Saturday, 27 August 2016

Stone Of Farewell: Book 2 of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, by Tad Williams

Currently reading...

Wednesday, 17 August 2016

The Dragonbone Chair: Book 1 of Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, by Tad Williams

Awaiting review...

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

The plausible explanation she has been
craving, the one that lies outside herself,
has never seemed farther away.
Having neatly tucked away Breakfast of Champions once more, I was drawn as if by the divine hand to an article at Electric Literature* which lead me in turn to Familiar by an author unknown to me. The article may have read thusly:
Like Vonnegut, Lennon is able to defy genres; Familiar appeals to a variety of readers, from the sci-fi set to the literary fiction elite. Also like Vonnegut, there’s even a Kilgore-Troutian moment in which the universes of the writer, reader, and protagonist briefly and spectacularly collide.

Of course, it may not have done. Regardless, I was intrigued.

I have written before of the strange feelings inspired by the selection of a novel by an as-yet unread author. Do I go overly dramatic and find meaning in every word, or do I stand back, detached and disapproving? In J. Robert Lennon's case, I was ambivalent as I began, distrusting his words, but I was quickly swept up by the sheer narrative impetus. I remained cool, but the story fairly zips along. 

It's hung on the conceit that, as she drives home from a conference, middle aged and returning to a home scarred by tragedy and a marriage between literal infidels, everything changes: her clothes, her car (notably the cracked windscreen), her job, her life are all altered seamlessly and suddenly, but her memories of her other existence persist and she is discombobulated. The most prominent change however is that her youngest son is still alive. What follows is her attempt to find meaning in the midst of madness. Will she ever get home again? Does she even want to?

I wonder if we'll ever find a way out of this world.
My delicate, formative years were influenced heavily by the novels of The Discworld, Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, the children's cartoon Dungeons & Dragons etc., so I'm partial to a bit of multiverse action. I love working along with the protagonist(s) towards the resolution of their dilemma. Of course, that's the issue with Familiar. There is no resolution. It builds as these things do towards a sense of climax but ends, just as Elisa Macalaster Brown suspects of her meeting with the strange, otherworldly internet avatar Patricia, at the second right before it threatens to make sense. Frustrating, sure, but also liberating, as we don't need to contend with the author's need to complete the narrative loop and can imagine our own explanations. 

Indeed, throughout the book I found instances of a sharp and probing intellect at work. I particularly like the post-modern referencing (and acknowledgement thereof by the blogger on the discussion panel - "Everyone loves the po-mo!") of his own book at the conference (which he graciously refrained from looping back to the conference from which Elisa is travelling when things unravel), and Elisa's absorption in the first person RPG designed by her son, the now not-dead Silas, inveigles in the notion that this universe in which Elisa finds herself is itself the creation of someone, possibly herself, possibly her son. Indeed, as she tracks him online in semi-disbelief at his Lazarus-like resurrection in this world, she finds an interview in a games forum or magazine (I forget which) where he tears the traditional 'safe' narrative of role-playing games a new one: "Designers are stuck on the notion of story. As if it's the story that makes a game worth playing… Life is inherently nonsensical. Drawing strands of meaning together is for idiots… It's a fake moral justification for what the gamer really wants, which is to make shit happen."** She even suspects he keeps new universes on the counter in his kitchen.

All this builds into a peremptory, urgent and exciting novel, a metaphysical thriller that has a very broad appeal, dealing with familial trauma, adultery, the trials of parenthood, the world of work, but also notions of identity, or self-worth, and the solipsistic notion we are the only real thing in the world, which brings us all back neatly to Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. They weren't wrong, those mystics at Electric Literature.


*Not that particular one, rather one which I can now no longer find (spooky) but which listed ten or so great novels to read if you liked Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, which I do. Lots.

**This curtailed quotation is borrowed from the Guardian review of the same which can be read in full on their website.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Happiness Is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky

We only even remember ourselves
when something starts to hurt.
I woke in the middle of the night last night desperate to remember something I'd half-dreamed, but I lost it. It went something along these lines–that sometimes when you pick up a novel, from an author you've never read before, it's like meeting a new person for the first time: you're either constantly on guard so as not to miss or misinterpret something or, worse, read into everything something which is ostensibly not there; or else you end up seeing them straight, only the surface registering, and you risk missing out on all their subtle complexities. I find this a lot of the time. 

But then there are those authors who surprise you; authors whose words strike a chord, whose prose is comfortable, simpatico, inspiring immediate and lifelong friendship and devotion.

Of course now you're expecting me to lump Oleg Zaionchkovsky into one of the two camps and complain or wax lyrical about his relative merits or lack thereof. Oddly enough, he falls in the gap. 

I've read enough postmodern-ish Russian fiction to know what to expect–Zinovyev's Homo-Sovieticus, or else some modern fable pitting progress against nostalgia, the pastoral against the Metropolis–and I've come to accept that in translation, even in those by the deftly superb Andrew Bromfield, I'm going to miss a sizeable chunk of important cultural references and misunderestimate simple, but different, mannerisms of the author. 

But–ha! here we go–the first thing I notice about Happiness is Possible is that it feels natural, that it could have been written as if by an English speaker living and (not) working in Moscow. Sure, there are moments where I felt cool about what was written, or thought What the hell was that? but in context these could be explained–in hindsight with the aid of A. D. Miller's introduction*–and in context they made sense: the barbed (and amusing) slurs on various ethnic populations, sectors of society, classes, individuals etc., the odd Muscovite tendencies towards city-worship, of which the narrator is also guilty, the clashes of Capitalism and Communism, and so forth. More often than not I suspect I was just missing the joke. Regardless, the rest reads beautifully, simply, but also not quite hiding a bittersweet humour and fatalism. It's also very much a grower, a book to come back to and discover a deeper understanding, a fuller appreciation. Whether this is to the glory of the author or translator (or both) is unclear, but glorious it is. 

The bulk of the connected vignettes, some longer than others, comprise imagined situations with the Muscovites and interlopers who populate his corner of Moscow, or else real life encounters, and it's not clear which are which. And it doesn't matter. Each is complete in and of itself, with only his estranged wife and dog Phil being integral to them all, the central thread around which the fictions are woven. They display in turn slapstick comedy, moral seriousness, callousness, whimsy, philosophy and a bleak humanist humour that has come to characterise Russian fiction, for me at least.

Of course, you're looking at the title and wondering, what, is he being ironic? can anyone be happy in post-Soviet Russia?, but yes, it appears happiness is possible. Zaionchkovsky's narrator is content to live in a high rise–his high rise–with his dog (the passage where he first inherits Phil is throat-tighteningly evocative), as the ex-husband and occasional lover of his ex-wife, tolerated by her new husband, rising at noon to write, if the words come, or not write if they don't, his novels and commissions, raising a glass with a selection of friends, acquaintances or fictional characters as the need arises. 

Finally, then, I can only conclude that this is some damned fine writing and translating, more excellent work from what is fast becoming my favourite fiction-in-translation house, And Other Stories. If I had £40 to spare just now I would be on their subscription list like a shot (yes, they have a subscription list! Exciting crowd-funded publishing seems to be literary sugar to my bookish sweet-tooth), and I advise you to check them out. I'm now two books into their backlist and I intend to keep going till they're all done.



*I never read the introduction first–in my opinion they should always be at the end of the book, masking the intellectual prism of another reader whose projected interpretations can prejudice a novel.**

**Of course, at the end it would all feel unbearably smug, with the nudges and winks and candid camera, eh, photography, eh, a nod's as good as a wink etc.***

***Sorry. I'd not obliquely referenced Monty Python in so long it just slipped out.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

Well, if I am not drunk, I am mad,
replied Syme with perfect calm;
but I trust I can behave like
a gentleman in either condition.
There has been plenty written over the 108 years since publication of G. K. Chesterton’s most famous novel, a novel that has never once been out of print in all those years, so to attempt to add to the weight of critical acclaim is futile. In fact, rather than read the rest of this post why not go and download it for free, read it yourself, and then check out The American Chesterton Society. Go on!


However, for my own personal reasons I want to record my reaction. The quick plot summary, if that’s even possible, sees rebel-against-rebelliousness and poet Gabriel Syme inveigle his way into the supreme council of anarchists ostensibly to uncover a murderous plot. He soon discovers that all is not as it seems and there’s even a big surprise at the end (sign-posted clearly throughout). It’s a spy novel, a detective novel, a novel filled with caricatures and symbolism, but also a novel that I found to be supernal, in both senses of the word (ironically but also coincidentally flaunting one of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing - regularly talking about the weather). 

The sky features heavily throughout, and as skies do, mirrors the characters’ sombreness, gravity and alarm, but also auguring doom and mocking their quotidian, mundane and humdrum anxieties in places. As the backdrop to what has been described as a metaphysical thriller, it has as large a part to play as the bomb-throwing anarchists and undercover policemen. But in the other sense of the word, it is an amazing, intelligent, sublime farce, encompassing philosophical debates and barbed social commentary, Christian allegory, and filled with symbolic revelations. And in the end, it was all just one long nightmare. Or was it?

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Baen Free Library

Free I tells ya, FREE!
It's not often you come across something for nothing these days, and as such, when I do, I spend so much time squinting my eyes and pursing my lips and looking for the catch, the catch, that I often lose sight of the wonderful generosity of the act, or indeed run out of time to take advantage of the opportunity. Much like MIT's OpenCourseWare through which you can access ALL the course material they produce, for every single subject taught - cynical bastards I thought, and now I'm entirely and unjustifiably prejudiced against them.

BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT etc., I was looking for something dumb and fun to throw about on the bed in my mind after exhausting myself with the effort of satisfying the metafiction of John Barth, when I came across a set of short stories from 2011, published, for free, gratuitously, by publishers Baen, and accessible, without cost, charge or remuneration, indeed for free through their website; that's right, you can download straight from their websiteFREE BOOKS, as Mobi or Nook files, or simple pdfs, to email to your ereader of choice. 

FOR NOTHING.

And yes, they're not all gems, some of them are stinkers, but if you want to indulge in a spot of guilty pleasure, then what's not to love?

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard

A bit of Prohibition-era
fussin' and a feudin'.
I borrowed this book from a colleague at work and as such can't quote directly from the text, or even go back to prove I've not made a whole heap of stuff up–darned memory is playing up these days yes siree and so forth. But as near as I can remember, this little ripper is set in prohibition-era [insert redneck country town here], and is the story of one man who, thanks to strongly held principles and damned ornery stubbornness, goes to war with bootleggers over his father's not-so-secret stash of eight-year-old moonshine whisky. And that's pretty much it.

Of course, if you dig a little you'll come to realise it's a perfect example of Leonards own rules of writing. Nothing is extraneous; each sentence pushes the narrative onwards through the dramatic crisis and explosive finalĂ©. No-one expounds, anguishes, gasps or grumbles; they merely say what they have to say. Characters are never described except by other characters. And at no time does it ever sound like writing. 

Son Martin lives alone except for his friend (who I choose to remember was called Amos), a black man whose very existence is an affront to at least two of the antagonists. He distills some of the best darned clear moonshine in all of [insert redneck county here], something that gets him the attention of the local sheriff and his army of 'deputies' who enjoy 'raiding' his still every now and then to get loaded. His pappy lies in a grave on the property, his wife is dead, and his mistress runs the hotel in town. And he's sitting, so they say, on a fortune in aged whisky that his pappy made near enough ten years ago. But he's only gone and blabbed this secret to an army buddy, so it transpires, while drunk and vulnerable when he was still in the service; a buddy who comes looking for it, and brings a hostile posse of bootleggers along with him.

I recall an Alan Alda movie version, but only poorly. It can only have been played as a comedy, and in truth there are comedic moments in the book–it's not all cussin' and spitting and inscrutable stares and casually slung shotguns invoking death at a moment's notice. At one point Son looks out across his property at the trees wherein hides an army of shotgun toting bootleggers to see what he thinks is the cavalry come to his aid. In truth it's the locals, come with picnics and lemonade to watch the show. But at heart this is an all-action thriller. In the timeline of Leonard's work, it comes after the bulk of his Western novels, and before his more contemporaneous work, but it could easily belong to either category or exist on its own. Either way, it is quintessential Elmore Leonard, and I put him up there with John D. MacDonald as one of the most consistently entertaining American writers of thrillers and action, one to which I will return again and again until his work is exhausted. Then I'll go back and start again.