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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 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. 

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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 …