Friday, 16 December 2011

Crushed Mexican Spiders by Tibor Fischer

Brixton smells.

Just who Fischer thinks he is, first attacking Martin Amis and then telling me, his earnest reviewer, that “...most books reviews aren't very well-written. They tend to be more about the reviewer than the book,” is an interesting question, and, frankly, one I don’t care much for. Me. I don’t care. I have other views too, which may or may not come out in the course of this review of a double-header by Fischer from the wonderful, wonderful people at Unbound. Okay, so I’m stuck in 2003, but then it was a nice place to be, with anticipation building at getting my hands on first a proof of Yellow Dog and then a pristine signed copy of Voyage To The End Of The Room. After 2003 it all felt a bit of a letdown, with the bathetic release of both to muted praise and fierce criticism.

Still, I must focus on pastures new and not on muddy old fields.

A quick word (you know what that means) about Unbound. The theory or model is that by securing an agreed level of support from the public, that is you and me and him and them etc, before the book is published, an author and the publisher are able to off-set risks and cover costs, whilst also being able to create a book of rare beauty with a high quality design and, as mentioned in the Guardian, “paper so creamy you long to lick it”. The bonus for us literati is that one gets one’s name printed in the book as a supporter, and if you’re particularly energetic in promoting a particular title or author, by spreading your personalised link to all and sundry via whatever social media site you choose, you may even become a Promoter, earning credits (for use against future projects) for every supporter one convinces to pledge a contribution to a project. Copacetic.

And so on to my first fully formed fiction from Unbound. Depending on which way you pick it up, you may or may not get Crushed Mexican Spiders first, so that seems as good a point as any to start projecting my own insecurities.


I jest, I jest.

In a very short story, barely 14 pages long, Fischer goes after London, a city with which he has seemingly fallen out. In a Guardianinterview in 2003 (sigh) he says:
“London has become a much more unpleasant place than it used to be. I don't think that's to do with any kind of recent climate of fear, it's just that nothing works. There are just too many rats in the rat cage now.”
His nameless protagonist struggles no longer against the apathy of the city, and is rewarded with a cold shoulder which borders on the Kafkaesque. Her key doesn’t work, her neighbours aren’t the neighbours she remembers, and there’s a woman in her flat who says she’s lived there for seven years. Are her memories false (of crushing a neighbour’s Mexican spiders) or is she simply forgotten? It’s dark and uncomfortable reading, and plays on our fears of lives passing unremembered. Not much to laugh at there, but then Fischer likes to challenge himself, and it is this constant newness of his writing that is quite so appetising. Like another superb British author, Glen Duncan, who can make even the same old same old something fresh and invigorated, Fischer does not dwell on his laurels.

Compare with the flip side story, of an eye-witness to the sacking of Troy. An old tale, reborn, and as disparate a setting from the cold darkness of Brixton as one can imagine. With more of the old humour returned, the narrator, under unnecessary threat of torture (for he is willing to tell all) tells a tale straight out of the Barth oeuvre of an alternate history, where Menelaus is marooned on the shores of Troy and is accepted into the Trojan court to fulfil a role as the courtly butt (of jokes, wine, roasted pigeon and, suggested but not confirmed, rogue Trojan noble seed). When he gets tired of this life, he plots to return home with Helen, with whom Paris is now bored, and his trusty and dispensable retainer, whose reluctance to burn Troy to the ground is not a barrier to random chance firing the hollow horse filled with incendiaries. Cute, curt and entertaining, it bears comparison with Sumerian pottery and Hungarian basketball players.


Fisher is an author I would make time for at every new publication. I might even read articles in the newspaper if I saw his name attached. And in conjunction with the lovely people at Unbound, with whom I suggest you make an immediate connection (preferably via this link to Letters of Note, another book so worth supporting it makes Libyan Independence seem trivial), I would hurt kittens if necessary. Go buy, read, support, tell everyone etc etc.

And lastly, simply because I couldn't find a way to slip it seamlessly into the review anywhere else, here's a great quote from the same Guardian article by Fischer about Martin Amis, and the shame he felt after years of defending Amis from attack, only to be greeted with Yellow Dog:
"It's like your favourite uncle being caught in a school playground, masturbating."

Monday, 12 December 2011

The One from the Other by Philip Kerr


NOT a Nazi. Got it.

Philip Kerr is an author I have been reluctant to attempt to review for some time. His Berlin Noir trilogy cost me some hours of sleeplessness and in the end I decided to skip a review and just be happy to have read it and therefore move it from the pile of unread novels, via the edge of my desk where the “to review” pile occasionally falls over on to the typewriter and spills my pen pot across the floor and thus causes significant risks when stumbling blindly about the room at night too drunk to remember where my bed is or having just been jolted awake by the boy shrieking from the next room and running asleep into walls and doors, to the back half of my giant Ikea bookcase where novels that have been read and have caused my self-esteem to shatter on the diamond-hard edges of someone else’s talent currently reside, gathering dust and moisture until hitting the mildew tipping point and becoming physically dangerous in their own right. This awesome crew consists mainly of Will Self, John Barth, Kurt Vonnegut, Percival Everett, Mark Twain, Ismail Kadare and Bohumil Hrabal, but is not strictly limited to such esteemed company. Other noteworthy residents include Carlton Mellick III, John Connolly, Michael Marshall Smith, Dan Rhodes, Viktor Pelevin etc etc.  

You see? As you, my learned reader(s) will quickly divine, my problem is obvious. Such displacement activity as listing some of my favourite authors is indicative of a degree of trepidation about adding my critical and (I fear) ill-qualified opinion on the author(s) in question to the general melee of criticism already thrashing about on the web. What could I say that hasn’t been said before? Usually, in a self-deprecating article such as this I would now list what I thought about the book to check them against what has already been said, e.g. Chandler-esque, story-driven, enthralling and appalling and so on etc, with some witty quip or snide remark to position myself as above such obvious chicanery. 

A pink elephant. Reproduced from
 
http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/in_pictures/5344770.stm
without the kind permission of the
BBC or Banksy. Sorry.

None of which is currently getting to the bottom of just how I feel about this book. So, some salient fact at this point might serve to help. Firstly, the back story: what bigger crime to provide the backdrop for a series of crime thrillers than the biggest crime of the 20th (and possibly 19th, 18th, 17th...) centuries? You can’t fault Kerr, a man who claims to have watched “every Nazi documentary there's ever been”, for taking what is often a scarily huge elephant in the room and painting him thriller-pink. 
Gunther’s story is so closely intertwined with the rise and fall of the Third Reich that, as the title suggests, borrowed as it is from Reinhold Niebuhr’s Serenity Prayer*, Gunther is drawn unwillingly into the gears of the death machine and is spit out onto a ferry bound for Argentina with none other than Adolf Eichmann. Not a Nazi** himself (he takes great pains to point out he was never a party member, never carried a card, and only met with the Nazi top brass so he wouldn’t get shot), Gunther makes a living as a PI on the streets of a Berlin in the grip, and in the aftermath, of history’s greatest monster. How’s the writing? Chandler-esque would be close, Hammett-esque similarly accurate, but altogether, judging by the way Kerr himself is portrayed in the obliquely aforementioned Scotsman.com article from February 29th 2008, a lot like Philip Kerr – curmudgeonly, gruff, straight talking and probably in over his head. None of that stops him from unravelling in this case an atrocious medical experiment covered up by a variety of non-Nazi parties. 

It’s truly gripping stuff. Really. I can’t lavish enough praise thereupon, despite the series of frankly ludicrous coincidences that one is expected to overlook in the mad thrill of the narrative chase. Kerr excels in this milieu (I can’t honestly say I can compare his children’s fiction or other writing for that matter) and at a healthy and stately 55 years of age, let us hope that he is around long enough to leave behind a legacy of truly superb crime fiction.


* The first recorded version goes something like this: "Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

** For some interesting information on the origin of the nickname “Nazi”, see The Etymologicon, by Mark Forsyth, aka the Inkyfool. Free preview at http://blog.inkyfool.com/

Thursday, 8 December 2011

The Reapers Are The Angels by Alden Bell

Better than
The Walking Dead
(the TV series)

Straight off the bat, and perhaps therefore to sport my oak somewhat, I should mention that this review borrows heavily from an interview with Alden Bell (aka Joshua Gaylord) posted in August of 2010 at FantasyBookReview.com and, in all honesty, you may prefer just to go there and read it, rather than heroically struggle on through the desolate wasteland of this entry. Go on, I give you permission.

Still here? Then on with the story (to borrow from Barth).

There has been a glut of late* (or at least two I can think of without straining myself) of post-apocalyptic novels winning acclaim etc and so on - Rhys Thomas’s On The Third Day is worthy of a mention just because he’s a local (in the sense that he comes from round my way), and The Road is always worth squeezing into a blog entry as any mention of Cormac McCarthy guarantees a load of misdirected hits from America. Different from dystopian novels, but singing from the same hymn sheet, they maroon an identifiably contemporary character in a world without the nice, comfy social mores that make this functionally dystopian reality more bearable. That and a nice cup of gingerbread coffee from @coffeenumber1. Alden Bell seems to like the freedom they permit to re-write the rules, so that his young protagonist, Temple, a girl of indeterminate teenage years, can be both a ruthless killing machine, meting death whence she goes, and a reverent observer of the sparse beauty of nature. And he does it with a style which engenders comparison with writers like Faulkner on the one hand and, on the other, slightly bemusingly but in retrospect, acceptably, Flannery O’Connor.

But what I like best about this zombie road novel - and there are lots of things to like, from his southern gothic style, to the pathos of the starved dead heeding only raw animal instinct – is that Bell doesn’t give in to the urgent desire of the popular genre for a closed circular narrative. 
 I love it when a narrative builds toward an expected conclusion and then subverts it at the very end—which gives you, the reader, a feeling of thrilling weightlessness, as though a rug has just been pulled out from underneath you and you are suspended at the moment of falling,“ 
he says in the aforementioned interview. To really discuss what this means in context would make for a rather indulgent plot spoiler, so I’ll put the kibosh on that for now. Still, as a university lecturer / teacher (if there is a difference in New York) of English, he at least knows how to subvert such cosy narrative structures. Obviously not like the lecturers that Flannery O’Connor ran into:
Everywhere I go, I'm asked if I think the universities stifle writers. My opinion is that they don't stifle enough of them. There's many a best seller that could have been prevented by a good teacher."
9th July 2014, and I find on re-reading some old reviews, notably this one, I had left you somewhat hanging in space with Alden Bell. It's never too unlikely that, being a bit of a tool, I did it on purpose, thus subverting cosy reviewer best-practice and leaving you with the words of someone much wittier than me so that you might go away feeling the weight of wit and mis-remember it as mine. I do mention a personal opinion early on, namely that I do like this book. In fact, if memory serves, I did really like it. It stands out in its genre, for me, and in my memory, so, to combat willful, smug pillock-ness I'll append this ending so that you might finally understand that you too should read this novel, because it is quite good. Zombies. What's not to love?

* ”of late” - a period of time that is of a crepuscular nature but could be defined justifiably as anything up to five years ago as it all blurs into one