Skip to main content

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 Hammer And The Cross by Harry Harrison and John Holm

Now I have made him who is greatest
among the Swedes root like a swine!
I had no high hopes of this book. Perhaps from such low expectations comes a truer appreciation, but maybe not. The author has written a great deal, some of which I like, some I don't. It's a work of historical fantasy, which I generally avoid. It takes a mythological character in Ragnar Lodbrok, himself likely an amalgam of other Nordic and Icelandic heroes, and wraps a new mythology around his death and the lives of his avenging sons, which makes me tut and sigh, patronisingly. And yet, serendipity smiles upon it and upon me. 

To explain, I live in South Wales, a largely ex-industrial area in what some might consider to be a small adjunct to the United Kingdom. It's a beautiful place, with a broad and interesting history, and because it can't be trusted to govern itself fully, is slave to the whims of right-wing, petty mindedness that passes for a Conservative government in England. Thus, its libraries, once hubs and hearts of communities, are left to moulder and collapse, their stocks sold off surreptitiously at first but then overtly, to pay for 'upkeep' or to clear space for 'development' which is code for being sold off.

Now, I ordered this book from a bookseller in the United States as a result of Googling 'Ragnar Lodbrok', as a result of watching the History Channel series Vikings. This trilogy came up, and, lo! it's author was a familiar name. The hardback arrived, and, lo! on the title page was the library stamp to the right there. Rhondda. From the South Wales valleys to the States and back. And as I say, such serendipity cannot be ignored. My mind was open and accepting, and it was duly repaid.

Of course, the story of a young English thrall named Shef, and his pseudo-magical ability to read the course of history and tap the unrecognised barrel of historical knowledge and from whence draw plans for mighty war machines not to be seen on these shores for a good few hundred years in reality smacks somewhat of old Slippery Jim's ability to magic himself out of any situation. Fortunately, again, Harrison's reliance on generous suspension of disbelief has been tempered by the contributions of John Holm, a.k.a Tom Shippey, medievalist and renowned Tolkien scholar whose diligence and research shines through in places where Harrision's boundless enthusiasm threatens to run amok. Perhaps this is why it takes three novels for Shef to traverse his parabola from thrall and bastard son of a Viking invader to... Well, that would be spoiling things, wouldn't it.

And so to the conclusion. I was rapt, enthralled (in the good, non-indentured way), and eager to read through to the end as fast as I can, and that can only be an endorsement. It might be down to my receptiveness of the currents of fate, engendered as they were by my own reasoned if nonetheless irrational biases, but at the death it's close enough to the historical tales of the invasions of these isles by the Danes, Swedes and Norwegians of old to be believable, if you can discount the visions of and interventions by the Gods of Norse mythology, and to boot it's fast paced, thoroughly bloody and battle-filled, and of course we win! Sort of...

Comments

  1. Is it worth the £80 from Amazon UK?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. E.g.
      https://www.amazon.co.uk/gp/offer-listing/0099868202/ref=sr_1_1_olp?ie=UTF8&qid=1491478231&sr=8-1&keywords=harry+harrison+hammer+and+the+cross

      Delete
  2. Er, I'd look a little further afield. I got mine for £3.80 including postage from a second hand bookshop in New York.

    ReplyDelete

Post a Comment

What Readers Are Reading

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 …

Kleinzeit by Russell Hoban

Kleinzeit–German for 'small time', not, as Kleinzeit himself would have us believe, 'hero'–is a sick man. With pains shooting from A to B, an acute hypotenuse, and something up with his diapason, he's dying from the disease of life. Hospital, heckling and arrogant, reassures him he'll soon be cured of it, forever. In the meantime, he's fired for writing a man pushing a barrow of rocks, falls in love with a ward sister, Sister, purchases a glockenspiel with which he busks in the underground, and despite 'heroic' attempts to discharge himself from the crowing, anthropomorphised institution, finds that Death keeps tricking him into relapses, in between which he discovers a sinister plot hatched by yellow A4 paper to enslave him and cuckold him with Word.

In an odd way, this short novel feels like an episode inside the head of Leonard Rossiter. A healthy man feels a mystery pain, checks himself into hospital and quickly unravels. But he also looks for a …

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…