Thursday, 26 January 2017

The Pets by Bragi Ólafsson

One shouldn’t let others into one’s life
Intertextuality took a bump when it came to The Pets. I was idly browsing the shelves of my former employer when its tastefully minimalist but near electric blue cover caught my eye, and then I read things like dark and funny (when used in the same context, possibly my two favourite adjectives) and I was sold. It jumped up the ‘to read’ list straight to the top, once I’d gotten Harry Harrison out of the way. At that point, I knew next to nothing about the author or the book.

So, here are some things I didn’t know about Bragi Ólafsson before that I do now:
1) He was bass player for The Sugarcubes, the Icelandic pop band which launched Bjork into mainstream and avant garde pop stardom
2)      He is from Iceland
3)      He translated Paul Auster’s City of Glass into Icelandic

Is any of that important? Probably, but maybe also not, although reading around the bloggers and reviewers there are a few people making comparisons between this book and some of Paul Auster’s stuff. True also, the somewhat pompous and overblown narrator Emil does bang on quite a bit about music: not as much (or to the same tedious lengths) as some other unsympathetic narrators do, notably between gruesome murders in American Psycho. Gah, okay, the book is set in Iceland and there are some language puns (possibly filtered through the excellent translator’s own sense of humour) which are probably hilarious in the original. But not much else of importance.

So, on to the premise/précis – Emil is rich, having won a modestly grotesque sum on the Lottery. On returning from a shopping spree in London he finds himself subject to the random visit of a phantom from his past, “the misogynist, alcoholic, compulsive gambler and, most recently, burglar Havard Knutsson”, who lets himself into Emil’s flat through the kitchen window when Emil fails to answer the door. Unfortunately for Emil, uncomfortably ensconced beneath his bed, Havard decides to make himself at home, playing Emil’s music and drinking his duty-free booze, all the while answering phone- and house-calls from Emil’s friends and acquaintances and generally having a good time.

The rather silly but entertaining back story is filled in during lulls in the growing farce by Emil’s recollections, including the meaning behind the title. All the action of the present is inferred from beneath the bed, each image drawn from audible and olfactory cues, like the fresh creeping of cold external air when the door is opened, the sounds of bottles opening and water splashing, the fug of cigarette smoke, the teasing and arguing of his friends and other guests, and one-sided telephone conversations. From his limited vantage point he can also see Havard defile his bathroom sink, and his other unlikely guest, Armann the professional linguist, whose diatribe over the plural form of Sony’s Walkman, drunkenly urinates over the toilet bowl, floor, and his own trousers. The only place of salvation [from other people] is the toilet, he suggests on the plane home from London. Not so. There is no place of salvation for Emil.


What develops, over the course of a short but immensely fun novella, is a picture of a weak man whose failures have left him pinioned beneath his own mattress, onto which his nemesis Havard tempts the girl Emil himself invited home, the springs pressing into the place where his spine should be. A word of warning, however– if you like your narrative arc to be resolved, you’ll be disappointed. Emil is left where he lies pressed into the dust-bunnies. He makes his own bed and now has to hide underneath it in literary perpetuity. 

Thursday, 12 January 2017

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...

Thursday, 5 January 2017

The Green Ripper by John D. MacDonald

Trav salvages another chickadee.
It’s always nice to start the year with a literary palette cleanser, a mental sorbet if you will, and there is none better than John D. MacDonald for a bit of light but thrilling entertainment. However, this was one that perhaps had languished in the back of the freezer for too long and had become crystalline and frost-bitten, resulting in a somewhat lumpy texture and a mostly underwhelming experience.

As regular readers (and hopefully ad-clickers – go on, click the ads, please! It’s the only way I can make any money…) will no doubt have ignored, the Travis McGee novels tend to polarise opinion. Thriller writers and readers love them – the pace is great, the action intense, and the plotting, whilst sometimes, oxymoronically, obtusely complicated, usually makes sense in the end. As James Walling* says:
As the epitome of this [sublime literary] legacy, the McGee series transcends genre fiction, and is rich with piercing psychological insight, social commentary, and clean, compelling prose that lapses into poetry.

They’re short and sharp and mostly enjoyable. Readers with other priorities however occasionally and quite naturally become upset by the affront of rather anachronistic attitudes towards women, or chickadees/pieces of ass/objects of desire or violence (delete as appropriate) as they are often labelled. Indeed, MacDonald’s characters’ descriptions of women rarely stray past the colour of hair and eyes, hips, waist and breasts measurements, and the inferred ability of said eyes and shape in bed.

The Green Ripper is no exception. Good, clean, compelling prose (that does lapse into rather florid poetry at times) is somewhat tarnished by its themes of toxic masculinity. Except that this time, good ol’ Trav is brought crashing back down to the deck of his boat by the sudden death of his girl, the latest one with whom he can imagine a long, lazy life cocking about on the river (as per Lard’s Classic Cuts). He can’t even imagine shacking up with another girl (although he imagines imagining it, quite successfully). Even his hirsute clever-dick accomplice, the Keynesian Meyer, can’t lift him from his funk long enough to party on down with a sultry soon-to-be widow.

In the end, I forget what happens, other than he goes on a surprisingly murderous rampage through the military wing of a religious cult, but it’s all okay at the close of play. And I’m certain there’ll be another chickadee ready to lift his spirits in the next instalment. Which I am definitely going to read.