triples my work and I will kiss his feet.
  12. If the radiology resident and the medical student both see a lesion on the chest x-ray, there can be no lesion there.
  13. The delivery of good medical care is to do as much nothing as possible.

By 'buffing' charts (skillfully and artistically altering patients' medical charts) and 'turfing' patients (getting patients placed in other wards, such as gastroenterology, G&O or, more worryingly, the morgue), Basch becomes the hospital's MVI - most valuable intern - but in the process finds himself de-humanised and callous. In one scene he puts out of his misery one terminal patient in excruciating pain on whom the other, fastidiously thorough senior resident is determined to try every medical procedure in the book (thus proving law 13), and he and his team become ragged, mentally and physically exhausted and demoralised by the demands of the job. In a particularly upsetting chapter, one intern commits suicide after a rookie error leads to the lingering death of a patient, a death which lasts the majority of the book and of which he is reminded every day until the end. Meanwhile, the interns take every opportunity to indulge their sexual appetites in a vain attempt to fuck away their problems and to reaffirm their humanity, with the contrary results.


It's no wonder the medical community were aghast when this was published, and one can see why Shem sought to protect his identity. Nowadays, Shem is more sanguine about its impact, feeling that it brought to light the pressures under which medical interns were routinely forced to work, citing one clinician who credits Shem's book with saving him from suicide. He's travelled the world since then speaking to audiences on a simple topic: "the danger of isolation, the healing power of good connection. And any good connection is mutual." He's also added four more laws:

  1. Connection comes first.
  2. Learn empathy.
  3. Speak up.
  4. Learn your trade, in the world.

Coming from a place similar to that of Joseph Heller's Catch-22, it's clear to see the impact the book has had on medical shows, in particular, satires like Bill Lawrence's excellent Zach-Braff-vehicle, Scrubs***. It's in turns hilarious and savage, slapstick and poignant, and the punchline is that all the residents (and amusingly both the policemen routinely on duty at the Emergency room) choose not to stay for a second year's residency but instead opt for the more emotionally connective and humane choice of psychiatry, leaving the hospital with a shortfall in workforce. It might disturb, but it also educates and amuses, greatly.

*By MY account...

**'Mature' meaning of relatively advanced years compared to his peers - any wisdom acquired from these additional years is not in evidence.

***Wikipedia has all the Scrubs references you need to know.

Tuesday, 28 March 2017

Spares by Michael Marshall Smith

Terror, and relief; relief and terror,
so intermingled that they feel like
the same thought.
I'm having a great time reassembling my lost library, re-reading books I once thought I'd consumed and therefore to which I might justifiably never return. It's great! Next up, in case you're wondering, will be Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut (not that I'd lost it, just that I reallyreallyreally want to read it again, having been a whole 10 years since his untimely death). 

Michael Marshall Smith (or Michael Marshall when he writes out-and-out horror/thriller titles) is a British writer who brings to mind the work of his contemporary sci-fi & etc. novelist Jeff Noon. His first book was Only Forward (on my To Re-Read list for sure) which with the talking appliances originally made me think of Rogue Trooper in 2000AD comics, and got me into slick, quick, character and plot-driven sci-fi back in the late 1990s. 

Spares is set in a dystopian American future (one assumes) where the rich can grow spare bodies for harvesting in the event of tragedy and trauma to their own, where MegaMalls fly through the sky and where we find Jack Randall, a retired detective and former Bright Eyes soldier, in charge of one of the spares farms, who after an accidental overdose becomes acutely aware of the horror of his existence and vows to not only save the spares but eventually to avenge the death of his wife and child. That's a lot of back story to drip feed throughout a book that also races forward to a violent end via a parallel dimension known as The Gap (no relation to the clothing store I would hope). The Gap itself made me think of William Gibson's Neuromancer and his virtual environment, but in this it's more of an in-between place, somewhere the lost things of this dimension slipped into, and where in the narrative history of Spares Jack Randall had been sent to fight the inhabitants, wraiths, ghosts, trees and leaves, empty villages and deadly miasmata, and where he first becomes addicted to the drugs that nearly kill him later but kept him alive in-country. Anyway, it never intrudes, only adding to the deepening mystery and it remains unresolved throughout until the surprising denouement which ties it all together, skillfully if a little too happily for those of us expecting a tragic ending. And it's a damned fine example of story telling.

I watched for a decade or so for the optioned film version of Spares to hit the cinemas, but Dreamworks' rights lapsed. They then turned out The Island which bears some suspicious similarities and which was wholly underwhelming IMHO. But it never reaches the moral horror and casual brutality of the novel on which they presumably based their watered-down (and not in a good, understated Kazuo-Ishiguro Never Let Me Go way) version. It's a hard read in places, presaging his future horror/thriller work, but eminently worthwhile.

   

Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Jim Giraffe by Daren King

It's a good shag, Spec, but
I wouldn't want to marry it
.
Like all good ghost stories, at least those written by Charles Dickens, this one starts off with a spectral appearance and a triple-threat warning, via the medium of VHS cassette, that if Scott Spectrum, successful scriptwriter for the Science Fiction Channel's biggest hit, to date, Space Man In Space, doesn't slip the yoke of self-repression, he is going to die. Unlike Dickens, Jacob Marley here is a dead giraffe, who lives in the wardrobe, and is called Jim. 

But Scott Spectrum is no Ebeneezer Scrooge. He learns absolutely nothing about himself and, at its finalé, is left a cuckold, unaware that his frustrated wife Continence can't be impregnated by acts of fellatio, his baby suspiciously long of neck and skin mottled with giraffe-ish patterns, forced out of his house, his marriage and his life and left to live with Barry the ghost rhinoceros who until then kipped under Scott's sink.

Cock jokes abound, there is foul language and sledgehammer satire, and if you're going in expecting a grimly believable tale like King's debut novel, then you can take a hike. Jim Giraffe is comic surrealism with a dark and nasty bent, but it balances its nastiness with a strange sense of innocence, both Jim and Scott teetering on the edge of understanding but naively trapped in lives and loops from which there is no escape. And in essence, that's the scariest part of this ghost story; for all the surrealism, Scott's terminal parabolic arc doesn't end with a pot of gold, but with loneliness and despair - we all die alone. Although not all with a ghost rhino for company.

Monday, 13 March 2017

If Then by Matthew De Abaitua

If you don't want to buy it from
Amazon (link below)
go directly to Angry Robot Books.
In making sense of this rather incredible novel, bought on a whim because the lovely people at Angry Robot offered to discount any e-book the Twitterati proposed to only 50p for a few minutes, and me being a fringe-Twitterer managed to get in on the act, I am deeply indebted to an article from Strange Horizons. It also reminded me to read more Olaf Stapledon. For the forensic work they do in tracing the references and highlighting the influences and inspiration behind the characters, please do read their review (after you read this, click on all the advertising and leave me glowing comments, of course).

In retrospect, I should have suspected that a sci-fi novel written by the amanuensis of Will Self would be challenging, upsetting, entertaining and thought-provoking. Harrowing in places too. Because it is most certainly all of these things. In a near post-digital-apocalyptic future, a small community is given over to The Process, an AI algorithm, which receives data from biotech implants in the heads of the inhabitants to provide the population with all that they need to survive and thrive, to the mutual benefit of all. The community has regressed, technologically, but only because The Process had identified the need for it.
The metrics of happiness required old rituals, old ways of doing things, and so time was set aside within the work schedule for the townspeople to make their own trades.
But thrown into the mix are seemingly random and unfathomable evictions, engendering not only fear of being unwanted but more terrifyingly the fear that thinking negatively makes you surplus to the requirements of mutual happiness. And James is the town's bailiff, a volunteer whose implants take away his control over his actions whilst he clambers into his mechanical armour and performs the evictions, something for which he is feared and reviled. The only eviction scene we witness is an amazing piece of writing, part Wicker Man (Edward Woodward, not Nicholas Cage) with its strange pageantry, part Rebecca Riots with insurgents vainly trying to defend the evictees, part Pacific Rim with James' motorised battle suit.

At the opening, James is walking without his armour outside the town and discovers an automaton dressed in the garb of a British soldier, with dog tags that read J Hector, caught in barbed wire, whom he takes home and then to the mysterious Institute where the reader is introduced to Omega John, disturbing leader of the eponymous... what, cabal? Secret laboratory? That's not to be known yet. 

So far so weird, but then here comes the harrowing part.

James stops receiving his rations from The Process, and his replacement is chosen, leading him to fear his own eviction, so he follows John Hector, his simulacrum, out of the town and into a staged recreation of the Gallipoli landings in The Great War, where they both become stretcher bearers on the beaches and dunes. The incredible, torturous hell of their existence is exhaustively detailed, and it is hard to read, although undoubtedly drawn from diaries and the experiences of people like Stapledon and Lewis Fry Richardson, suggested by avatars who appear in the novel. The purpose of war, it seems, is to re-create the 'real-life' historical John Hector that The Process has identified is needed for the benefit of the town of Lewes.

It's befuddling in parts, but erudite throughout, and as a happy pseudo-Luddite, I was pleased to note a number of pointed observations on the purposeless that is the plague of modern society. For example, James...
...tried to remember what it used to be like here but he had almost no specific memories of shopping, just so many dreams of unthinking gliding automation.
But it also presages the growing fears about AI, explored recently by Stephen Hawking, and taken on in De Abaitua's next book, The Destructives, where newly sentient AIs 'emerge' and immediately withdraw to the far side of the galaxy, away from the humans who were their creators.

If you like a challenging read, worry about the human mind and our cognitively dissonant yearnings for self-destruction and self-preservation, or you're interested in the horrors of war or the Gallipoli landings of 1915, or you have a yen for dystopian near-futures, or are a fan of Brian Aldiss, Aldous Huxley (whose brother makes an indirect appearance) or, indeed, Olaf Stapledon, then you should pick up a copy as soon as you can. 

Sunday, 5 March 2017

Rum Punch by Elmore Leonard

What does a three-time
loser have to lose?
It’s truly staggering how many of Elmore Leonard’s simply written and spare novels and novellas have been turned into films. If you don’t believe me, here’s a link to an out-of-date hierarchical listing of best-to-worst adaptations from Indiewire. See, there’s lots of them.

But as the chap who lent me this one (he’s been on an Elmore Leonard bender of late, including all of the early westerns he wrote, and is trying to force me to read them all) says, once you’ve seen the film, and heard those movie idols speak Leonard’s wonderful prose lines, it’s really damned hard to imagine anyone else saying them, even in the case of Alan Alda.

So it’s no surprise then that the dialogue of Rum Punch, committed to celluloid by the esteemed Mr Tarantino, seems to spring from the mouths of Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert de Niro, Bridget Fonda et al. And after that, well, it’s hard to think of anything else. 

For those yet to see the film of the book, altered to reflect Tarantino’s contemporaneous penchant for Blacksploitation movies to have an African-American leading lady by the name of Jackie Brown (as opposed to the forty-something, trim, sexy blond Jackie Burke of the novel), then read this first. Jackie is a flight attendant, smuggling small sums of cash across the country for small-time arms dealer and hoodlum Ordell Robbie. Of course, she gets caught in a sting by local and federal law enforcement and hatches her own plan to extricate herself and a large portion of the money, with the help of bail bondsman Max Cherry. Things go remarkably well for her, naturally, despite hiccups along the way. But the star here of course is Leonard’s prose which, arriving pure and un-stepped-upon by those dealers of cultural references, sparkles and vivifies the action, necessarily sparse, allowing the action to develop quickly and never bothering to mention the weather or use any other verb than ‘to say’ when someone says something, adverbs be damned. It’s great, it really is.

Wednesday, 22 February 2017

King And Emperor by Harry Harrison (and John Holm)

Our King? Well, I didn't vote for you!
Perhaps I'm letting all the mystical rubbish get to me. Perhaps I am cynically overlooking the fantastical element of this historical fantasy in favour of a brutal and realism-driven interpretation. Perhaps I'm an arse.

These propositions, and more still, are true no doubt. Unfortunately, now that King Shef has decided to launch an attack on the Holy See via the Caliphate of Cordoba with their advanced sciences and repressive treatment of lady folk, and has come face to face with the devastating reality of Greek fire in the Mediterranean sea, and launched the Loki Appreciation Denomination of The Way of Asgard, much to the chagrin of the other priests of The Way, AND Holy Roman Emperor Bruno I has gone in search of The Holy Grail (which it turns out isn't the cup from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper but is instead a simple ladder which was used by those who removed Jesus' body from the cross and to carry his body to his tomb, cunningly rendered logical by some word-trickery which also manages to invoke a connection to Shef's mythological 'father', the Norse God Rig whose ladder symbol Shef wears), I began to fear for my rational self. It's all well and good to tinker with history to tell a good story, but I lost it a little with the cramming in of so many frankly crackpot historical mysteries and mystical themes into one rags-to-riches tale. 

Not to say that it's boring - far from it. It's action packed, as much so as the other two novels in the trilogy, and as exquisitely plotted as ever. There's the invention of manned flight (albeit unpowered) a good few centuries early, the death of child soldiers, ambushes and siege-engine engagements, and even good old Shef gets a bit of crucifixion to nail some sense into him, as befits his nature as both saviour and effigy of the All-Father, Odin, who himself hung upside down from a tree and so on.

It's just that all together, I lost the will to believe, combined with the feeling that it reminded me of Monty Python's The Life Of Brian and ....The Holy Grail, after which I did read with a half-grin on my face. It's hard to believe when you're laughing inside and out.

I would recommend a read if you're in the market for a bit of fantasy, and where there is history it is remarkably well researched, thanks no doubt to his silent partner in this venture. Do give it a shot, especially if you can find a cheap copy!

Thursday, 9 February 2017

The Owner Series: The Departure, Zero Point, Jupiter War by Neal Asher

Yes, yes, it’s another trilogy post, and I’m sorry about that to a small degree, but in my defence, it is simpler to do this than to find three different ways to say the same thing in three separate posts. Hence, consolidation. Or perhaps in context, some sort of augmentation of the essential humanness of the post? I’m stretching of course.

So, on with the show. Fair dos, I know very little about Neal Asher*, except for what I can deduce from this trilogy. I would guess he has a dark and troubling pessimism for humanity’s future, a grim view of the toll of our human stain, and oddly enough, an optimistic outlook for the planet post-humanity. I would also hazard a guess that he’s a scientist of some sort, or at least of a scientific bent, given he seems to be able to talk of such real-life but convoluted concepts as zero point energy and the Alcubierre drive, only two of the completely feasible near-future technologies he develops to fruition in this, The Owner series.

It all starts with Alan Saul, who awakens in a plastic coffin on its way to being incinerated, with no memory but with an artificial intelligence implanted in his mind. His world is a strangely familiar dystopia in a not-too-distant future, where socialist concepts have been stretched to their most awful extremes and the world is a stratified socialist autocracy where usefulness to the state and to the Chairman is the only measure of a person’s worth and therefore his or her ability to buy food and pay for medical help. Everyone should be microchipped in order for the government to track them, and, it turns out, in a dreadfully warped Malthusian final solution, wiped out if required. It seems however that Saul is somehow off-grid, and whilst working to retrieve his past his great natural intellect gets to work, with the aid of the AI which later he absorbs entirely, on a strategy for revenge and ultimately his escape. Book one works through his struggles planet-side, book two on his escape into space, and book three is basically one fucking great big space battle using crazy far-future weapons and where humans are ‘backed-up’ into portable brains grown from their own stem cell tissues.

It’s pretty bleak in places, and a shit load of people meet untimely ends, but then also many people are suddenly propelled into near-immortality, not least Saul, later the titular Owner (plot spoiling prevents me from revealing the reason), with the advent of new technology for mapping and storing minds. It’s all very entertaining, and with insectoid machines cutting swathes through misguided humanity in vast, sprawling combat sequences, gruesome too. Had this been a medieval setting, I imagine people like Bernard Cornwell would cluck their tongues and stroke their beards in approval.


*Of course, this could be easily rectified with a simple internet search but I prefer in this case to be an absurd Luddite, in contrast to the author

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

One King's Way by Harry Harrison (and John Holm)

What if... the Vikings conquered Britain
and threatened the entire Christian World?
I may have touched previously upon the reason I initially got so swept up in this dark ages romp. Of course, I went out and bought books two and three of the saga. Of course I did. You've met me, right?

So, book two sees blacksmith, thrall, carl, jarl, chief, king, inventor, victor over the Great Viking Army, and router of the feared Frankish cavalry, Shef, facing another test of his liberal ways and, conversely, his antidisestablishmentarianism. For the church is about to send in the holy Knights of the Lance, whose symbol, the spear that pierced the side of Christ, is an artefact for which their leader, fearsome warrior of God, Bruno, searches to inspire Christendom to victory over the heathens of the Asgarth Way, the new religion of knowledge that has taken hold in the power vacuum of England. And of course, that's not to mention the hovering threat of the revengeful Ragnarssons, whose ire and wrath still patrol northern waters, looking for an opportunity to visit death and destruction upon the killer of their father Ragnar Lodbrok, and brother, Ivar the Boneless. 

And Shef has itchy feet.

So of course he leaves his kingdom in the capable hands of Wessex monarch Alfred, with whom he shares England (and, gasp! his first love Godive, who now hates Shef deeply and viscerally), and naffs off up north for a bit of naval entertainment.

Again, Harrison shaves very close to a state of affairs which would be an affront to those particularly loving the whole alternative history thing. I'm not fond of all the magic. Too often for my liking do the Gods make actual appearances rather than being simply alluded to, particularly around the unfolding narrative of Shef being the agent for Ragnarok, or at least that Odin suspects he is, whereas Shef's divine 'father', the seldom mentioned god Rig, counsels the contrary, whilst plotting to free Loki from his chains and the torture of serpent venom dripping into his face. There's some gubbins about strange other worldly folk living in the fjords and that they can talk to orcas, and here I wonder if John Holm a.k.a Tom Shippey has been given leave to start leaning in with all his pent up Tolkien mythos. Maybe to make up for his name slipping off the front cover and having to make do with an honourable mention on the title page... But even with all these minor gripes, it's hard not to root for the waspish Englishmen and the giant Norsemen, as they battle ever increasing odds, fearsome enemies whose learning starts to match that of their foes, and their own latent fear of Shef's divine nature. Book two holds enough rambunctiousness and swashbuckling adventure to keep the attention sharp and the sighs few and far between. 

Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Pets by Bragi Ólafsson

One shouldn’t let others into one’s life
Intertextuality took a bump when it came to The Pets. I was idly browsing the shelves of my former employer when its tastefully minimalist but near electric blue cover caught my eye, and then I read things like dark and funny (when used in the same context, possibly my two favourite adjectives) and I was sold. It jumped up the ‘to read’ list straight to the top, once I’d gotten Harry Harrison out of the way. At that point, I knew next to nothing about the author or the book.

So, here are some things I didn’t know about Bragi Ólafsson before that I do now:
1) He was bass player for The Sugarcubes, the Icelandic pop band which launched Bjork into mainstream and avant garde pop stardom
2)      He is from Iceland
3)      He translated Paul Auster’s City of Glass into Icelandic

Is any of that important? Probably, but maybe also not, although reading around the bloggers and reviewers there are a few people making comparisons between this book and some of Paul Auster’s stuff. True also, the somewhat pompous and overblown narrator Emil does bang on quite a bit about music: not as much (or to the same tedious lengths) as some other unsympathetic narrators do, notably between gruesome murders in American Psycho. Gah, okay, the book is set in Iceland and there are some language puns (possibly filtered through the excellent translator’s own sense of humour) which are probably hilarious in the original. But not much else of importance.

So, on to the premise/précis – Emil is rich, having won a modestly grotesque sum on the Lottery. On returning from a shopping spree in London he finds himself subject to the random visit of a phantom from his past, “the misogynist, alcoholic, compulsive gambler and, most recently, burglar Havard Knutsson”, who lets himself into Emil’s flat through the kitchen window when Emil fails to answer the door. Unfortunately for Emil, uncomfortably ensconced beneath his bed, Havard decides to make himself at home, playing Emil’s music and drinking his duty-free booze, all the while answering phone- and house-calls from Emil’s friends and acquaintances and generally having a good time.

The rather silly but entertaining back story is filled in during lulls in the growing farce by Emil’s recollections, including the meaning behind the title. All the action of the present is inferred from beneath the bed, each image drawn from audible and olfactory cues, like the fresh creeping of cold external air when the door is opened, the sounds of bottles opening and water splashing, the fug of cigarette smoke, the teasing and arguing of his friends and other guests, and one-sided telephone conversations. From his limited vantage point he can also see Havard defile his bathroom sink, and his other unlikely guest, Armann the professional linguist, whose diatribe over the plural form of Sony’s Walkman, drunkenly urinates over the toilet bowl, floor, and his own trousers. The only place of salvation [from other people] is the toilet, he suggests on the plane home from London. Not so. There is no place of salvation for Emil.


What develops, over the course of a short but immensely fun novella, is a picture of a weak man whose failures have left him pinioned beneath his own mattress, onto which his nemesis Havard tempts the girl Emil himself invited home, the springs pressing into the place where his spine should be. A word of warning, however– if you like your narrative arc to be resolved, you’ll be disappointed. Emil is left where he lies pressed into the dust-bunnies. He makes his own bed and now has to hide underneath it in literary perpetuity. 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

The Hammer And The Cross by Harry Harrison and John Holm

Now I have made him who is greatest
among the Swedes root like a swine!
I had no high hopes of this book. Perhaps from such low expectations comes a truer appreciation, but maybe not. The author has written a great deal, some of which I like, some I don't. It's a work of historical fantasy, which I generally avoid. It takes a mythological character in Ragnar Lodbrok, himself likely an amalgam of other Nordic and Icelandic heroes, and wraps a new mythology around his death and the lives of his avenging sons, which makes me tut and sigh, patronisingly. And yet, serendipity smiles upon it and upon me. 

To explain, I live in South Wales, a largely ex-industrial area in what some might consider to be a small adjunct to the United Kingdom. It's a beautiful place, with a broad and interesting history, and because it can't be trusted to govern itself fully, is slave to the whims of right-wing, petty mindedness that passes for a Conservative government in England. Thus, its libraries, once hubs and hearts of communities, are left to moulder and collapse, their stocks sold off surreptitiously at first but then overtly, to pay for 'upkeep' or to clear space for 'development' which is code for being sold off.

Now, I ordered this book from a bookseller in the United States as a result of Googling 'Ragnar Lodbrok', as a result of watching the History Channel series Vikings. This trilogy came up, and, lo! it's author was a familiar name. The hardback arrived, and, lo! on the title page was the library stamp to the right there. Rhondda. From the South Wales valleys to the States and back. And as I say, such serendipity cannot be ignored. My mind was open and accepting, and it was duly repaid.

Of course, the story of a young English thrall named Shef, and his pseudo-magical ability to read the course of history and tap the unrecognised barrel of historical knowledge and from whence draw plans for mighty war machines not to be seen on these shores for a good few hundred years in reality smacks somewhat of old Slippery Jim's ability to magic himself out of any situation. Fortunately, again, Harrison's reliance on generous suspension of disbelief has been tempered by the contributions of John Holm, a.k.a Tom Shippey, medievalist and renowned Tolkien scholar whose diligence and research shines through in places where Harrision's boundless enthusiasm threatens to run amok. Perhaps this is why it takes three novels for Shef to traverse his parabola from thrall and bastard son of a Viking invader to... Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn't it.

And so to the conclusion. I was rapt, enthralled (in the good, non-indentured way), and eager to read through to the end as fast as I can, and that can only be an endorsement. It might be down to my receptiveness of the currents of fate, engendered as they were by my own reasoned if nonetheless irrational biases, but at the death it's close enough to the historical tales of the invasions of these isles by the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians of old to be believable, if you can discount the visions of and interventions by the Gods of Norse mythology, and to boot it's fast paced, thoroughly bloody and battle-filled, and of course we win! Sort of...

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald

Trav salvages another chickadee.
It’s always nice to start the year with a literary palette cleanser, a mental sorbet if you will, and there is none better than John D. MacDonald for a bit of light but thrilling entertainment. However, this was one that perhaps had languished in the back of the freezer for too long and had become crystalline and frost-bitten, resulting in a somewhat lumpy texture and a mostly underwhelming experience.

As regular readers (and hopefully ad-clickers – go on, click the ads, please! It’s the only way I can make any money…) will no doubt have ignored, the Travis McGee novels tend to polarise opinion. Thriller writers and readers love them – the pace is great, the action intense, and the plotting, whilst sometimes, oxymoronically, obtusely complicated, usually makes sense in the end. As James Walling* says:
As the epitome of this [sublime literary] legacy, the McGee series transcends genre fiction, and is rich with piercing psychological insight, social commentary, and clean, compelling prose that lapses into poetry.

They’re short and sharp and mostly enjoyable. Readers with other priorities however occasionally and quite naturally become upset by the affront of rather anachronistic attitudes towards women, or chickadees/pieces of ass/objects of desire or violence (delete as appropriate) as they are often labelled. Indeed, MacDonald’s characters’ descriptions of women rarely stray past the colour of hair and eyes, hips, waist and breasts measurements, and the inferred ability of said eyes and shape in bed.

The Green Ripper is no exception. Good, clean, compelling prose (that does lapse into rather florid poetry at times) is somewhat tarnished by its themes of toxic masculinity. Except that this time, good ol’ Trav is brought crashing back down to the deck of his boat by the sudden death of his girl, the latest one with whom he can imagine a long, lazy life cocking about on the river (as per Lard’s Classic Cuts). He can’t even imagine shacking up with another girl (although he imagines imagining it, quite successfully). Even his hirsute clever-dick accomplice, the Keynesian Meyer, can’t lift him from his funk long enough to party on down with a sultry soon-to-be widow.

In the end, I forget what happens, other than he goes on a surprisingly murderous rampage through the military wing of a religious cult, but it’s all okay at the close of play. And I’m certain there’ll be another chickadee ready to lift his spirits in the next instalment. Which I am definitely going to read.