Sunday, 16 July 2017

Look To Windward by Iain M. Banks

Currently reading...

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

Watching The English: The Hidden Rules of English Behaviour by Kate Fox

Currently reading...

Thursday, 6 July 2017

Only Forward by Michael Marshall Smith

Memory was coming to an end...
I'm not an effusive type. Not unless it comes to beer of course, but even then I'm not exactly the sort of chap to  rant ceaselessly on the subject. 

Wait a minute, I know you're thinking, if he's starting with a denial then he's leading up to some sort of artificial epiphanic moment where he realises he IS effusive about something! Am I right?

Nope. 

Back in the early Xennial period I read all of this guy's work, including his short double-header with Kim Newman (see the Amazon link below–for those interested in how stupid I've been in giving away most of my books a few years back, the paperback at time of writing is selling second hand for OVER £100...), including *shudder* his collection of short stories*. I even read his first couple of 'horror' novels, none of which later. They were sharp, they were slick, they were funny, and you felt they had a brain behind them. I haven't changed my mind. Re-reading them has been a pleasure, but more for the sake of nostalgia. 

Only Forward, winner of this award and that, is narrated by Stark, wise-cracker, information sifter, problem solver, a PI with a specialty in a particular kind of problem–no spoliers here, not today. He's honestly unreliable, but adaptable, friends with movers 'n' shakers and psychopaths, and has a talent no-one else has. He is a character with verisimillitude, and his thoughts on life and love and the meaning of it all are piquant and prickly. One suspects he is the man Smith would both love to and loathe to be mistaken for. 

In Stark's world, revealed later on in the novel to be the near future London (damn, sorry), a massive sprawling megalopolis, there are neighbourhoods where the quiet live, where the colour-appreciative live, where the crazy mad bastards live, and where all the cats live. As a device goes, it stretches incredulity to breaking: worth ignoring of course in the grand scheme but on second reading mostly irksome. Someone from Action neighbourhood goes missing (a real go-getter who Gets Things Done and thus is sorely missed) and everyone suspects kidnapping. Stark's 'friend' (not a spoiler technically as it only hints at their failed relationsh–damn, sorry) suggests him for the job, and off he jolly well trots to find our missing executive. Of course, there is more to this than meets the eye.

On the face of it, Only Forward is a warped but enjoyable gumshoe romp, following Marlowe-light Stark around the city–and other places–in pursuit of what is lost. While he goes, we get slowly drip-fed hints and intimations that there is much more going on. And then, of course, just like in Spares, and if memory serves, also One Of Us, there's a character who plops into the story and the reader is like, man, wtf?, like, really, who is this guy, for sure? only for the reader later in the book to go, like, damn! so that's why he's here, sonnufabeech. It's Chekov's gun of course, and if you're looking for it you'll spot it a mile off. Nicely, depsite the story taking a very major and unlikely detour into Jeamland (make of that what you will), the gun has already gone off, even before the story's begun. As twists go I like it very much.

So on reflection, it is a thoroughly enjoyable, if implausible, detective story, managing to break conventions on perception and memory, dreams, fantasy and reality, and still capable of some shockingly visceral violence and horror, right from the off. Give it a read, unless you already have, in which case go back and start again. Just don't make a fuss.

*Not *shudder* because they're his, but rather just because they're short stories. You have to be a FUCKING great short story to make me happy.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

Miracle Brew by Pete Brown

...the lure of drinkability!
Assume the usual laudatory Unbound crowd-funding preamble has taken place and we're moving forward into the realms of legitimate readerly opinion making, and on with the story!

Straight into a hangover.

I can in no way blame Pete Brown for the singularly disappointing situation in which I find myself. Yes, he talks knowledgeably and enthusiastically about the wonder of beer, it's amazing diversity and unfathomable origins, the breadth of flavour and taste experience available to the adventurous drinker, and yes, hearing about such wonderful experiences that I am not currently having begets in me such powerful feelings of want, and need, and of missing out that I have to rush out and purchase lots (and lots) of exciting and unusual beers. However, he is not to blame, for the most part, for the two-week long hangover I've been having this past, well, two weeks. I can blame only myself*.


If you get the chance,
DRINK THESE
I don't have any fondness for Mr Brown. I saw him once at a book event in Abergavenny, and he was somewhat curmudgeonly. Perhaps he was on his way for a drink and I (and the rest of the audience) was stood between him and the bar. Nevertheless, I enjoy that he enjoys his subject with such obvious enthusiasm and that he is not afraid to admit the lacunae in his knowledge (in Miracle Brew we are taken on a shared voyage of discovery as much as being lectured by an expert). He writes quite simply and with an authentic voice (a little curmudgeonly perhaps, but demonstrably honest), and in this book, he discusses the building blocks of beer, the four ingredients (and quasi-mystical art) that are all it takes to brew the world's favourite alcoholic beverage. He also drinks quite a few beers around the world. You can smell the hops crushed between the heels of his hands as he wanders the hop gardens of Kent. 

AND ALL THESE**
To be fair, it doesn't take much to make me consider going out for some beer. In fact writing this I'm itching to visit The Wild Beer Co. website to buy a crate of something sour. However, I suspect that even those whose tastes don't quite run to Belgian lambics would be tempted to go out and see what the fuss is about. Craft brewing is something to be celebrated, and Pete Brown celebrates with the best of them. He delights in learning where he'd been accepting popularly believed myths as truths, talks to some of the most avant guard brewers in the world, and visits with the foremost brewing scientists to find out just how it all works. And gloriously, the science never ruins the mystery of the art of brewing. It's truly remarkable, the journey from barley grains to urine on the steps of the magistrate's court...

The only problem now is that I risk turning into one of those old c***s you find at 'real ales' pubs writing tasting notes on a little flip-up notebook and tutting when the publican apologises that they don't have anything on tap that isn't from Anheuser-Busch InBevSABMillerHeineken International, or Carlsberg Group.


*Of course, I could also blame, alphabetically, Arbor Ales, Buxton Brewery, and The Wild Beer Co. (amongst others) whose fabulous beers I have been working my way through since starting this book. If you get the chance, go out and buy Buxton's Imperial IPA or Axe Edge, Arbor's Oz Bomb, and pretty much anything from The Wild Beer Co as I'm crying a little bit just thinking about their Sleeping Lemons Export and Breakfast of Champignons beers...

**Please note the quality of photography is not indicative of the quality of beer, but rather the inability of a man who has drunk all of these and more to hold still a camera.

Thursday, 15 June 2017

Ways To Disappear by Idra Novey

If the whale.
If the boat.
If the rain.
You know what? I was excited to read this. That hasn't happened in a little while. It had something about it. The cover–lovely; the hook (a celebrated Brazilian writer climbs into a tree and disappears)–intriguing; the publisher–with a penchant for travel writing, this could only be particularly evocative of Brazil, a country of interest. I was excited. I don't recall who it was recommended it, and it might very well be the Amazon algorithm, but since I earmarked it to be bought and read I was grinning with anticipation.

And now I'm grimacing with consternation. First, a spirited defence of the book. It is fascinating, and although it teases with a magical realism plot synopsis it manages to steer clear of anything mystical, for the most part, and instead is deeply rooted in a convincingly tactile portrayal of Brazil–hot, unforgiving, corrupt, and completely seductive. Emma, the translator of 'her' author, the mysterious and absent Beatriz, is believable and complex enough, and Beatriz's adult children, Raquel and Marcus, add flavour, provide crisis and drama, and everyone is pleasingly flawed. Novey writes with no small craft and her experience as a translator of fiction is evident in the small ways a person might adapt to life as an interpreter of other people's words. 

Where it lost me, and this is in no way a criticism of the book or its author, is that I found I couldn't find my pace. I naturally fall into some sort of rhythm when I read, pausing where it feels natural, allowing myself time for words to sink in (if I'm not in the heat of an addictive gluttony for words–then I simply devour them without thinking). When reading this, however, with its short chapters, changes of narrative media, deliberately omitted speech marks, I found the sentences and paragraphs crashing into the next, and not in a compulsively readable, page-turning way either. I couldn't find a way to settle, I couldn't stop the words smashing into each other, obliterating themselves. I couldn't reflect. I tried to go back to find a salient quote for the picture caption and I couldn't remember one. 

And then there was poetry. I'm not anti-poetry, far from it*, but I honestly don't know what it's doing here, particularly in a scene where the book turns a little noir with Raquel trying to fend off her brother's kidnapper with her untraceable pistol. I also found the emails from Emma's estranged boyfriend Miles very irksome, unnecessary, and generally detracting from the story, the pseudo-dictionary entries trite and trying too hard to explain the joke, and the chapters from what, a gossip radio station? With the caps-lock on? Christ, what the hell was that? Just what the hell...

It was unsettling, but I suspect not in the way it was intended. For all its laudable and enjoyable verve, vim and vivaciousness, I felt that this is a novel written for someone entirely different than me, someone whose humour, opaque and odd, I would never appreciate even if I understood it. This is no bad thing as it made me stop and question whether this meant it was a poor book, or if I was a poor reader. I don't think the answer to either of those questions is yes. The book is good; clever, interesting and poignant in places, although I kind-of wish the author never came down from the tree, and I think I got most of what was going on. I'm on a different wave-length, is all.


*Not that far...

Tuesday, 13 June 2017

Christie Malry's Own Double-Entry by B. S. Johnson

Far from kicking against the pricks they
love their position and vote conservative. 
I know, or knew, very little about B. S. Johnson, except in the capacity of disinterested bookseller, wherein he was a singular, if not significant, thorn in my side, his loose leafed volume, The Unfortunates, causing much consternation among customers who had no idea a) how to read the damned thing and b) HOW TO PUT IT BACK TOGETHER AGAIN. Indeed, he presaged the bookselling omnishambles of publishers like Phaidon with their book-in-a-bubble, or the ones with bloody rounded bottoms, or odd aspect ratios meaning they never ever fit or even stay on the damned shelves, and don't get me started on FUCKING SPIRAL BINDING.... ahem. Where was I? Oh yes. He had come to my attention only when someone brought me a copy of Albert Angelo and complained that someone had torn holes right through the pages. At the time, I somehow managed to hold my tongue, even when she went and found all of the copies we had to show me this vandal had done it to every single one, in exactly the same place. I did, however, point out that given the similarity of the damage, to the visible eye exact to only a few microns, then it was likely to be deliberate and at the author's behest. She was aghast. He came back to haunt me when I realised we'd been using stray chapters of The Unfortunates crumpled up as packing material. 



Phaidon, you bunch of bastards.
Anyway, that experimental formatting is a large part of his charm (with apologies to him posthumously as I understand he equated the term experimental with unsuccessful). The other large part is that most of his novels are damned hilarious. But Christie Malry, the titular aggrieved accountant who decides he should open his own double-book on the credits and debits of life, is particularly funny, and sad, and angry, and with remarkable prescience suggesting the rising anger that the age of the internet has made possible with its instant access to famous people and ancient establishments. There are many people who have written more eloquently and with better research and tighter conclusions than me, on things like the undercurrent of dark pessimism throughout, his strong political convictions which poke up sharply in places, or his frankly brilliant postmodernism, so I shan't bore you with my own reactions. Rather, I will highlight and provide a useful glossary for future readers of one of the aspects I found most entertaining. Johnson's intermittent verbiage is deliberate, unnatural, and is usually also hilarious. So, here is a list of those head-scratchingly, dictionary-searchingly, reading-haltingly unusual words that forced me to turn down corners so I could come back to them later to find out what they meant. Page numbers refer to my Picador edition from 2001, and all humour is taken from the context. Have a read and a giggle.

P12 - exeleutherostomise - to speak out freely, especially in an inappropriate moment
P17 - incunabula - an early printed book, especially pre-1501
P29 - fastigium - the apex or summit of something
P40 - vermiferous - producing worms
P42 - helminthoid - vermicular, wormlike
P62 - nucifrage - nutcracker, from nucifraga caryocatactes, the Spotted Nutcracker
P65 - ventripotent - having a large belly or appetite (or both)
P91 - vermifuge - referring to something that acts as a drug to cause expulsion or death of intestinal worms
P104 - sufflamination - obstruction or impediment
P145 - brachyureate - I have no fucking idea!

There are also words like retripotent, campaniform, sphacelated, and ungraith but I can't seem to find which page they're on. 



Did you know they'd made a film? It looks terrible, but I wonder...

Monday, 12 June 2017

Dead Writers In Rehab by Paul Bassett Davies

But how do dead people kill themselves?
Dead people like me. I'm dead. 
Another laudatory post about Unbound should surely follow had I the heart to go on and on about them again. I do but I won't in this instance, as they've just somehow bilked from me £60 for an as yet unwritten historical novel inspired by a TV script by Anthony Burgess, the dastards. I do it to myself and that's etc.

One definite pleasure of the crowdfunding model, for us end users, is the delayed gratification, something with which I, and it would seem the main character in this novel, have no small difficulty. I had sort-of forgotten this book was in the offing, only for it to land suddenly in my wheelie bin one sunny morning (it wouldn't fit through the letterbox). I was delighted to be reminded.

It also came at a fortuitous time. I've been unwell and looking for distractions to keep me from internet mischief in my restlessness (being ill is mostly boring). After finishing the beautiful but rather depressing Stoner I was in need of something lighter, or rather, something more amusing. Wikipedia suggests Paul Bassett Davies has some impressive historical writing credits, including one of my favourites, Spitting Image. What's not to love?

So to the book, at last. We find James 'Jim' Foster, pen name Foster James, waking up dead in a rehabilitation centre in which he is surrounded by famous dead authors from modern history (at least I notice there were no demonstrably post-modern writers). We have diary entries from him, and from several of his fellow... recovering addicts (it begs the question how does one recover from death), as well as transcripts of group sessions (largely bellicose affairs) and memos written to each other by the resident practitioners whose own tangled relationship quickly becomes clear. We meet Dorothy Parker, with whom Jim has a loveless dalliance, Wilkie Collins, whose need for opiates leads him, literally, to take whatever shit he's given, Hunter S. Thompson, paranoid and belligerent, and the pugnacious Ernest Hemingway, whose hostility for the British newcomer tips over into rather comedic fisticuffs in the first group meeting.

I'd posit that, when reading a book where the major crisis appears to have occurred previously, i.e. before the book has even started, the reader must wonder where exactly the novel goes from there. Is he going to get better? Is he really dead? Can dead people even have sex? And who the hell is that in the trees? The development of the plot suggests some resolution is to be found in the relationship of the two psychiatrists/psychologists (I forget which is the correct label). It's also a risky endeavour to write as someone else, particularly when that someone else is a panoply of famous dead writers, all of whom have extensive back catalogues against which to cross-reference your attempts. Thankfully for Paul Bassett Davies he needn't worry about verisimilitude in this respect because....

SPOILER ALERT

 ...it's not him doing the endeavouring, but rather his fictional dead writer, in whose literary denial of his own problems the famous dead writers all appear. Yep, it's all a literary construct that Jim, back in rehab for real after a personal catastrophe that knocks him off the wagon, is writing either as a way to process his grief or as an attempt to escape the trauma.

I wonder if I'm projecting a context onto this that isn't real (appropriately), but it all feels a bit like a made-for-TV comedy show. This isn't a bad thing. In fact, it's funny, and I was relieved to find myself chuckling and chortling along. I imagine I'd enjoy watching the show. It also put me in mind of Michael Dibdin's The Dying of the Light, itself a mix of mystery, pathos and comedy and which won him a comparison to a famous and funny Tom (Stoppard in that case–some Amazon reviewers have set PBD up as the next Tom Sharp on the back of his first novel). His riffing on the styles of famous authors is fun if risky, and as an unreliable narrator, Jim is hard not to like. In all, it was a fine antidote to some pretty miserable houseboundness, despite the darkness underpinning it all.



And not to forget it's also still available in hardback from Unbound!

Thursday, 25 May 2017

Stoner by John Williams

... Helen and bright Paris, their faces
bitter with consequences.
I presume upon my readers that you might be of a similarly perverse frame of mind; a frame that nearly always shudders at the cynically mercenary and often seemingly arbitrary branding of novels as the greatest this or the most astounding that. Take, for example, Stoner. Writ large and highlighted with a bold red circle (calling to mind the eye and therefore certain to draw the focus of such) it declaims that this is, definitively, "THE GREATEST NOVEL YOU'VE NEVER READ" (the caps lock is theirs, (The Sunday Times, or Vintage? It's not clear (ooh, double and then TRIPLE parentheses! I am in heaven!) whose) not mine). Well, it put me right off for far longer than I care to think.

Now that I have read it, it is a lie (if it were not before), for I have read it. And I feel a bit of a shit because it is pretty great.

Pretty great.

We follow William Stoner from fictional birth to fictional grave in the fictional retelling of a fictional life, one strewn with small defeats and even smaller victories. Did I mention it's fiction? His life is not all that remarkable, given the conditions of similar protagonists in similar novels, in that he is embroiled in no major scandals (just a few minor ones), he works towards no great (sorry, enough of the greatness) or lofty ideals, and he makes no mark on the page of history. His upbringing is quiet, staid, closed, and his opening up to the world at large uneventful. He doesn't go off to war when it arrives in mainland Europe, and seeks no advancement in his position at the University where the parochial agricultural ambitions of his parents are frustrated by his burgeoning love of English Literature and where he slowly advances from pupil to professor.

Throughout, we are treated to a Hardy-esque omniscience from the narrator, who sees and describes with clarity and no little poetry the measure of Stoner's character: his acquiescence to the wills of others where his own will has no clear path; his wordless love and crushing sadness for his daughter and her eventual descent into alcoholism; his stubbornness when defeat follows defeat too closely; his dry, tearless sorrow for the death of his parents and his friend Dave Masters. It chronicles his long-suffering with compassion and dignity, and the ringing truth of the words make it almost beautiful, despite the suffering of its main character. In fact, if you consider Larkin's judgements of Hardy's prose work to be chiefly on the nature of suffering, then this is doubly Hardy-esque, given that Stoner experiences so little joy throughout the book–notable exceptions include watching his daughter watch him work, building his own bookcase, and in his forbidden but consummated love for a grad student, Katherine Driscoll, which he jettisons under duress. It also breaks a few of Elmore Leonard's rules, particularly about the writing of the weather, but those did serve to highlight Stoner's connections with nature and disconnect from his fellow man, woman, wife and child.

I, for one, can't chuffing stand Thomas Hardy's novels, no matter how many luminaries wax lyrical over his prose. I recall a seminar on Hardy in my own first year at University where a friend explained how absurd it would be for an all-knowing God (or Hardy in his role as narrator) to obsess over the lips of a milkmaid, and it stuck. I recall reading Tess of the D'Urbervilles with rancour in my heart and bile in my throat. Thankfully, this didn't occur to me until after I'd finished, but it does corrupt the novel's gloss a little, as did the raw red pimple on its skin before I began. But, you'll have heard you can't judge a book by its cover*,   just as you can't judge a book by the peccadillos of its reviewer, and in truth, I'm glad I finally got over my own prejudice. It is a fine novel, and I thoroughly enjoyed being made miserable by it.


*Likely also you'll have heard you don't start sentences with conjunctions. But screw that.

Friday, 19 May 2017

Open: An Autobiography by Andre Agassi

Hit harder. HIT HARDER.
There are not many people who could lay claim to knowing me who would look at this post and not wonder bemusedly what on earth possessed me to read the biography of a tennis player. Tennis, as anyone (i.e. everyone) knows, is a big bag of shite. Sure, it's one-on-one, mano-a-mano, an honourable battle. Sure, it's chuffing hard to play. Sure, it's hard, physical and mental exercise, pushing players' bodies to the very limit. But damn, is it ever boring as hell. And tennis players? Well, don't get me started.

In truth, I was caught out in a lie, by my boss, who told me it was great and I should read it. I paid lip service to the fact I thought he was interesting, given he hates tennis too (yeah, but he doesn't really hate tennis, does he? Yup). She said, great, I'll bring it in for you. And so I was stuck with it.

And I have to eat a little humble pie. It is quite an engaging read, and I found myself enjoying it, despite thinking Agassi is a bit of a whining dick, quick to play the victim card, and not really willing to go into the full horror of having a father determined to make at least one of his children into the world's greatest tennis player. I assume it was difficult. I assume he was terrified at least part of the time. I assume he had no choice. Boo hoo. I certainly enjoyed it more that I thought I would considering some of the pretty nasty reviews* it garnered back in '09 on publication. Yes, it was hard to believe in places: there's an extended passage about his money troubles when going on the road with his brother, but from that point on he's able to buy multiple houses and cars with nary a mention of cost. Yes, I was dismayed by his admission of the use of crystal meth and his subsequent lying about it–I seemed to have missed the original controversy–but then point out a celebrity who has not found succour in odd places from time to time. He says he's honest, 'open', and in parts, he is. He admits to some particular vanity that is risible (wearing a wig, putting lifts in his shoes at his wedding, not wearing underwear on court), and to some rather unsportsman-like throwing of matches when he just couldn't be arsed, but then I wonder at his view of himself, how he sees his life through his prism of otherworldly success (eight grand slams and $31 million in prize money, before sports endorsements). I would imagine that had he not had the collaborative support of his ghostwriter, not credited in the book except in an afterword where it is explained he wants no part of the credit (ostensibly because it's not his story, but also possible he literally wanted nothing to do with it, pulling an Alan Smithee), it would have been unintelligible too. So at least it has that in its favour.

But Moehringer highlights in an interesting NY Times article, 11 November 2009 something that I only realised in retrospect. He says of Agassi;

His memory was crystalline about matches but not about relationships. He hadn’t reached any conclusions about them and couldn’t make connections. 
Absolutely. Agassi knows nothing of himself and just can't put his relationships into context. They just happen–Brooke Shields, Barbara Streisand (Barbara Streisand?!)–and even his eventual happy-ever-after with Stefanie Graf is a bit lacking in introspection. It's framed in the 'she gets me, she gets tennis' context. Soul mates!

Of course, reading this back it seems I'm trying quite hard to put you off ever opening this book. Don't let me do that. It does have its merits, and is quite an unusual sport biography, with a level of English that belies Agassi's ninth grade education. It's entertaining in parts, it was quick to read, and I did sort of want to hear what he fucked up next. He fucked up a lot of things.

*For example, this evisceration in the Guardian, Sunday 1st November 2009: https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2009/nov/01/andre-agassi-autobiography
Savage.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Wolf In White Van by John Darnielle

In the Trace, you know. You know to buy it
direct from Big Green Bookshop!
In a spontaneous act of Twitter altruism, (Twaltruism? Twittruism?), I deleted this and Darnielle's difficult second novel* from my Amazon wish list and ordered them from the Big Green Bookshop, an indie bookshop in Wood Green, London, whose co-owner Simon Key appears to be living one of my erstwhile dreams. He was once of Waterstone(')s, as was I. I once fanatsized of telling Waterstone(')s to fuck off and of opening my own independent bookshop. I clearly did not have the requisite fortitude to pursue my dream however, as one look at the business rates and shop rents in Cardiff city centre and I shut up and went back to work quietly and with no little abashment. Where was I? Oh yes, books. My choice was validated by Simon, who told me he really enjoyed Wolf In White Van.

And so did I. However, I wonder at my frame of mind when I read it. This may be a result of me having better things** to do than review books in a timely fashion, and thus leaving it weeks until I was at home, unwell and restlessly fidgety, to find the requisite motivation (boredom does wonderful things for my motivation) to get the job done. Because I can't remember how I felt when I was reading. 

There I was, only yesterday bemoaning Agassi for his lack of introspective powers, and here I am lacking the very same! 

So maybe some context and easily referenceable factual statements are in order. As you ALL will know, John Darnielle is the main force behind American indie folk band the Mountain Goats, and a stunning lyricist. This is his first novel proper (although he has written a 33 1/3 novella on Black Sabbath). In it, the narrator is Sean, a young man with, it's safe to say, some problems. He blasted his own face off with a rifle in his youth, and as a result, has thrown himself into the creation of his fevered imagination, what is essentially a role playing game, called Trace Italian***, managed entirely by post. Can you imagine? In this day and age! The game is managed with a file card system and players are given choices at each stage, with the idea that they make it across the desolate wastes of an end-of-world scenario America to The Trace Italian, a star-shaped city wherein the resolution of the game is to be found (if it exists). Unfortunately, for him and for the two players, two young people decided to follow his directions literally and interred themselves in the Kansas desert to survive a night out in the open; one died, one might as well have done so. 

Sean tells the story in as dispassionate a manner as he can, through veils of memory and often the pain of his own recovery. I recall his difficulties with his own recall, and one line which struck me as pertinent to my own experience of memory, something along the lines of 'was I even younger then than I supposed I was?' to paraphrase inexactly. And he tells without telling of the strange isolation he finds himself within, estranged from his parents who are unable to process his actions, both when he was seventeen and that led to the tragedy of his game-playing sweethearts, isolated from society for the way he looks. In one particularly interesting passage, he details a meeting outside a shop with some beer-drinking teenagers who are guilelessly fascinated by the damage to his face. Sean revels in the small and sympathetic interaction.

In truth, it is probably an incredibly moving novel, one filled with pathos, and a sad commentary on the barriers we erect and the ethereal bonds we make with others. In my memory, it flashed by without making much of an impact on me, although it nearly made me want to go out and buy some of the Robert E. Howard Conan novels. I will make a date to re-read it and will come back to you. 

*I have no idea if Universal Harvester is/was difficult–it's on the to-read shelves/pile. I just perpetuate literary myths for the fun of it.

**Not better, let me tell you...

***The title of the game, he tells us, is taken from a type of 16th-century fortification, the trace italienne, a star-shaped fortress designed to combat the use of cannonades by offering unrestricted defensive firing positions and which came to be the 16th-century ideal for the modern fortified city, in Italy at least. 

Thursday, 27 April 2017

The Child Garden by Geoff Ryman

We're all hurt. But not hurt by the fall.
If art has taught me nothing else, then in all the world, in every situation, it feels like every single person is conflicted by the need for stability and the inescapable contradictions of the mutable self. We're idiosyncratic. We're unpredictable. We vacillate. We waver and flip-flop. We believe we hold deep-seated philosophies and morals, profound ethical positions and beliefs, and yet these can be unseated at any given moment. We want things we know are bad, and we desire things we probably know will make us miserable, or at least definitely not ameliorate our misery, no matter how shiny or expensive. In the Buddhist sense, it is our desire which leads to suffering. That's a hard thing with which to come to terms. And yet many significant advancements in science and technology come not out of actual necessity, but out of desire; a desire to help, a desire to heal, a desire, ironically, to stop suffering; a desire to murder as many of our enemies with little cost to our allies. Arguably, these desires go against our nature. We evolved to the beasts we are, and now we desire to artificially develop further, quicker, smarter, with no long view of the consequences. 

Personally, I'm ambivalent, as I imagine most people are, to this artifice. I desire more comfort at home; year-round tropical fruit on the shelves; a cure for all fatal diseases. And yet I know food should be seasonal, that we evolved eating only those things we could grow or kill ourselves. I know a larger more comfortable sofa might mean facilitating sweatshop textile manufacture in a third world archipelago. But what of disease? What if disease serves a purpose?

The Child Garden posits a future London, nay, world, where cancer is cured, by the coating of proteins with sugar, or 'candy' which prohibits the spread of corrupted genetic information. The population is cancer-free! Unfortunately, it appears that cancer served an essential function and without it, the lifespan of a human is halved to approximately thirty-five years. Although now able to photosynthesise for energy, humans can no longer afford the luxury of a childhood, so learning is advanced exponentially, utilising viruses which share knowledge like implanted tech, so that children can contribute to the workforce. And each mind is 'read' by The Consensus, which is a repository of all human knowledge, and which makes decisions for the good of all, in place of a government; to quote The Orb, 'Huge Ever Growing Pulsating Brain That Rules from the Centre of the Ultraworld'. An ultimate socialist dystopia. 

Quite science fiction-y so far, eh? That's not all! The world is depleted of natural resources, particularly metal, so the Consensus is mining the galaxy and beyond through the use of 'angels', gravitational beings capable of riding the strings of interdimensional webbing that stretch across the universe, joining everything together.

Wow!

Remarkably, for such a huge concept, this is not even the main strand of this quite amazing narrative. For our protagonist is Milena Shibush, a Czech immigrant who is immune to the viruses. She, of all people, shunned and ostracised as a child, lacking implanted social conformity, fearful of the discovery that she has never been 'read', is the key to the survival of the human race. She learns, the hard way, to live like everyone else, tries to accept the viruses, to no avail. She falls in love with a genetically engineered woman but can't articulate this for fear of her 'bad grammar' coming to light. But in her love she discovers purpose, and works towards the production of the most ambitious musical project the world has ever seen, and in the process comes to the attention of the Consensus, which, having become self-aware, realises that she is the one thing it lacks, the one thing that could put an end to its gargantuan loneliness, and the one thing that can bring back cancer. That's right–by the end of the book, the people of London are cheering the return of cancer.

That's some synopsis let me tell you. AND, so you're conscious of the enormity and excellence if this novel, it barely does it justice, if at all. While I've concentrated on the literal aspects, the practical narrative of the book, it develops themes of love and loss, of music and poetry; it challenges the reader to consider his or her own sense of self-worth; it reaches far and wide across the panoply of human experiences and flips them like cards on a table. It's sad, moving, (I didn't get the Dickensian humour the cover touts, but you might), and thoughtful. It's also damning. We don't know what we're doing.

Thursday, 20 April 2017

Timequake by Kurt Vonnegut

You were sick, but now you're well
and there's work to do.
Please assume I’ve included the usual Vonnegut disclaimer here to start with. That way I can charge straight into the regulation waxing lyrical.

OR NOT.

Cue gasps of horror and disdain etc. and so on.

Well. I should probably explain. Timequake is Vonnegut’s “last” novel, published in 1997. It struggles somewhat with the fact that the main plot device, a blip in the linear nature of time which causes everyone on the planet to jump back ten years and live it all over again with no ability to affect the direction of their lives or change any decisions already made, is ostensibly that of a novel which he hasn’t been able to write to his own satisfaction. It became this novel partly because he lacked the focus and willpower to shape it into a novel in its own right, and so instead, like the many Kilgore Trout short story ideas that litter this and other novels, it is just the bones of an idea lacking the meat (which would be ‘eaten by sharks’ anyway, so he reports in a prescient statement as to its eventual critical reception) of a really excellent book.

The other drawback, in my opinion, is that most of the vignettes, the little asides about Vonnegut’s own trials and tribulations, including his trips to the shop for an envelope each time he needs to send his typewritten manuscript to his copy-editor in his own inimitably Mock-Luddite fashion, have been seen before. Lovely as it is to reminisce about his other works, notably ‘Fates Worse than Death’ in which much of the autobiographical stuff first breathed air in 1991, and to meet Trout once more at the end of his life, it’s a bit of a hash. Or a ‘stew’ as the author suggests.

Now, that’s not to say that what we have here is not full of writerly merit. He is poignant, dark, soulful, and tear-jerkingly beautiful. He makes sound political observations (he suggests a new and forward-looking amendment to the Constitution to the tune of ''Every adult who needs it shall be given meaningful work to do, at a living wage.”) and sharp social comments, and his pseudonymous alter-ego keeps coming up with the goods in terms of his short story output, many of which are summarized as examples of Vonnegut’s conclusions on the world. But the borrowing of Hemingway’s dark metaphor and the apathy of the world to the new-found self-determinism at the end of the timequake decade portend the darkening of his mood, evidence of the struggle to come to terms with the entropic nature of his creative energies. In my eyes it feels very much like the last book, and with that comes a sense of loss. This, in turn, engenders anger that it could all come to this. I’m annoyed there will be no more (notwithstanding the tranche of posthumously published work that appeared as if by magic once he had no veto on their publication).


But then maybe he’d just had enough. "You were sick, but now you're well, and there's work to do,” yells Trout in the ears of those paralysed by the availability of free will, and maybe Vonnegut’s lack of the creative imperative finally left him free to make his own choices, among them to not write. 

  

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. Wait, or was that One Of Us? Bah, who cares.

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.