Friday, 31 July 2015

Kafka On The Shore by Haruki Murakami

Currently reading...

Monday, 27 July 2015

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

Awaiting review...

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.

Monday, 29 June 2015

The Seed Collectors by Scarlett Thomas

... when it has had enough of being where it
is, it quietly uproots itself, like a long-
wronged wife, and walks away...
I was blown away when novelist and Twitterer Scarlett Thomas invited me to Islington for the launch of this, her new novel, and then, after citing the obligations of parenthood, to send me a free copy of the book. And all for simply being aware of William Gibson! I knew science fiction wasn't a waste of time. So of course I'm trepidatious about appearing ungrateful, or of hurting her no doubt battle-hardened but nonetheless ever present feelings when I say I'm not sure I understand this novel. 

To perform a customary synopsis, we begin with the death of Great Aunt Oleander, owner of the Namaste House retreat and matriarch of a rangy spread of Gardeners (capital G to indicate proper noun) who, whimsically, are also botanists. The news is greeted by family friend and Oleander's protege Fleur, gently supping an opiate-spiked tea, with in retrospect the  amusing salute, "Oleander is dead. Long live Oleander."
From this tangles the off-shoots of familial introductions–chubby Bryony and hubby James, their children Ash and the troubled anorexic Holly; divorcé and hedonist Charlie; "famous-ish" documentarian Clem and husband Ollie; brief visits with Augustus, father to most of the above mentioned, and Beatrix, now elder stateswoman of the family, previously married to the grandfather; and by proxy to a trio of siblings who vanished in pursuit of a mysterious seed pod whilst on a trip to a lost island in the Pacific. Indeed, it is around these mysterious pods that, I think, most of the action orbits. Although I'm not sure. 

I've read a few reviews in broadsheets and most seem to agree that the book is funny, cerebrally and vulgarly, entertains profundity and is provocative and uncomfortable despite the rather urbane middle class setting. But the implication, and in the case of the Telegraph, explicit criticism, is that it's a bit of a mess, that the reader can never feel comfortable with the format and structure as it whizzes about with its omniscience in and out of the heads of the characters (and also, in a weird but poetic moment, a robin, although it is claimed that this particular bird was at least seven years of age when the average life-span of a male robin is 1.1 years). Of course, this might be the point, that we should abandon illusory notions of individuality and embrace our one-ness with the God Head, and that the narrative process is a living thing which shoots off whence it will. As a comedy of manners it is an acutely observed success, a thwack against fat thighs of the consumption driven middle classes, Guardian readers, university types and so on, although I tend to agree with the Guardian on their disappointment with the aggressive sexual theme. I personally found it very amusing throughout, full of ideas and invention, but was lost in parts through the quick movement between characters' points of view, and was confused about the seeds, their origins, their effects (in one section Fleur and teen celebrity burn-out Skye claim to fly around the world whilst under their influence–not sure if this should be taken literally or metaphorically) and their purpose in the novel. That they might be capable of taking one off the wheel of life and death was interesting, but the caveat that this was only possible when mixed with the tears of an enlightened person (and that people actually had vials of the stuff) stretched my suspension of disbelief into incredulity. Also, the enigmatic Prophet character was an odd addition, perhaps used to provide a revenue stream for what would otherwise be a struggling endeavour in Namaste House. I just don't know. 

So to conclude, I repeat that I don't know what Thomas wanted to achieve, or how the book should be read. In that respect I wonder whether having read any of the entire backlist of hers I owned before the Great Purge of 2012 would have helped me to spot common themes and traits and thus facilitate understanding, but sadly, I have yet to replace those now lost tomes. Nevertheless, what I did get was joyful, irreverent and very entertaining. And a huge thank you goes to Scarlett Thomas for her generosity, and a huge apology if I've been so lacking in comprehension or sophistication as to leave her work sullied in a minor book review blog.

Friday, 19 June 2015

I'll Sleep When I'm Dead: The Dirty Life and Times of Warren Zevon by Crystal Zevon

Hit Somebody!
I suspect that, among other reasons why I, a sleepy, suburban, middle collar white class schmuck, stumbled across the music of L.A. hell-raiser Warren Zevon, and felt moved both to purchase his biography and champion his music to friends whose good graces I courted, sheepishly, was that I used to buy* and read** Uncut Magazine religiously, in whose pages Zevon made appearances around the time of his untimely, but some might say overdue, death in September 2003. It was certainly the case that I bought the Genius: The Best Of Warren Zevon cd  (in 2004 and again in 2008 because of good natured misappropriation of the first by the aforementioned friend) because of an article they published on The Wind, November 2004. From what I knew of him before that point, I might well have been taking a punt on a cd of glam rock, New York anti-folk, or angsty navel-gazing singer-songwriter smugness. In retrospect, I'm pleased I took the risk, even if it was only to look well-informed. Certainly, his biography has sat on my shelves since release in 2008, unread until now. 

Zevon songs are growers. I think I heard 'Werewolves' on BBC Radio One on either the Chris Evans or Chris Moyles show (either way, an inimitably irritating radio show) and was immediately smitten. Yah, yah, Zevonites, I know. The rest of the tunes on Genius took a bit more time, 'Lawyers' aside. Likewise, Zevon's biography took a bit of getting used to. Compèred by ex-wife Crystal Zevon, this is essentially a collection of recollections of Zevon, from friends, musicians, roadies, tour managers, music execs, a variety of seemingly deluded women folk, and his children, all deeply devoted fans despite his irascibility. The format and style was a turn-off from the start. Having to stop at each paragraph to absorb the name and relevance of each new narrator was a chore. Anyone who knows how I feel about books that begin with a list of characters knows how I might feel in this case. But as always with a good rock biography, this one starts at the end, with Zevon's death. I think it was this that saved it for me from the off, that made me persist and push past my dislike, as the scene is so poignant, and frankly terrifying to someone with a family history of drink problems etc. that I was caught off guard. Nevertheless, Crystal intrudes, as she must, with regularity to ensure I never forget I don't really like her voice or choice of presentation. 

But what emerges is an ambivalent human being - incredibly talented, hugely self-destructive, seeking oblivion in multiple sexual and chemical encounters but also trapped in the grounding rituals of obsessive-compulsive tendencies. So many people feel such strong connections to a man who looked for any excuse to cut people off, for however small a reason, if they got too close, that he must have been an awesome guy to know, to collaborate with, and to love, no matter how hard it was. I call his girlfriends deluded but in truth, they all saw some spark of greatness, loved him deeply despite serial infidelity, and really couldn't help jumping into the sack with him no matter how destructive the act was to their own lives. In that respect, it is amazing to hear second hand but from primary sources about the lives that intersected with Warren Zevon's and were touched by his cranky, maniacal energy and devastating charm. From tales of pretty upsetting drinking and drug abuse, through his sober years, to the sudden diagnosis of cancer and his topple from the wagon - hey, he's as good as dead, so why not have a case of scotch? - it's clear Zevon's reputation as a wild man "standing in the fire" is well-justified, but it's also clear that his talent and vision were indisputable, that he was a cultured and intelligent man despite appearances, and that he died too soon. 

It's certainly an eye-opening biographical work, with numerous endorsements, from writers Carl Hiaasen, Mitch Albom and Steven King, and musicians like Bruce Springsteen and Jackson Browne. But my favourite part, a tiny, almost missable exchange between Warren and Tom Waits reported in Warren's own journal where Tom's after some advice on managing his voice:
Tom Waits called: Stu told him I knew vocal exercises that help hoarseness... "Are you sick?" I asked. "Define sick." I said, "Mormon fever that keeps you home from school." He said he'd gotten a cortisone shot - "Where?" "Austin." And so on...

*Most of the time I bought it and didn't just pull the CD off the front cover in the newsagents...
**Listen to the free CD...