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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 Vorrh by Brian Catling

He would dream his way back
to life with impossible facts.
There are some books on which I find myself taking a weary chance purely by the weight of Amazonian algorithmic pressure. This is by no means a good reason to buy a book (although what better reason is there to buy one other than there is a book there to buy?) but at 99p an electronic book is easily discarded if it fails to grip. And ths one kept coming up on Amazon, over and over. And over. I grew to hate its cover, the name, the single initial forename of the author. I was in fact dead set against enjoying or even being fair-handed in criticism of the book when finally I turned the first virtual page. 

Prejudice isn't strong enough to describe the feeling.

HOWEVER (in capitals so it's shouty and unavoidable) disregard everything I've said above. 99p is an absolute bargain for this (although I intend to purchase a hard copy when funds allow). It is ineffable, but I will attempt something of a review to give you an idea of why you should drop everything and buy a copy of this and the next two volumes of the trilogy straight a-fucking-way, forgiveness please for the sweary tmesis.

Bearing in mind I have nothing but a vague awareness of any of the historical figures in this so-called fantasy novel, the central inscrutable character of the book is a giant, ancient, virginal forest called the Vorrh, apparently the creation in real life of one of the fictionalised historical characters herein. All action centres on this weight of confusing vegetation, with every major character being drawn to or affected by its verdant mass. Among the cast, there's Ishmael, and bear with me again please, a cyclops brought up in seclusion in a basement by sentient automatons; the women in his life, Ghertrude Tulp - who wanders in by accident due to her keen enthusiasm for breaking and entering - and Cyrena Lohr, blind from birth but whose sight is miraculously restored by sexual congress with Ishmael; a man beset with amnesia and with a bizarre colonial past who crafts a bow from the bones and sinews of his dead wife, herself the child-witch from a local village, and who goes wandering through the forest; the men out to kill him, including a figure from a former life, and the one thoroughly horrendous bastard who for one reason or another wants him alive; and the Frenchman who first imagines the forest, his house-help and the local 'prince' with whom he travels into the heart of the Vorrh only to become the latest victim of a malevolent spirit, born of still-born children, called upon by the zombie-like slave labourers of the logging company that operates at the forest's margins.

It's fucking bonkers.

But, and maybe this comes as a result of the author's other interests, including, but not limited to, performance art, sculpture (of cyclopses no less), and being Professor of Fine Art at Oxford, it is tremendously beautiful, affecting, visual and, well, beautiful. It's not linear, it's not got a neat, closed narrative loop, and sometimes I found myself re-reading passages for the sake of comprehending what was going on, but for all that it holds together like a sweaty, colonial Gormenghast, figuratively dripping with poetry and language that forces the reader to reconsider what is being said, or not said. I have moved volumes two and three to the top of my "Must buy at some point very soon, probably" list, and if you've got a spare 99p and an e-reader, do yourself a favour and give it a punt.

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Our Ancestors by Italo Calvino

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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

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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. 

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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 …