Sunday, 1 March 2015

Odd Corners by William Hjortsberg

Currently reading...

Monday, 23 February 2015

The Case of the General's Thumb by Andrey Kurkov

Awaiting review...

Saturday, 7 February 2015

Player One by Douglas Coupland

Douglas Coupland and the
Fog of Literary Ennui.
I would be very happy if I loved Douglas Coupland the way fans of Douglas Coupland love him. To be honest, I would also be happy if I hated him with the passion shown by his detractors. Is he majestically brilliant, insightful  capable of spotting and naming cultural trends before we're even aware of them, or is he a loathsome carbuncle on the face of an already sceptic society? Seriously, both of these I found on Good Reads and Amazon reviews of his books. In truth, whilst reading his novels I find them engaging, witty in places, insightful and somewhat acerbic, but as I close the pages, the feelings fade, like a headache slowly lifting. When I think back to his novels which I've read, I realise there have been a surprising amount: Generation X, Generation A, JPod, Miss Wyoming, Girlfriend in a Coma, All Families are Psychotic. I wonder why I keep reading more when I can barely remember any of them. Is it the narcissist in me preening in front of the glossy covers of a completely consumed backlist - look how culturally attuned I am, and how avant guard, and how impossibly well-read! Yah, that sounds plausible. Possibly the most recent was Generation A, and there was something about bees. I remember thinking it borrowed from Viktor Pelevin's The Helmet of Horror in so far as there were multiple points of view and they all - did they? - slowly merge. I couldn't tell you what the others were about, although I could posit a passable synopsis. Something about modern culture, something about the commonalities and differences of human kind, something about cultural entropy, and so on. 

As I listened to Damon Albarn talk about the potential for pop music to endure instead of being disposable, it struck me that perhaps Coupland's books are anti-pop literature, anti-pop culture, and as popular trends fade in popularity, then so do the trends in antithesis. That would be harsh on Coupland, given the rather archetypal issues that his characters experience, archetypes that endure - loss of faith, religious fervour, lack of identity, emotional detachment, the seeking of connections, addictions, the careless hurts of family life, the atavism of humans freed of societal strictures - but it might be one of the reasons I didn't connect with this one, and haven't maintained much of a connection with any of his novels. They may have been seminal, they might have broken ground, but ground broken is ground broken; you do it once and then what?

Maybe that's it. Maybe it's a case of 'What now?' for Coupland and me. Maybe he doesn't go far enough - despite the interesting and handy but superfluous Future Legend he provides at the back for humans who survive the coming oil apocalypse - and like all things that don't fulfil promise, the connection just withers, fades, and dies. 

Sunday, 1 February 2015

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

Before you start, read this disclaimer:

Fans of Neil Gaiman beware – I don’t tolerate you very well, despite counting myself amongst you. It’s nothing personal (about you – it’s very personal to me), and I believe it’s Neil’s own fault for being such a very good writer. Please read on through the fan-bashing to the bit about the book. Thank you.


An ocean in a bucket.
Neil Gaiman is an annoyance to me. I really (REALLY) liked American Gods but found that as soon as I mentioned this fact to anyone, I got one of two responses: nose-turned-up snobbery of the most scornful sort, or sickeningly gushing über-fanaticism, if that isn’t tautological. I don’t know which is worse. The snobs I can dismiss as most will be operating within the conceit that Gaiman is fantasy and therefore unworthy of further study or consideration – they are very unlikely to have ready anything by the author. The fans, though, start dribbling on and on about the time they met him in Bath Waterstone’s or how much better he is than the Latin American magic realists, or how his The Books of Magic comic book series (of course, they would confer upon them specious mythic value by using the disingenuous term graphic novels) pre-date the Harry Potter novels and you can clearly see the influence yaddah yaddah*. Regardless of which is most irksome, it has meant that when I do read Gaiman novels or kids’ books (mostly to my son it must be said – he loves The Wolves In The Walls) I do so in secret and would not normally tell anyone.

Clearly, that would not add particular value to a blog about books**. So, when I chanced upon this one languishing on the shelves of a Tenovus shop on Clifton Street, I thought I might be able to spare 99p to rescue it and give it an afternoon’s perusal with a view to a review***. And to be honest, an afternoon was all it lasted. Not in any very bad way (although perhaps I felt aggrieved that it was actually quite a short book), but rather in one of those “I’ve made a cup of tea to drink while reading which went stone cold because I didn’t look up again till the book was finished” kind-of ways.

If I were to put this into the context of his literary oeuvre it might not merit a very high comparative score out of ten, given I really (REALLY) like American Gods which would, for me, score the highest. However, on its own in the Young Adult crossover genre, it would probably blow the covers off the competition. I don’t want to give it all away with plot spoilers, but in essence, a man returns to the neighbourhood his childhood home (which no longer exists) and relives some magical goings-on which he had forgotten about from when he was only a young boy, in the process revealing the forgotten minor but character-shaping traumas of childhood, the deep-seated longings and dashed dreams of all adult children. As with all his novels, the language is deceptively simple, toying with big ideas in the subtext, and haunted with grief and the bitter-sweet agony of a youth lost to the fog of memory. Yes, there’s magic in there, and yes, it’s all a little bit much for the true suspension of disbelief, but it is certainly a most engaging narrative. I pondered on the prevalence of Gaiman fans after I finished, and wondered if his books are pitched deliberately just on the YA side of adult so as to tap into the child in us all and thus come close enough to the common denominator (without touching) that his appeal is as broad as it can be, given the constraints on the genre. It might be so (hence the gut-churning reluctance to be accepted into fan club), but it might also be that he has tapped into something ubiquitous and universal, something to which I’m not able to put a name as yet, with filigreed tendrils in us all. Those who reject their touch are nature’s anti-bodies. Those who accept are hosts to something magical.


*Okay, so it’s clear the fans annoy me more. Of course, I don’t want to upset the simpering idiots so I hope they don’t know how to use footnotes.
**Other than to provide a handy hook upon which to hang a review, which is most useful.

Saturday, 24 January 2015

The Headmaster's Wife by T. C. Greene

Way to make me feel like an arse.
I bought this on the recommendation of someone whose opinion I respect if not always agree with, and also as it was an Amazon daily deal I felt that 99p or whatever it cost was not too much to risk. I have become a little narrow in the field of what I choose to read and welcomed the digression offered. Subsequently, I feel a little hoodwinked. 

T.C. Greene’s previous book, Mirror Lake is one of those books that, as a former bookseller, I knew was there, would expect it to be propping up the centre of a table of multi-buy contemporary fiction, but had absolutely no desire to read whatsoever. They say you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover, but I disagree, given the time and effort spent by designers and publishers to ensure that any given book looks as similar as possible to the best-seller in any given genre. Mirror Lake enjoyed my ignorant prejudice for a good many months for this very reason. Of course, until I’d bought The Headmaster’s Wife I had no idea that the two Greenes were one and the same. To be fair, therefore, I went into the reading experience with a significant chip on the shoulder and a petulant unwillingness to be even-handed. However, this isn’t why I’m grumpy and feel conned. No, instead it’s because the author, after having penned this rather dull, predictable and irrelevant story about the headmaster of a Vermont public school and his wife (no enigma in the title), where the characters are lifeless, ungainly and with whom I felt almost no connection whatsoever, in language that even Twilight moms could cope with, slips into the acknowledgements that his 6-month old daughter died while he was writing it. Now I feel like a complete arse for saying it’s a load of rubbish with little to redeem it. It goes without saying that I am heartbroken for him, as the worst thing I can imagine would be for my son to die, to have to imagine all of the things that he would never see or do, and all the life experiences I’d miss out on sharing with him; but that’s no excuse to publish a book that I feel is quite so sub-par. He's not alone in the blame though, as it’s a poor show from his editorial team and publishers too. But if this is the standard of writing that paves the middle of the literary road, then I am at least justified in my ignorant prejudice and that contributes a shiny patina of smugness.

Monday, 5 January 2015

Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon

It's damn funny.
I had planned to read my backlog of Pynchon (before this point including Slow Learner, Against the Day, Inherent Vice and the yet-to-be procured Bleeding Edge) in chronological order – not that they must be so read, but rather that I wanted to mirror the writer’s own artistic trajectory with mine as a reader. As with other writers of great scope and ability, I need to pace Pynchons across my life as they take a lot out of me as a reader, but to be honest I’ve been looking for an excuse to skip the short stories and the hard-backed behemoth reminiscent of Mason & Dixon that is Against The Day and crack on with the reportedly more accessible Inherent Vice. Thankfully, the impending (and now actual) release of the Paul Anderson film did just that. Never one to be swept along in the wake of something I decided I had to read it now or forever be beholden to someone else’s artistic interpretation.

And, as reports suggest, it is by far the most accessible novel by Pynchon since Vineland, something which came as a relief given I still have cold sweats about Gravity’s Rainbow, which was my first introduction to Pynchon care of a blinkered, unforgiving and intense Post-Modern American Fiction lecturer at University. Essentially a stoner detective novel, garnering the film (not always favourable) comparisons to the Coen Brothers’ classic doper noir The Big Lebowksi, Inherent Vice takes its title from, as Larry ‘Doc’ Sportello’s lawyer-friend Sauncho Smilax* tells him, a marine insurance term meaning unavoidable harm (where insurers will refuse to insure cargoes of eggs for example due to the high likelihood of unavoidable damage during a sea crossing). Of course, being Pynchon, you can unravel that one as far as you wish to take it, particularly when our setting is California in the late 60s and early 70s, where surfers, dopers, hippies and activists jostle for elbow room with corrupt developers, cops on the take (or just taking out their innate brutality on the aforementioned categories), gangsters, dealers, and, so it would seems, dentists out to avoid paying tax. The plot begins with a surprise visit of Doc’s ex-girlfriend and wannabe actress Shasta Fey Hepworth, who then goes missing along with land developer Micky Wolfmann, her new beau, at least one Aryan Brotherhood Brother, his boyfriend, a motorbike gang member and a dentist, the last two we know at least get snuffed. Doc sets out to unravel the mystery fuelled or perhaps medicated by an astounding amount of marijuana, accompanying a motley assortment of beach bums, surf musicians, psychics, skip-tracers and slightly unhinged ladies of a variety of unwholesome endeavours and / or habits, and ends up face to face with a shadowy cabal of gun-running, heroin-smuggling, tax-dodging dentists, known only as The Golden Fang. Oh, and there’s a loan shark whose side-line business feeds the back story of Doc’s nemesis-cum-ally Lieutenant Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen.

I really – REALLY – hope the film is as funny as the novel. It has gags, puns, jokes, innuendo, the whole gamut of humorous prose, whilst also hanging together as a coherent if fragmented kidnap and conspiracy narrative. The cast is huge, as was to be expected, but I can’t recall a point where I thought “Now just who the jumping f**k is this bell-end?” as each inhabits a particular mote of dust in this singular crepuscular ray of blinding entertainment**. If I wanted to and didn’t have the horror of so doing, I could strip layer after layer from the writing which is a veritable palimpsest of meaningful stuff and intertextual reference. Thankfully some other thoughtful readers have already done it (in part) and you can add your two-penneth-worth at the PynchonWiki site. Frankly, I’m just glad I’ve had my first few proper belly laughs at a Thomas Pynchon novel in a long time. Time will tell if the film can live up to the novel, but on a first reading, it looks to be the novel most suited to a film adaptation, and in Paul Anderson I can only hope we’ve found the person to do it. And perhaps you’ll spot a sly cameo by the man himself somewhere, at a beach-front café or slinking by in the milky backgrounds. But probably not.


*Played by Benicio Del Toro in the Anderson version, and, so PynchonWiki tells us can be interpreted as a truth-telling spiny-thorned climbing plant. Again, unravel as far as you need.

**Actually, Scott, brother / cousin (?) of Doc is a character that might bear a snip or two. I don’t remember what he adds at all except that his band Beer plays on the bill with the Boards and a resurrected Coy Harlingen

Sunday, 28 December 2014

Bad Men by John Connolly

Badmenbadmenbadmen...
John Connolly is a lovely man. In the couple or so interactions I've had with him as bookseller and bookshop manager-type person, he has never been anything other than polite, respectful and very willing to put in a shift when it came to signing his backlist and meeting the general public. In addition, and I choose to consider this not to be an author sucking up to the people who are responsible for moving units but rather as further evidence to support my opening statement, he is genuinely nice about booksellers. Indeed, booksellers get a nod in the acknowledgements of Bad Men, and, to my surprise as I'd not remembered him doing it, he wrote a very pleasing dedication in my copy referring to me as a bookseller as someone with a proper job (and not, as it might be interpreted, as possibly one of a marginal group of people living in Cardiff in full time employment). I don't know if it's a trait of genial Dublin-born Irishmen, if his parents had something to do with it, or if it's a conscious decision to hoodwink or swindle the purchasers and purveyors of supernatural thrillers; whichever, it works in his favour, as you'll probably realise when you notice the deliberately positive spin I give to this novel, which does have its flaws, but about which you'll not hear from me.

Necessary spoilers follow. In a departure (although not a major deviation as Parker haunts the lives of a few integral characters) from the Charlie Parker supernatural detective novels that have rightfully won him acclaim from peers and reviewers, Bad Men brings us an archetypal bad dude, the biblically named Edward Moloch, and his entourage of ne'er do-wells, as they plot revenge for a betrayal by Moloch's wife and object of scorn and cold, spiteful injury, Marian(ne). She has pinched a wad of cash from the shed, bought herself and her infant son new identities, and legged it after shopping Moloch and his gang to the authorities, leading to a short and abruptly interrupted incarceration for Edward. It all sounds like a tasty, suspenseful thriller, with a girl on the run and a determined posse of crims out for blood, needing only the intervention of a Quixotic knight errant to stand and fight on her behalf. Fittingly, up steps Melancholy Joe Dupree, giant and lawman, and heir to the forbidden secrets of the fictional Dutch Island (or Sanctuary), outlier in the chain of islands in Casco Bay, Maine. These secrets include historical massacres, murders, and the supernatural peace-keeping performed by those disturbed souls who watch over the island, and wait for the return of the one deviant who got away from them. And odds are on Edward Moloch to fulfil the role of prodigal island son, especially given he's having former-life flashbacks, particularly vivid ones, where he kills his island-settler wife over and over again. Naughty boy. And guess which unholy island serves as wifey's bolt-hole...


*Raises quizzical eyebrow*
I'm surprised I've still got a job with that hair.
What Connolly does really very well, as the equally lovely Mark Billingham points out on the front cover in one of those industry standard associative tag-lines that cause me no small amount of angst, is write a compelling page-turner, where the reader is actively engaged in the lives of the people who, normally, are there to dampen the sharp edges of various weaponry, which straddles the literary fiction genre and also pulls in other genre fiction fans. He has a broad appeal, which might put off literature snobs like myself, had he not been such a lovely man. A lovely man. Inherently believable*, readable and intelligent, Bad Men is a quality supernatural thriller, a classic good versus evil narrative, and just one of over a dozen such written by Connolly. Crass comparisons to Neil Himself and Stephen King might be appropriate, but I shan't be doing that. I prefer to consider Connolly a market-leader in this sort of thing, and shall work on re-stocking my diminished library with his backlist as soon as the lottery win is in the bank.

* Thanks in no small measure to his impeccable research, the fruits of which are gently folded into the mix rather than info-dumped as is occasionally the standard method of arriving at a justification for things and stuff.