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Books of Note

Universal Harvester by John Darnielle

Not surprisingly, like a lot of John Darnielle’s music, particularly those songs on the album The Sunset Tree (Pale Green Things springs to mind and is very much worth listening to), his writing only slowly reveals itself and its narrative direction. Not in any turgid or tedious fashion, but rather in an unhurried, gentler and more thoughtful way. Universal Harvester rolls gently along its path with only a few disconcerting and probably deliberate hiccups. It starts in Iowa in the 1990s with a young man, still living at home with his father but unable to leave because of the weight of his mother’s death, years before, in a car crash. The trauma tethers Jeremy and his father together like the gravitational pull of a dead star in a comfortable and predictable but numb orbit, but it’s never something that either of them can discuss openly.
Jeremy works at a VHS rental store, so we’re assuredly early-Worldwide Web era. His job is simple, repetitive, and keeps him and his father in entertai…

The Stainless Steel Rat Omnibus by Harry Harrison

ssr-omnibus
I consider it an ill omen that I
have already forgotten the
character's name...
I don't really know what it is that draws me, apparently by chance but I suspect more by dint of character imbalance (mine) to books that I hope I will like, enjoy reading to a greater or lesser degree, depending on a variety of factors, not least being current mood, but then can't help but find flaws therein which, annoyingly for me as I'm quite keen on the romantic ideals of right or wrong, good or bad, still doesn't put me right off finishing and buying the next novel in the series. What's more frustrating for good old "Black'n'White" GBD is that this particular book, one I fished from a faulty returns crate  destined for the big book bin in the sky (actually Little, Brown publisher's incinerator) has a whole three chapters missing from the second installation of the tale of... damn. I can't remember the character's name. That is not a good sign. Still, as previously mentioned, it didn't stop me from gamely pushing on, reconstructing the missing action from hints later in the book, and plowing straight into the third novel of the three without upset at the lacuna left behind by random book-binding serendipity (or lack thereof). 

So far so meh; hardly a glowing endorsement or a damning critique. But then I came to Harry Harrison via Charlton Heston and more serendipity, as I discovered that Soylent Green was an adaptation for the screen of Make Room! Make Room! by none other than HH himself (and starring Edward G Robinson in his last film role, so it happens). As is my want, actions dictated as they are by the whims of Fate (hence 'metaliteral' intertextuality) I bought Make Room!... and went after something else by the same author, to see if it uncorked a gluttonous desire for all of his books.

And so, Slippery Jim (it just came back to me) was next, figuratively if not temporally. I must say I'm pretty indifferent. It may be due to the anachronistic view of the far future that betrays Harrison's grounding in the technology of his day, or it may be because I can't abide (maybe too strong - am mildly irritated by) the way the protagonist can conjure an escape from every trap, can waltz through locked doors and has the luck of the truly imaginary on his side. It likely stems from an inability on my part to definitively suspend my disbelief, and that is a crucial let-down in a novel where the fantastic is intended to be common-place. 

If I have offended any hardcore sci-fi legend-worshippers by being smugly churlish about these three works, then please ask yourselves what do I know? I am happy to disagree with anyone with a more objective perspective and would be pleased to enter into a terrible Twitter debate that descends into name-calling, fake accounts posting sexually explicit slander and eventual user suspension (or worse, show trial and extradition). Of course, you, my dear reader may well be as imaginary as James Bolivar deGris...

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Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

I was sold this book by Simon at the Big Green Bookshop in return for the money it cost plus a small donation towards operating costs and postage. 

In truth, I'd forgotten it was on its way, and it was a fucking lovely surprise when it arrived at my desk in work, my letterbox at the time being a tad short on width and breadth and unlikely to admit a hardback plus packaging. I recall very much enjoying reading Michael Marshall Smith, and I also enjoyed re-reading him, recently, and I documented this here, here and here. This was a book for which I hadn't realised I'd been waiting for a long time. 

However, had I not the history and warm, cosy feelings safely tucked up in the nostalgia bank, I would probably not have picked this up, going solely on the cover. There's a clock, the silhouette of a small girl, and leaves, along with a colour contrast and meandering font which brought to mind something cringe-worthily reminiscent of Alexander McCall-Smith*, or the covers of Sc…

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.

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 …

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

Kleinzeit–German for 'small time', not, as Kleinzeit himself would have us believe, 'hero'–is a sick man. With pains shooting from A to B, an acute hypotenuse, and something up with his diapason, he's dying from the disease of life. Hospital, heckling and arrogant, reassures him he'll soon be cured of it, forever. In the meantime, he's fired for writing a man pushing a barrow of rocks, falls in love with a ward sister, Sister, purchases a glockenspiel with which he busks in the underground, and despite 'heroic' attempts to discharge himself from the crowing, anthropomorphised institution, finds that Death keeps tricking him into relapses, in between which he discovers a sinister plot hatched by yellow A4 paper to enslave him and cuckold him with Word.

In an odd way, this short novel feels like an episode inside the head of Leonard Rossiter. A healthy man feels a mystery pain, checks himself into hospital and quickly unravels. But he also looks for a …

Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

Now is as good a time as any I suppose to admit that I regularly confuse Italo Calvino with Umberto Eco and when struggling for the name of one of them, invariably come up with the name of the other. What value does this add to a review of either’s work? None whatsoever. I just thought it would pay to be honest up front, so that if I start talking about semiotics, the discourse of literary criticism, or beards, then you’ll know my train of thoughts has switched tracks and is heading for a bridge under construction.
Of course, reading the Wiki pages on the two of them (to make sure I was talking about the right fellow) I noticed with some dread that Our Ancestors is one of the best known works of the most translated contemporary Italian writer (at the time of his death) and here I am, trying to make sense of it in my own personal context. Well, I’m always going to be treading down some fool’s heels so why should I care if it’s actually most people? Indeed, Calvino mentions in his own i…