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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…

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

DON’T THINK OF IT AS DYING,
said Death, JUST THINK OF IT AS LEAVING 
EARLY TO AVOID THE RUSH.
I can hold nothing against or up to either Neil Gaiman or the late Terry Pratchett. In respect of their fans and their work, my problems are mine and mine alone. In general, both are of the highest standard. In context however, I can only judge Pratchett’s early work, such as TruckersThe Carpet People (currently reading to my four-and-nine-tenths year old who is loving it) and The Light Fantastic etc. (all of which I enjoyed as a very young teenager). Post-Carpe Jugulum I have read exactly diddly squat, and the stage plays and TV adaptations have passed me by without so much as a flicker of interest. Whereas Gaiman continues to intrigue, chipping away at my natural scepticism with his charm and wit and style and great children’s books, and I did enjoy Stardust the movie, for the most part because of Robert De Niro, and also in spite of Ricky Gervais. Of course, were they to collaborate on a novel (not De Niro and Gervais; that would be one to avoid), then I would expect the world to end in a joyful bacchanalia of exuberance.

But sadly it didn’t.

Because in 1991 they came up with this little beauty. I must have read it shortly before or soon after going to university in 1996. I remember it on my bookshelves at student digs no. 4 or 5, gathering a fluffy grey mildew. In retrospect, I may have skimmed it as there were parts of which I clearly had no recollection, but again, it might just have been that there are levels and levels of fun stuff to discover depending on the state of mind of the reader. Now, as a more settled, confident reader of fiction, I am a tad more observant and reflective (I would hope it was so or God help me) and so those hidden depths are less hidden, and I am more able to appreciate everything past the rather silly British jokes that somehow become hilarious when Terry Pratchett writes them. Tempering the puns is Gaiman’s ‘dark steely style’ as the cover reports, a more subtle, macabre humour. And together, they have wrought what is a thoroughly entertaining story of the Apocalypse averted.

We have two angels, one fallen (or, rather one who sauntered vaguely downwards) and one tottering, both of whom have been on the Earth serving faithfully their respective masters, more or less, for a few thousand years. Having been the only constant in each other’s lives, they have developed a useful if unofficial partnership, a partnership which is threatened by the news that the Antichrist has just been born in a small rural village inside the M25, where suspiciously, the weather is always perfect, for the time of year, and developments like new housing estates and road improvements never seem to make it past the planning stage. Now aged eleven, it’s time for him to bring about the Apocalypse, and riding to his aid are the four Horsemen, updated for the modern age. In the meantime, the last remaining witch-finders and one witch (a good one) are on the case to avert disaster, separately, whilst a set of obtuse prophecies from 17th century witch Agnes Nutter predicts their every move.

It all sounds deadly serious, I know, but it’s not, as you would expect of this collaboration, and the broad cast of supporting characters combine to add sky, clouds and trees to the hay wain of Aziraphale and Crowley. Every character is apt to say something hilarious, in context, at any moment, and the writing is dry, witty, absurd and sharply intelligent at all times. In fact, I find it hard to find a significant weakness to either the story line or the delivery. This pleases me no end, as traditionally I’m a bit of a git. I am very happy to have returned a copy of Good Omens to the shelves of my new library where it can now grow yellow and dog-eared until I next feel the urge to pick it up again. Probably in another twenty years or so.

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What Readers Are Reading

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…

Norse Mythology by Neil Gaiman

Argh, Neil Gaiman blah blah, waffle waffle, and so on.
There, that’s out of the way.
I can’t help but equate the resurgence in popularity of the Norse mythos, Icelandic sagas, and Skaldic and Eddic poetry in all their new televisual, literal and figurative forms, to the similarly resurgent popularity of comic-book- and super-heroes. In fact, they’re two sides of the same interrogative coin: one asks, “How did we get here?” whereas the other asks, “Who can save us?” for the world needs heroes, and people to blame.
I will leave it up to you to project your own personal Them into the nice Them-shaped gap that leaves behind.
You may think it very necessary and timely to have brought out such a book. Alternatively, you may be suffering from hero-fatigue and see it as all a bit unnecessary. Or you may have been seduced by the big hammer on the cover and the lovely tactile matt-finish cover. In any case and in my own humble opinion, other than talk William Warder Norton into springing for a lov…

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 …