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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 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...

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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 …