Wednesday, 28 December 2016

Jupiter War by Neal Asher

Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Zero Point by Neal Asher

Monday, 12 December 2016

The Departure by Neal Asher

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Mr Rinyo-Clacton's Offer by Russell Hoban

Shining golden goblets but
the wine is black water; that's all 
there is now and forever.
It’s been a while, yes, I know. I’ve been around. You still living out by the airport?

Back to books, and specifically the eighth work of the Hobanology, Mr Rinyo-Clacton’s Offer, ostensibly a novel of another Faustian pact, but in reality, more in tune with the perspective box of Samuel van Hoogstraaten, to the illusory calm of which narrator Jonathan Fitch flees in moments of disquiet. Fitch, having lost the love of his life Serafina due to her discovery of his serial infidelity, is slumped drunkenly, a discarded marionette, in Piccadilly Circus tube station. Into this blurred tableau walks the diabolic Mr Rinyo-Clacton, charming, mischievous, disgusting and compelling, who offers Fitch a million pounds for the pleasure of harvesting his life at the end of a year. Fitch accepts and the deal is sealed with some forced buggery.

The money proves nothing like the salve to his wounded soul that he wishes it were. Instead, he seeks out Serafina, only to find that she too has suffered the seductions of Rinyo-Clacton, and now both fear for their long-term health and well-being. Drawn together once more in mutual self-loathing and revulsion, they live unhappily ever after. Rinyo-Clacton’s own search for meaning ends abjectly, and life moves on.

Narrating passively, Fitch is discomfiting and unreliable, perhaps fearful of deeper human interactions, that fear which pushed him from the embrace of his soul-mate and into the arms of a succession of faceless women, he simply shrugs when Rinyo-Clacton shows the cracks in his (Neolithic pottery?) facade and asks for reassurance on Hungerford Bridge.

Seemingly dense with meaning and symbolism, which of course it is being Hoban, laced through with references to art, literature and history (both ancient and recent, lost and terribly current), but only on the surface, an illusion Hoban crafts like van Hoogstraaten with infinite care and attention, a tapestry only a centimetre thick stretched out over the dark ‘goneness’ of wasted existence. I can’t quite explain how affecting this book is, given nothing worse happens than a bit of sex, infidelity and some health-related anxiety, but at a slim 192 pages it feels dense and weighty, and very important. 

Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Camouflage by Joe Haldeman

I've been here for too long.
Done things I shouldn't have done.
I picked this up, along with Russell Hoban and Robert Westall, in my favourite bookshop in Hay (being told at the time that my three modest purchases had tipped them over the £500 mark for the day - huzzah). At home, I rushed to my shelves to show my other Haldeman novels the new addition, only to realise in horror that I'd previously donated The Forever War trilogy to my local Oxfam back in 2012 and I sat down in disgust. But not for long. 

I've come to realise that I might have read quite a lot of what I read for the wrong reason - as far as books go I wanted only to have wallpaper in the rooms of my house that screamed intelligence, sophistication, a critical appreciation of what it is to be human and alive in these trying times, and I thought the only way to do that would be to have walls lined with classics, with oblique and post-modern fiction, with challenging and difficult works by challenging and difficult authors. But you can have all that and more, most importantly enjoyment, by purchasing and reading good science fiction, and not being ashamed by the assumed stigma of genre fiction. I love sci-fi. 

You heard me.

I do. Don't worry, this blog isn't morphing into some fawning genre fiction love-in, but I am not going to hold back on reading what I enjoy, hence my current glut of Neal Asher. But back to Haldeman, and this, winner of the Nebula Award in 2005 for best novel, in which two aeons-old extraterrestrials stalk the Earth, one seeking to understand and one looking to destroy. They can both change their appearance, mimicking other life forms, and with the advent of homo sapiens as the dominant animal on the planet, they leave their primordial states to walk upright among us. One is drawn to the horrors of war, the other, the study of life. As the two aliens spiral around each other across the centuries, they both find themselves drawn to Samoa as the discovery of an alien artefact proves the catalyst to their final reckoning and reveals the purpose of the Changeling's long sojourn on Earth.

Haldeman is a sparse, intelligent writer, quick to ramp up the action and never afraid to attack the status quo. Among his numerous targets is the US government, criticised here as a near totalitarian state, and marginalised by the human protagonists as far as is possible. Also under attack is his favourite subject, war, but this time, not the Vietnam 'police action', but rather the second World War, notably the death camps of the Nazis where the Chameleon finds work with Dr Mengele, and the Bataan Death March in the Phillippines. His elegant prose leaves much between the lines and he never fails to be thought-provoking.

If you're going to read one sci-fi novel in 2017, I would recommend something else, maybe a Robert Reed or Iain M Banks, just because they're great, but if winning awards does it for you, then you should try the book that beat Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell to the 2005 Nebula Award. You won't regret it.

Monday, 21 November 2016

The Cats Of Seroster by Robert Westall

I am Cam of Cambridge! Cam Cam Cam!
So, first the facts. Set in a fictionalized France of the sixteenth century, this young adult fantasy throws an English wanderer, 19 year old Cam, in amongst large, thinking, reasoning cats, descended from lineage that stretches back to Ancient Egypt, called Miw, who have been gently (and not so gently) directing the humans of their city and its surrounds for countless centuries, using their telepathic powers. Periodically however, they have had need to call upon the powers of the Seroster, a quasi-mythical warrior and cat-friend, reincarnated as the need arises, and whose gigantic sword and people-slaughtering capabilities are occasionally required to slaughter foes and scatter enemies and so forth. After the usurping of the ducal seat in the aforementioned city by some rather crude and un-cat-friendly types led by a rapacious fellow by the name of Little Paul, the Miw are forced into action, and Cam's part in the story begins!

Now the context. Many* might wonder why I've thrown back into the mix another teenage fantasy novel when I've previously made half-hearted apologies for so doing. The reason is very simple: I came across this on a recent trip to Hay on the shelves of the Hay On Wye Booksellers and for the sum of one English pound** it was an opportunity to revisit a nearly forgotten part of my childhood.

When I was *mumbles* years old, I got this from the library and simply devoured it. In retrospect I was baffled by what was going on, but it nonetheless inspired me to try my hand at my own, highly (highly) derivative novel, thumped out on the keys of my parents' old typewriter (a love for which has followed me through the years). As I recall I was amazed there were that many words in me.

So of course, I was delighted to find it again, having struggled to remember the title on and off for years. And I was not disappointed. It's still a marvellous read, not unduly violent despite all the killing and battles, and a lot of fun. However, I can see why I might have struggled as a young person to follow what goes on, as he leaves quite a bit to the imagination of the reader (bearing in mind I had no imagination as a child). It also ruminates heavily on the subject of death which, as a child, I found darkly exotic and titillating if ultimately confusing.

Westall was always a favourite author, and his ghost stories scared the bejeesus out of me when I was a teen, so if you have an older teen who might be a reluctant reader then why not drop this casually on to the sofa when he or she is next face-planted on his or her iPhone and express surprise at its appearance, given it mysteriously disappeared over thirty years ago. Perhaps they will heed its call!


*Ibid

**Or about $0.49 American as of December 2016...

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Empire Of Booze by Henry Jeffreys

...the kind of pleasure-seeking individual
who could have provoked a puritan revolt
with a raised eyebrow.
When it comes to books from Unbound I am entirely likely to go easy on them, from a criticism-point-of-view. They are, after all, trying to do something amazing in the publishing world and I'm all for that, indubitably. That said, when I pledge for books whilst in thrall to drink, occasionally, when they do finally make it into print (if at all), they are not quite as amazing as I had drunkenly expected.

As an example, I proffer Empire Of Booze. I think I'd been at some sort of literary event, where someone or other was sloshing around either hedgerow cocktails or exciting, hipster 'craft' beers, and not only did I indulge myself both with the tasters on offer, I immediately bought their book, and I also chucked twenty or thirty quid at this, as it was sympathetic to my contemporaneous desire for more of the same.

Now, don't think that I'm saying this is a bad book; it is certainly not! Rather, it is informative, entertaining, enlightening, enjoyable and accessible. However, I could if I so choose level charges that it starts out feeling just a little too glib, limply whimsical, repetitive, and filled with the names of people and places (presumably through necessity) to the point of readerly exhaustion. I gave up following the families and chateaux and just let it all wash over me. It also reads like a series of collected newspaper articles in a Saturday supplement: neither ostensibly scholarly enough (though I don't doubt its accuracy given the extensive reading list at the back) to be a solid historical account of the British influence on alcoholic beverages, nor whimsical enough to be an amusing comedic stroll through the tastes of British intemperates down the ages.

After a slow start, it does gather momentum and interest however, and the latter chapters on whisky, particularly the effects of prohibition in America on Irish whiskey sales, are downright fascinating. I found myself enjoying it more and more after my initial and frankly quite mild disappointment. It just wasn't what I expected, although ironically the record of quite what that was has been lost in the fog of drunken enthusiasm. Still, I've certainly been drinking more since I read this and as a result, so if that isn't cause to celebrate* then I don't remember what I was saying.

*with a whisky and green ginger wine!


Tuesday, 1 November 2016

A Cigarette Paper's Thickness, by G.R. Buchaillard-Davies

Coming soon to a waste-paper
basket near you...
It's November, so you can bank on two things:
1) I will be sporting facial hair for no discernible reason
2) I will pretend to write a novel so I can feel better about myself

I do myself a disservice - I'm growing facial hair because I like it. 

Anyway, just so you know and are not *titter* disappointed at the lack of activity on this blog in the next thirty days, I shall be beavering away, re-reading my manuscript, removing most of the curse words and cutting down on the gratuitous verbosity in an attempt to craft a passable ebook, for self-publishing in the not-too-distant future. Indeed, I've already mocked up a cover design. What larks! Cart before the horse as always. 

Should you feel motivated to support my Kickstarter campaign, please note I haven't got one. Instead, please harass and harangue me at every opportunity so that I am suitably motivated, and if you do want to throw your cash around, then there are far more worthy causes than me and my hirsute face. This chap, for example:

https://www.gofundme.com/Matthew-Parsons

Thanks everyone.

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Memory, Sorrow and Thorn Trilogy, by Tad Williams

I mused recently, rashly and publicly about the derivative nature of most fantasy fiction opuses. Unfortunately, for me, I was guilty of a sweeping generalisation that left me open to a convincing challenge, which duly arrived courtesy of Deborah Beale on Twitter, or @MrsTad as she is known. She told me in not so many words that I was a buffoon and to go away and read Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Mr Tad before making any further egregiously similar mistakes, tenderly qualifying her praise with the caveat that it's a slow starter. So, having being goaded into committing what amounted to two months of my reading time to this trilogy (or tetralogy if you wanted to buy the last volume in two constituent parts, Siege and Storm), I have come to the conclusion that I was right all along.

That is NOT to say that these three/four novels are diminished by the presence of archetypal characters, races, situations and events and which are to be found littered throughout such luminary fantasy works as Donaldson's The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever, Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, Tolkien, and the pages of Campbell's oft-derided mapping of hero myths, The Hero With A Thousand Faces  - rash oaths, unwilling heroes, plains dwelling horse peoples, magical metal work, gruff, obstreperous northerners, elvish types, naughty elvish types who don't mind a bit of cold, and so forth - no, not at all! In fact, I was engrossed from the off. It little matters who copies from whom when the storytelling is as good, and more importantly across 2200 pages, as consistent as this! 

And that is the truly remarkable facet of this multi-faceted work. I am absolutely amazed at how consistent is every single character voice, from the reluctant hero Simon Snowlock (né Mooncalf), through gruff Duke Isgrimnur, modest troll Binabik, spiky and tenacious Princess Miriamele, to even the overly-egged pudding that is Rachel, Dragon of the Hayholt. I could pluck a sentence of dialogue at random from any page and, reading it aloud, could instantly identify the speaker, such is the strength and stability of characterisation. I can only read in envy and awe. Such prowess is surely the work of years of painstaking editing and amending.

And whilst, for sure, there are some slower sections, with much Hamlet-esque pacing and musing where I would perhaps have preferred more charging and killing, and some where you think, surely he'd be dead by now, or physically unable to pick up a sword, or leap across a chasm, or climb a ladder, or even sit up without support, let alone climb a million steps in the dark or walk hundreds of miles through the most severe cold and punishing weather imaginable, it's so easy to suspend disbelief, to allow some self-indulgent wallowing of tortured souls in their indecision and suffering, when the characters propel the reader from page to page, chapter to chapter and volume to volume relentlessly and without respite. Who has time to dwell on minor details when they are so damnably keen to find out what next, what next? 

So, on the record then, I stand by my own rash oath that fantasy is perhaps overly reliant on the tropes and authority of that which has gone before (indeed, Tad Williams reminded me himself that George RR stated publicly the effect that these books had on his own story arc), but for all that, it is an unjustly maligned genre wherein beaver away some of the most fantastic storytellers imaginable. If you have a few months at a loose end, pick this up and hunker down for some highly addictive adventuring.



Check out all these books and more on Tad Williams' Amazon author page.

Tuesday, 25 October 2016

The Dog Of The South by Charles Portis


We must purge our heads, and our
rancorous hearts too.
Charles Portis currently serves as my literary palette cleanser. Between long, meaty meals of literary or indeed any sort of fiction wherein my patience and stomach is tested to the max, a sweet, sharp bowl of Portis resets my flagging will ready for the next serving. His sorbet is a particular blend of surrealism and realism, all usually hung on a mythological hero quest.

Ray Midge is just one such 'hero', whose own personal quest might carelessly be derided as rather meaningless–he's out to find his car, and with it, his wife and her ex-husband with whom she's run off. Not that he particularly wants her back; he just loves his Torino. With only a box of silver cutlery and his credit card receipts he tracks the fugitives to Mexico, where he meets dyspeptic dipsomaniac Dr Reo Symes, owner of the eponymous and defunct bus The Dog Of The South, and who requires a ride to Belize to see his mother so he can talk her into bequeathing to him a plot of land in the middle of a river. Along the way he grudgingly at first shares his knowledge of the writings of John Selmer Dix M.A., a writer to eclipse all others (“Dix puts William Shakespeare in the shithouse.”), particularly the work With Wings as Eagles, a svelte manuscript which should inspire all travelling salespersons to greater heights of itinerant selling. Not an unusual trope in a Portis novel you may have noticed...

Things do not go well.

Of course, Midge gets his girl (although the car is a write-off), but, in a discomfortingly off-hand way, right at the very end, Midge reports that Norma runs off to Tennessee and he's not unhappy to see her go. The Doc, well, he disappears never to be seen again.

It's a typical novel, of the few that I've read, by Portis. The protagonist (and narrator) is earnest but ill-informed, and is quickly overtaken by events (events, dear boy, events*) until he is lost far more than that for which he went in search. However, the commonalities don't end there. The cast of characters drift in and out, some never to return, some to pop up unexpectedly like the bail bondsman Jack Wilkie. It's immediately funny, it's deeply funny, and it's reflectively funny; it's odd, and unsettling, and brilliant. Just the thing with which to put Tad Williams to bed.


*Thanks, Harold MacMillan

Thursday, 20 October 2016

The Résumé by Simon L. Read

You can debate my expanding waistline
but you do not question the résumé!
Firstly, I must disclose that I read this at the behest of someone who may or may not be the author. I assume he is, although it's not clear. It was made available for free in return for a review of equally ambiguous nature.

"The planet had become a giant sheet of framed paper, unquestionable."

So relates the unreliable narrative of Tedwin torX Jnr, detective and possessor or the titular résumé. It is one of many shallowly profound statements that ping around this surreal concept novel, a time-travelling parody of a police procedural and dated futuristic Dada-esque nonsense piece. The forward, by a fictitious film historian, places this as a novel written in 2016 that somehow influences a film of the same title released in 1994, the references to which seep into the public consciousness and become ubiquitous in the years that follow. The action kicks in straight away with the archetypal 'chief' chewing out our narrator before unloading a shotgun into his own face. From there it gets a little weird. Or more weird. Ted torX is on the trail of a serial murderer, all the while taking great care to keep his résumé updated, and all that stuff from the book blurb.

It's hard to know what to make of such absurdity, other than to recount, truthfully, an emotional reaction. With some evident humour and intelligence, as well as a frisson of sexual ambiguity, it was very enjoyable to read, and if you don't put too much effort into wondering what is anagram, what is obtuse reference, and what the fuck it all means, then it's a pleasing diversion, an afternoon's delight. This may not assist you with your decision-making, but it's only £2.99 so why not make up your own mind? If it makes a difference, this is currently the most helpful review on Amazon.
Enough said.


Tuesday, 9 August 2016

Familiar by J. Robert Lennon

The plausible explanation she has been
craving, the one that lies outside herself,
has never seemed farther away.
Having neatly tucked away Breakfast of Champions once more, I was drawn as if by the divine hand to an article at Electric Literature* which lead me in turn to Familiar by an author unknown to me. The article may have read thusly:
Like Vonnegut, Lennon is able to defy genres; Familiar appeals to a variety of readers, from the sci-fi set to the literary fiction elite. Also like Vonnegut, there’s even a Kilgore-Troutian moment in which the universes of the writer, reader, and protagonist briefly and spectacularly collide.

Of course, it may not have done. Regardless, I was intrigued.

I have written before of the strange feelings inspired by the selection of a novel by an as-yet unread author. Do I go overly dramatic and find meaning in every word, or do I stand back, detached and disapproving? In J. Robert Lennon's case, I was ambivalent as I began, distrusting his words, but I was quickly swept up by the sheer narrative impetus. I remained cool, but the story fairly zips along. 

It's hung on the conceit that, as she drives home from a conference, middle aged and returning to a home scarred by tragedy and a marriage between literal infidels, everything changes: her clothes, her car (notably the cracked windscreen), her job, her life are all altered seamlessly and suddenly, but her memories of her other existence persist and she is discombobulated. The most prominent change however is that her previously dead son is still alive. What follows is her attempt to find meaning in the midst of madness. Will she ever get home again? Does she even want to?

I wonder if we'll ever find a way out of this world.
My delicate, formative years were influenced heavily by the novels of The Discworld, Stephen Donaldson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant The Unbeliever, the children's cartoon Dungeons & Dragons etc., so I'm partial to a bit of multiverse action. I love working along with the protagonist(s) towards the resolution of their dilemma. Of course, that's the issue with Familiar. There is no resolution. It builds as these things do towards a sense of climax but ends, just as Elisa Macalaster Brown suspects of her meeting with the strange, otherworldly internet avatar Patricia, at the second right before it threatens to make sense. Frustrating, sure, but also liberating, as we don't need to contend with the author's need to complete the narrative loop and can imagine our own explanations. 

Indeed, throughout the book I found instances of a sharp and probing intellect at work. I particularly like the post-modern referencing (and acknowledgement thereof by the blogger on the discussion panel - "Everyone loves the po-mo!") of his own book at the conference (which he graciously refrained from looping back to the conference from which Elisa is travelling when things unravel), and Elisa's absorption in the first person RPG designed by her son, the now not-dead Silas, inveigles in the notion that this universe in which Elisa finds herself is itself the creation of someone, possibly herself, possibly her son. Indeed, as she tracks him online in semi-disbelief at his Lazarus-like resurrection in this world, she finds an interview in a games forum or magazine (I forget which) where he tears the traditional 'safe' narrative of role-playing games a new one: "Designers are stuck on the notion of story. As if it's the story that makes a game worth playing… Life is inherently nonsensical. Drawing strands of meaning together is for idiots… It's a fake moral justification for what the gamer really wants, which is to make shit happen."** She even suspects he keeps new universes on the counter in his kitchen.

All this builds into a peremptory, urgent and exciting novel, a metaphysical thriller that has a very broad appeal, dealing with familial trauma, adultery, the trials of parenthood, the world of work, but also notions of identity, or self-worth, and the solipsistic notion we are the only real thing in the world, which brings us all back neatly to Dwayne Hoover and Kilgore Trout. They weren't wrong, those mystics at Electric Literature.


*Not that particular one, rather one which I can now no longer find (spooky) but which listed ten or so great novels to read if you liked Kurt Vonnegut's Breakfast of Champions, which I do. Lots.

**This curtailed quotation is borrowed from the Guardian review of the same which can be read in full on their website.

Saturday, 23 July 2016

Happiness Is Possible by Oleg Zaionchkovsky

We only even remember ourselves
when something starts to hurt.
I woke in the middle of the night last night desperate to remember something I'd half-dreamed, but I lost it. It went something along these lines–that sometimes when you pick up a novel, from an author you've never read before, it's like meeting a new person for the first time: you're either constantly on guard so as not to miss or misinterpret something or, worse, read into everything something which is ostensibly not there; or else you end up seeing them straight, only the surface registering, and you risk missing out on all their subtle complexities. I find this a lot of the time. 

But then there are those authors who surprise you; authors whose words strike a chord, whose prose is comfortable, simpatico, inspiring immediate and lifelong friendship and devotion.

Of course now you're expecting me to lump Oleg Zaionchkovsky into one of the two camps and complain or wax lyrical about his relative merits or lack thereof. Oddly enough, he falls in the gap. 

I've read enough postmodern-ish Russian fiction to know what to expect–Zinovyev's Homo-Sovieticus, or else some modern fable pitting progress against nostalgia, the pastoral against the Metropolis–and I've come to accept that in translation, even in those by the deftly superb Andrew Bromfield, I'm going to miss a sizeable chunk of important cultural references and misunderestimate simple, but different, mannerisms of the author. 

But–ha! here we go–the first thing I notice about Happiness is Possible is that it feels natural, that it could have been written as if by an English speaker living and (not) working in Moscow. Sure, there are moments where I felt cool about what was written, or thought What the hell was that? but in context these could be explained–in hindsight with the aid of A. D. Miller's introduction*–and in context they made sense: the barbed (and amusing) slurs on various ethnic populations, sectors of society, classes, individuals etc., the odd Muscovite tendencies towards city-worship, of which the narrator is also guilty, the clashes of Capitalism and Communism, and so forth. More often than not I suspect I was just missing the joke. Regardless, the rest reads beautifully, simply, but also not quite hiding a bittersweet humour and fatalism. It's also very much a grower, a book to come back to and discover a deeper understanding, a fuller appreciation. Whether this is to the glory of the author or translator (or both) is unclear, but glorious it is. 

The bulk of the connected vignettes, some longer than others, comprise imagined situations with the Muscovites and interlopers who populate the narrator's corner of Moscow, or else real life encounters, and it's not clear which are which. And it doesn't matter. Each is complete in and of itself, with only his estranged wife and dog Phil being integral to them all, the central thread around which the fictions are woven. They display in turn slapstick comedy, moral seriousness, callousness, whimsy, philosophy and a bleak humanist humour that has come to characterise Russian fiction, for me at least.

Of course, you're looking at the title and wondering, what, is he being ironic? can anyone be happy in post-Soviet Russia?, but yes, it appears happiness is possible. Zaionchkovsky's narrator is content to live in a high rise–his high rise–with his dog (the passage where he first inherits Phil is throat-tighteningly evocative), as the ex-husband and occasional lover of his ex-wife, tolerated by her new husband, rising at noon to write, if the words come, or not write if they don't, his novels and commissions, raising a glass with a selection of friends, acquaintances or fictional characters as the need arises. 

Finally, then, I can only conclude that this is some damned fine writing and translating, more excellent work from what is fast becoming my favourite fiction-in-translation house, And Other Stories. If I had £40 to spare just now I would be on their subscription list like a shot (yes, they have a subscription list! Exciting crowd-funded publishing seems to be literary sugar to my bookish sweet-tooth), and I advise you to check them out. I'm now two books into their backlist and I intend to keep going till they're all done.



*I never read the introduction first–in my opinion they should always be at the end of the book, masking the intellectual prism of another reader whose projected interpretations can prejudice a novel.**

**Of course, at the end it would all feel unbearably smug, with the nudges and winks and candid camera, eh, photography, eh, a nod's as good as a wink etc.***

***Sorry. I'd not obliquely referenced Monty Python in so long it just slipped out.

Monday, 18 July 2016

The Man Who Was Thursday by G. K. Chesterton

Well, if I am not drunk, I am mad,
replied Syme with perfect calm;
but I trust I can behave like
a gentleman in either condition.
There has been plenty written over the 108 years since publication of G. K. Chesterton’s most famous novel, a novel that has never once been out of print in all those years, so to attempt to add to the weight of critical acclaim is futile. In fact, rather than read the rest of this post why not go and download it for free, read it yourself, and then check out The American Chesterton Society. Go on!


However, for my own personal reasons I want to record my reaction. The quick plot summary, if that’s even possible, sees rebel-against-rebelliousness and poet Gabriel Syme inveigle his way into the supreme council of anarchists ostensibly to uncover a murderous plot. He soon discovers that all is not as it seems and there’s even a big surprise at the end (sign-posted clearly throughout). It’s a spy novel, a detective novel, a novel filled with caricatures and symbolism, but also a novel that I found to be supernal, in both senses of the word (ironically but also coincidentally flaunting one of Elmore Leonard’s rules of writing - regularly talking about the weather). 

The sky features heavily throughout, and as skies do, mirrors the characters’ sombreness, gravity and alarm, but also auguring doom and mocking their quotidian, mundane and humdrum anxieties in places. As the backdrop to what has been described as a metaphysical thriller, it has as large a part to play as the bomb-throwing anarchists and undercover policemen. But in the other sense of the word, it is an amazing, intelligent, sublime farce, encompassing philosophical debates and barbed social commentary, Christian allegory, and filled with symbolic revelations. And in the end, it was all just one long nightmare. Or was it?

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

The Baen Free Library

Free I tells ya, FREE!
It's not often you come across something for nothing these days, and as such, when I do, I spend so much time squinting my eyes and pursing my lips and looking for the catch, the catch, that I often lose sight of the wonderful generosity of the act, or indeed run out of time to take advantage of the opportunity. Much like MIT's OpenCourseWare through which you can access ALL the course material they produce, for every single subject taught - cynical bastards I thought, and now I'm entirely and unjustifiably prejudiced against them.

BUT BUT BUT BUT BUT etc., I was looking for something dumb and fun to throw about on the bed in my mind after exhausting myself with the effort of satisfying the metafiction of John Barth, when I came across a set of short stories from 2011, published, for free, gratuitously, by publishers Baen, and accessible, without cost, charge or remuneration, indeed for free through their website; that's right, you can download straight from their websiteFREE BOOKS, as Mobi or Nook files, or simple pdfs, to email to your ereader of choice. 

FOR NOTHING.

And yes, they're not all gems, some of them are stinkers, but if you want to indulge in a spot of guilty pleasure, then what's not to love?

Thursday, 30 June 2016

The Moonshine War by Elmore Leonard

A bit of Prohibition-era
fussin' and a feudin'.
I borrowed this book from a colleague at work and as such can't quote directly from the text, or even go back to prove I've not made a whole heap of stuff up–darned memory is playing up these days yes siree and so forth. But as near as I can remember, this little ripper is set in prohibition-era [insert redneck country town here], and is the story of one man who, thanks to strongly held principles and damned ornery stubbornness, goes to war with bootleggers over his father's not-so-secret stash of eight-year-old moonshine whisky. And that's pretty much it.

Of course, if you dig a little you'll come to realise it's a perfect example of Leonards own rules of writing. Nothing is extraneous; each sentence pushes the narrative onwards through the dramatic crisis and explosive finalé. No-one expounds, anguishes, gasps or grumbles; they merely say what they have to say. Characters are never described except by other characters. And at no time does it ever sound like writing. 

Son Martin lives alone except for his friend (who I choose to remember was called Amos), a black man whose very existence is an affront to at least two of the antagonists. He distills some of the best darned clear moonshine in all of [insert redneck county here], something that gets him the attention of the local sheriff and his army of 'deputies' who enjoy 'raiding' his still every now and then to get loaded. His pappy lies in a grave on the property, his wife is dead, and his mistress runs the hotel in town. And he's sitting, so they say, on a fortune in aged whisky that his pappy made near enough ten years ago. But he's only gone and blabbed this secret to an army buddy, so it transpires, while drunk and vulnerable when he was still in the service; a buddy who comes looking for it, and brings a hostile posse of bootleggers along with him.

I recall an Alan Alda movie version, but only poorly. It can only have been played as a comedy, and in truth there are comedic moments in the book–it's not all cussin' and spitting and inscrutable stares and casually slung shotguns invoking death at a moment's notice. At one point Son looks out across his property at the trees wherein hides an army of shotgun toting bootleggers to see what he thinks is the cavalry come to his aid. In truth it's the locals, come with picnics and lemonade to watch the show. But at heart this is an all-action thriller. In the timeline of Leonard's work, it comes after the bulk of his Western novels, and before his more contemporaneous work, but it could easily belong to either category or exist on its own. Either way, it is quintessential Elmore Leonard, and I put him up there with John D. MacDonald as one of the most consistently entertaining American writers of thrillers and action, one to which I will return again and again until his work is exhausted. Then I'll go back and start again. 

Monday, 20 June 2016

Acts Of The Assassins by Richard Beard

The membrane between God and man
is thin here, between the living and the dead,
madness and sanity.
Enthralled as I was by the re-telling of the Lazarus story, from the viewpoint of the titular resurrectee, one of the most entertaining tales I've read affectionately appropriated from the Christian Bible, I was bemusedly unprepared for Beard's latest reimagining: for I hadn't clicked that this was the story of what came after the ascension of Jesus.

Thankfully so! Having read a review by Philip Hensher in the Guardian where he points out the absolute futility of transmogrifying the crucifixion and resurrection story into the popular crime procedural form, it probably would have put me off in a small way. However, blundering in blindly, I twigged pretty quickly but it was a very pleasant surprise and made me want to find out if Gallio could figure it all out before everyone died. I can only imagine my sigh of disdain had I known this up front. I am, after all, sinfully disdainful.

Instead I was treated to a wryly amusing novel, situated both in the present and the past, an intriguing device (flagged with the quote from the letters of Peter wherein he explains that "With the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.").  Intelligence officer, Cassius Marcello Gallio, returning from his cameo in Lazarus Is Dead, exiled to Europe in disgrace having failed to both assure the death and prevent the assumed escape of terrorist cult leader Jesus from his tomb, is drawn into the pursuit of the resurrected insurrectionist and the prevention of the serial murders of his disciples. He sees it as his chance to right a wrong, to reclaim his place as a Speculator in the ranks of the Roman Complex Casework Unit, but as he searches for answers he begins to lose his faith in those around him, in his mission, and in the certainty that he saw Jesus die on the cross.

Even in the most soul-searchingly emotional scenes, it's hard not to picture Beard with a grin on his face. It's an epic satire, an exploration of rationalism versus belief, but towards the end, where the last disciple, blind John, nurses the frail and dying Gallio, still struggling to come to terms with the failure of his logic, it allows the humour to fall away and becomes thoughtful and sombre, providing a catalyst for the reader to ponder just what has happened over the course of 340 pages. Gallio is a skeptic and from the beginning it's clear his searching will be in vain unless he softens his calcified position and opens his heart. He comes close to understanding but just can't let go of his ego and dies in darkness.

This is only my second Beard novel, but he's certainly creeping up the undocumented and oft-changing list of authors whose backlist I intend to seek out and hoard to the point of obsession. This is a superbly entertaining novel on any number of levels you care to consider.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The Development by John Barth

We'll each be presumed to have
survived the other, as the saying goes,
and neither of us'll be around to know it.
I have a great deal of respect for John Barth. Even casual readers of these pages might notice the regularity of his appearances, generously spaced as befits a writer whose words require some significant effort of his readers. His insouciant love of wordplay, of use of subtext, and the meta-meta-meta [ad infinitum]* nature of some of his fiction makes me giggle with delight.

But on with the story! Or nine stories to be exact, and each is a window into life at a fictional but easily identifiable tidewater settlement of retirees, in which those seeking towards-end-of-life sanctuary find themselves in an awkwardly contrived and flimsy community at the turn of the century and indeed the millennium. There's a peeping tom (or is there?), spouses die, children are killed, an octogenarian stabs himself before his friends gas themselves in the garage, and of course there are innumerable community meetings and dinners and toga parties. Over it all hovers the opaquely implied threat of Tidewater Inc., a faceless multinational seeking to tame nature one gated enclave at a time.

I get the distinct impression that Mr Barth is coming to terms with the rather terminal and definite concept of dying. Not unusual, you might imagine, for a man on the wrong side of 85 (or of 80 at the time of publishing). I also get the impression that he is very much still enjoying life and having a lot of fun with words. Even when he's talking about the shocking and sudden double suicide of two empty-nesters in the gated community in which this collection of inter-connected short stories is set, it's hard not to imagine a crooked smile peeking out from behind his scruffy white beard as he tilts his head so his impudently-angled beret lies flat as the horizon across your line of vision. Yup, he seems to like wearing berets. The book cover blurb reports his humour as mordant, but any acidity is tempered by what appears to be his natural instinct to poke fun at himself, without taming the ferocity of his attack. It's a perfect disguise for what is essentially a savage critique of a particular mindset of American retirees of a certain social and economic standing, one in which Barth no doubts finds himself–educated, affluent and isolated in pristine suburbia. 

But whatever the reasons Barth has written short stories about a gated community, the stories themselves are worth taking the time to savour, to enjoy, and to share, and I would heartily recommend you indulge in his special blend of wit and compassion.

*I'm struggling to find the proof, but I understand Barth might hold the record for the number of pairs of inverted commas around reported speech in published fiction–14 discrete reports of the original conversation!

Thursday, 26 May 2016

Breakfast Of Champions by Kurt Vonnegut

To be the eyes and ears and 
conscience of the Creator of
the Universe, you fool.
In days gone by, when repeatedly pressed about what my favourite book might be, a banal question seeking an impossible and crude reductionist answer to which I was usually rude in response, I would offer Breakfast Of Champions as a pacifier. 

I first read it in University, and it has, to some degree, influenced how I think and feel about a lot of things. Strikingly, I've never wanted to re-read it. Perhaps I was afraid I'd find fault the second time around and wanted to uphold it as a paragon of meta-fiction. Perhaps, but then I'm a relentless consumer of fiction and was always on to the next consumable work, never having time or inclination to go back.

So in the spirit of a more considered and thoughtful phase of my life I decided I wanted to read something that once made me feel good.

I'd clearly not remembered it very well.

But before that, I'm amazed I've gone *mumbles* years without once mentioning Kilgore Trout in my reviews, even in passing. The same goes for The Simpsons, the repeated watching of which provided my frame of reference throughout a number of my formative years. I'm amazed because they have been prevalent throughout my life, and that they are connected.

In an episode of The Simpsons, Homer meant to be stealing Moe Szyslak's car so he can claim the insurance, but is instead at a drive-in movie watching a film called 'Hail To The Chimp.' Observe:




Hail To The Chimp is a nod by the writers to one of the many Kilgore Trout précises* liberally littering the pages of BOC, thusly:
Trout couldn't tell one politician from another one. They were all formlessly enthusiastic chimpanzees to him. He wrote a story one time about an optimistic chimpanzee who became President of the United States. He called it "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee wore a little blue blazer with brass buttons, and with the seal of the President of the United States sewed to the breast pocket... Everywhere he went, bands would play "Hail to the Chief." The chimpanzee loved it. He would bounce up and down.
I'd entirely forgotten this connection. It came as a surprise  like a smack in the mouth. I'd also forgotten how black, bleak and acerbic Vonnegut could be, odd since I'd not long re-read Mother Night for similar reasons** and I ended up, as is often the case, mildly depressed. But at least I wasn't Dwayne Hoover.

Hoover, owner of a car showroom and a serial entrepreneur, is experiencing upset due to the imbalance of bad chemicals in his brain. He is considering suicide, constantly searching for a sense of meaning, and finally snaps after reading a copy of a Trout story called Now It Can Be Told, an epistolary novel wherein the Creator of the Universe informs his own Adam, The Man, that he is the only truly autonomous being on the planet, and that all others are automatons, simply programmed to do just what they do, in a great big experiment exploring free will. Dwayne reads this rather too literally, finding in it answers to questions like why his son Bunny was gay. It was because he was programmed to be gay. And so on.

Parallel to Dwayne's story is that of Trout himself, invited to the very same city by his biggest fan, a man whom Trout travels to confront because of the affront of his having invited Trout there in the first place. In the end, Trout is the one to give his novel to Dwayne, watched sadly by the author, Kurt Vonnegut himself, safely hidden behind mirrored glasses and nursing a cocktail in the bar where the two protagonists collide.


Anyone who has read a draft of my own abortive novel would immediately see how this metafiction trope, the author appearing in his own novel (and his own drawings illustrating the action and descriptions throughout), would tickle me, or maybe how I was desperately failing to pay homage to Vonnegut by shamelessly and unsuccessfully copying him. 


Throughout, Vonnegut never fails to remind the reader the book is an artifice. He constantly offers his own, Creator-of-the-Universe-like commentary on America and its virtues and vices. He mentions his life outside the novel. He explains his mother had a surfeit of bad chemicals too and drank Drano until she died. It is a smorgasbord of blackly comic observational humour and satire, deeply upsetting if you're easily bruised, but something that represents the cognitive dissonance of the human experience–that deep down you know something is wrong, but you do it anyway, for whatever reason. On the road, Trout interrogates an ex-miner.

Trout asked him what it had felt like to work for an industry whose business was to destroy the countryside, and the old man said he was usually too tired to care.
In short, it is a cautionary tale. With brilliantly wild asides, slapstick and deadpan delivery in spades, it lampoons humanity, expressing Vonnegut's own impotent fury at man's idiocy. But he does offer a smidgen of hope in the form of a clear directive, an instruction on what it is we're here for after all, straight from the author to his creation and into the cosmos, a way to reflect his often expressed notions of what it means to be human***. In response to the question, scrawled on the wall of the toilet in a New York theatre showing smutty movies, "What is the purpose of life?", Trout would have responded "To be the eyes and ears and conscience of the Creator of the Universe, you fool." 

It's as good a reason as any.



*For a for-fun-only run-down of all Kilgore Trout's works as represented in Vonnegut's fiction, you'd do well to check out Marek Vit's archived blog.

**Namely, I really like Nick Nolte and was feeling sorry for myself so wanted to watch a film with him in it, and I had a copy of the movie Mother Night to hand, which prompted me to re-read the novel. Oddly enough, Nick Nolte plays the cross-dressing Harry LeSabre in what I'm lead to understand is the worst film ever, the Alan Randolph version of Breakfast of Champions, also 'starring' Bruce Willis and Albert Finney. I've ordered a copy on Amazon to check, and you can do the same by clicking that picture down there.

***As follows, expressed in God Bless You, Mr Rosewater, or Pearls Before Swine (1965):
Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It's hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It's round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you've got a hundred years here. There's only one rule that I know of, babies–God damn it, you've got to be kind.