Monday, 25 November 2013

Conversations With Spirits by E.O. Higgins

Trelawney, it's me,
Kath(erine)y, I'm still dead.
As has become customary in reviews of note, I must once again lead with a disclaimer – this one born of my own stunted temporal sensitivity; for me, time in publishing terms stopped when I left the book trade, in 2011, and therefore when I make reference to things published recently, recently might encompass more time that one might reasonably expect. Therefore, when I say that recently there has been a mini-spate of publications wherein someone challenges Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to flaunt his misguided beliefs in the face of scientific inquiry, you might be surprised to know that this includes Hjortsberg’s diverting crime novel Nevermore, first published in 1995, as well as the whimsical Oscar Wilde mysteries by Giles Brandreth, Arthur & George by Julian Barnes, one of the Flashman novels from George MacDonald Fraser, and lots of lower level self-published drivel flotsamming about the waters of the Amazon.com.

Sadly for Mr Higgins, my favourite Sir Arthur is definitely Hjortsberg’s, who is rather bemusingly and inexplicably haunted by the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe (Poe in turn believes himself to be the recipient of visits from the beyond from Doyle). Nonetheless, Higgins’ spiritualist Doyle is a worthy adversary for the rather superior yet curmudgeonly Trelawney Hart, semi-permanent resident of the reading room of the Hyperborea Club and firm materialist stroke cynic stroke dipsomaniac. Indeed, it is Doyle’s intervention which sets Hart on his quest to disprove the talents of mystic J. P. Beasant and leads to his discovery of some of the rummest drinking establishments that Kent has to offer. Doyle is equally curmudgeonly, possessed of the utmost self-belief and convinced that there are supernormal forces at work in the world. With sycophantic Woody in tow, Doyle cuts a somewhat ridiculous figure, fittingly so for this comic caper.  And of course, a pompous old fool with firm beliefs is just the sort of windmill our quixotic anti-hero cannot pass up un-tilted. Hart borrows some duds and strikes out for Broadstairs, Kent!

To round up with a nice, clean, trite conclusion would be to do Mr Higgins an injustice. For whilst the story is clean, pleasing, amusing and rather well written, there are many little things which add value to the experience, not the least of them being that this is another Unbound gem and as such comes in a luscious first edition format that rather shames my poor, beloved paperback collection. Others include the names of various vintage cigarettes, like Sheiks, Dragoumis and Ogden’s Guinea Golds, all of which make an appearance in the first few pages and which conjure images of smiling health professionals extolling the virtues of toasted tobacco for the throat and of their power to keep you slim.

Taken without prejudice or permission
from Mr Blog's Tepid Ride
Now, to counterbalance my runaway enthusiasm for the book, and to pre-empt accusations of fawning flattery for the purposes of further vicarious glory, the resolution to the mystery is somewhat expected, even from the outset. Is that a flaw in the story? Not necessarily, but even allowing room for the suspension of disbelief, I was unable to seriously entertain the thought that Hart would be defeated. This might be due to the aforementioned literary encounters with a fictitious Sir Arthur as, to my knowledge, he rarely, if ever, triumphs* in his quest to prove that faeries and spirits exist. This might also be due to the rather flaccid attempts by Doyle’s present incarnation to convince a reader otherwise. It might also be because I’m a massive arse when it comes to spiritualist mumbo-jumbo. Also, the ending is a bit Poirot-esque where I expect, precisely because Hart consults a Sherlock Holmes mystery for guidance, it should have been Sherlockian. And Hart’s reluctant guide, Billy, does feel a little superfluous in places, perhaps like he was in life, and seems to serve only as a drinking associate for Hart, and someone to provide Doyle with further blockades to be breached by Hart’s intellectual siege engines when Hart himself is too unwell to witness the spectacle himself. Still, why gripe when for the most part what we have is immensely enjoyable?

Lastly, an equally predictable and unrepentantly blatant plug for Unbound again. If you want to engage with what you read, then get in on the ground floor and support struggling writers, like Ed Higgins, whose work was discovered, as I understand it, on Jottify and for whom literary fame was a candle glimpsed through a dirty window from across a foggy moor until someone pressed alcohol into his hand and convinced him to chance his arm.

*Injudicious over-use of commas was inserted deliberately to gently remind Mr Higgins of their beauty and import and to damn minimalist editors to hell.

Wednesday, 6 November 2013

The Testimony by James Smythe

Another long book where..
Have we done this before?
Trawling Twitter at dire o’clock in the afternoon desperately, quixotically, searching for meaning and /or distraction I found a tweet which told me that some author or other was giving his book away on the Kindle-ma-bob. Usually, these tweets are from nasty Americans who taunt the UK book-buying  and /or downloading public with novels that are not permitted to be sold to UK book-buyers and / or downloaders (and probably aren’t worth the reading in any case). This one seemed to be, genuinely, from a ‘real’ person (@BlueDoorBooks I think it was), with the backing of the publishing house, having been shared by them. What? I follow Harper Collins?! Why on earth… Oh yeah, to get free books.

So I downloaded it, via – shudder – Amazon Whispernet and there it was on my bottom-of-the-range Kindle, for which enhanced audio content is NOT AVAILABLE*. It begins well in the fractured, multi-narrative that has become a little bit popular in the wake of Lost, only in much shorter instalments. On matters of plot, there is what might be likened to an M. Night Shamalamadingdong “happening” and a whole bunch of people are very slowly telling the reader all about it. Some people experienced The Broadcast or The Testimony (a bit of word play as one might consider the narrative streams as the characters’ testimonies) and some didn’t. Some took it stoically and some didn’t. Some turned to religion and some didn’t. And lots and lots of people die. For many reasons. Which would spoil the surprise.

As it’s told in retrospect it quickly became clear that all of our testifiers survived to testify (although to whom? How are we reading this?), and it’s quite easy to spot who does die and who doesn’t so it’s not much of a shock when they do. And the passages crawl by excruciatingly slowly in places, so much so that it’s difficult not to jump ahead – if you do you are very likely to miss crucial details or hints so try not to – with some characters seemingly redundant and having no purpose (like the single appearance of the Iranian school teacher, the Chinese gamer, and the Indian doctor who appears heavily early on but feels superfluous except to add cultural ballast). It’s an overly long, predictable story, but one that has been very well realised, and it kept my eyes drifting back to the Kindle when I should have been meditating or would otherwise be playing online poker. That the author reads or has read lots of Stephen King (gargh!**) is clear, given the death toll, but at least there are no aliens, and no convenient and plausible explanation is given for The Broadcast. The casual throw-away line about project Orpheus – no spoilers here – as the cause of so many unexplained deaths is vaguely annoying but I suppose if that particular mystery hadn’t been resolved it would have been a zero-for-god-knows-how-many mystery resolution count. As it is, the supposedly unsatisfactory leaving of loose ends is strangely satisfying, and concludes what is otherwise an entertaining and enjoyable feat of multiple ventriloquisms.

As publisher-driven e-book freebies go, it certainly did its job, in so far as I ended up buying one of the author’s other novels, The Explorer (available from all good etc. and also on his website) for the handsome sum of three Great British Pounds and ninety-nine Great British Pence. This has now gone somewhere near to the top of my virtual to-read pile, behind Michael Chabon’s Telegraph Road and Freaks by Caroline Smailes et al. And Don Quixote. And Plato’s The Republic, The Unbearable Lightness of Being A Prawn Cracker by Will Self, and at least two of (@craigstone_) Craig Stone’s rather random novel-type things.  So not very near the top. But as a Welsh author of note (I’m assuming he’s from Wales given the accolade Wales Book of the Year – Fiction which he won for this self same book, and his inclusion in the Parthian anthology of new Welsh writing, Nu) I feel honour bound to do him the courtesy of highlighting my good intentions to read his stuff at some point. In that respect he’s in esteemed company.


*Therein lies a tale which is so boring as to render it less interesting than this footnote.
**Refer to introduction to my review of The Twelve by Justin Cronin; I also conclude he’s read lots of Stephen King because he wrote a Guardian book blog about it…