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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 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 of 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.

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Hannah Green And Her Unfeasibly Mundane Existence by Michael Marshall Smith

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