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Showing posts from 2018

The Name Of The Rose by Umberto Eco

Labyrinths has long sat on my various bookshelves (at least since 2014, and is currently lost in a box somewhere in the desolate, dusty wastes of my as yet deconstructed new home) existing conflictingly both as something to be desired and something to be avoided. Yes, it’s an acknowledged masterpiece by a canonical genius. But it’s also short stories and essays. And you know how I feel about those.
However, it may yet find its way shortly into my work bag (once recovered) and thus into my brain via my eyes on the commute, and it has a lot to do with Umberto Eco and this historical murder mystery.
Better humans than I have extolled the great verisimilitude, scholarship, historicity and semeiotical brilliance of Eco’s debut novel – that’s right, it’s his FIRST NOVEL – so you won’t find me banging on about it. In fact, you should probably go away and read this article by David Fish and be more entertained and informed and left more in awe of this book than you thought possible. I prefer in…

Dancing In The Dark: My Struggle Volume 4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard

Knausgaard fatigue might soon be a diagnosable condition, listed in future editions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, if only readers failed to persevere past the first few volumes of My Struggle. I was certainly moved to take some time off between books, to recuperate and steel myself for the next onslaught. But just what it is that so thoroughly drains is something of a mystery, when I most certainly feel full and almost buoyant by book’s end. Is it the weight of confession? Is it the exposure of thoughts I’d had and still have, thoughts I believed were unique to me but were now laid bare for all to read? Some measure of shame? Whatever it is, it makes for a tense time to be around me, that’s for sure. It’s a strange thing to be bursting to talk about it but be too exhausted to explain the context.
Anyhow, volume four sees Karl Ove embark on his abortive teaching career, aged 18, in some far-flung corner of northern Norway. What this comes down to in essen…

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 Miniaturist by Jessie Burton

I lead off with embarrassment, as ever, for my neglect of this blog, a constant millstone – an apt metaphor given the crisis point of the novel – around my neck. In my defense, I’m trying to move house, so I’m a bit busy. For the plaintiff, I’m never really that busy and could probably have caught up to date if I hadn’t chosen to play Minecraft with my son or watch GoT in my spare time instead. C’est la vie, such as it is.
So, here goes a pretty longshot review, without the benefit of the original text to which to refer, and with little or no enthusiasm for the book itself.
The gist here is that some provincial bumpkin with a strong family name but no cash to match gets picked to be the wife of an apparently wealthy Amsterdam businessman and adventurer (both in the literal sense of loving travel and exploration and the figurative and, in Holland at least, heathen and perverted sexual sense), and moves to live with him and his sister, a seemingly cold would-be dowager with her own dark s…

The Black Prince by Adam Roberts (adapted from an original script by Anthony Burgess)

As ever, when referring to a book purchased through crowd-funding publishers Unbound I can’t help but stick a plug for their super work right at the beginning.
It’s super, their work.
Own-trumpet-blowing-klaxxon, I have supported 25 of their various projects (26 if we include the one that sadly didn’t make it) and I implore anyone reading this to check them out and bung a few quid their way in support of some frankly excellent words which would never have found paper otherwise – very definitely liberating ideas.
A case in point – The Black Prince, from an original script idea and screenplay by Anthony Burgess, the originator of Ultra-violence and liberal thrower-around of stereotypical female characters, made flesh by science fiction and parody author Adam Roberts.
Having read only the one Burgess novel (yes, the one every bugger’s read) I can’t tell if Roberts does a good job of writing in Burgess’s voice and style or fails abjectly. I don’t know if it’s true to the origina…

Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson

Things Bill Bryson’s book The Mother Tongue is:
WryAmusingFun to read
Things it certainly ain’t:
AccurateScholarlyResearched properly
If we are to believe his detractors, and I am inclined so to do, for reasons which follow, then he makes several serious factual errors through what is alleged to be his rather sketchy journalistic practice. He just doesn’t check his sources and follow up on hearsay. A cardinal sin, then, for a seasoned journalist.
The book is, however, serendipitous in one respect. I stumbled on an archived Reddit thread in which someone asked if it was worth reading, from the point of view of an amateur linguist, and for the most part the replies slated the book for Bryson’s sloppy practice of repeating commonly held misconceptions about word origins and so on. The big example is the oft-repeated ‘myth’ that Eskimos have 50 words for snow. However, this is a busted myth that actually needs the myth-busting busted.
Celebrated anthropologist Franz Boas was the man who ki…

To Say Nothing Of The Dog by Connie Willis

For someone who enjoys maintaining the illusion that he knows a bit about literature and the writers who write it, I find I often lead off with contradictory disclaimers such as that which follows. I knew very, very little about Connie Willis prior to picking up a copy of this in my local Indie bookshop; it was an impulse purchase – SF Masterworks are few and far between in the gentrified stratum of Penarth’s main strip – so I grabbed it whilst collecting the latest Dog Man for my eldest wee fella. What I now know, if nothing else, is that she can write a pretty convincing and gently humorous novel about time-travel.
Our time-traveling academic hero, Ned Henry, frazzled by one (or more) too many jumps back in time for the crazed reconstruction project of the draconian Lady Schrapnell, is offered the chance to recuperate in the idyllic surroundings of the Victorian-era Thames river, punting and mucking about and whatnot. Unfortunately, his trip doesn’t quite go to plan as it transpires …

Tree Of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Back in 2011 I smarmily proposed to get around to reading the tattered and slightly mildewing proof copy of the 2007 novel, Tree Of Smoke, by Denis Johnson, which I acquired, as I did with nearly all of my proof copies, through a tendency towards venality, via outwardly benevolent but inwardly self-interested sales reps, with the promise I would mos-def read it straight away and stick up a review on the corporate mouthpiece. This was mostly because Nobody Move was a shit-hot little number, and a very quick read at that.
Well, it’s taken me a further seven years to read it and almost another one to review it, and almost certainly because it is a big book; big not only because it could do serious damage as a projectile, somewhat incongruously so when considered against his previous output, but also because, as Jim Lewis said in the NY Times, it is a Major Novel, with Big Themes (another bloody Vietnam novel?*) and all that stuff.
Ah, prejudice, my old friend. Where would I be without you …

Ray Of The Star by Laird Hunt

I seem to be a fan or rather at least I find myself in the position that I accumulate and appreciate novels which by any other objective standard might or might not with very little pressing or pushing of authorial voice be deemed tiresome or exhausting due to quirks of structure both narrative and in the essential framework thereof such as for example those novels of John Barth whose reported speech when relating the tales of The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor reach ridiculous levels with the seventh or eighth or more iteration of new tale tellers or equally ridiculous or perhaps brilliant given the notional narrator and his predilection for rambling and palavering perhaps due to his enjoyment or over indulgence of Bavarian or Moravian ales at the local ale house the book-long sentence that is Dancing Lessons for the Advanced in Age by Czech author and personal hero Bohumil Hrabal hence the eponymous label attached to this review of Laird Hunt’s own attempt to write whole chapter…

The Wild Places by Robert MacFarlane

You don’t need me to tell you how totally wonderful this book is. You’re no doubt so far ahead of me on this one that anything I could add would be as spit is to the ocean.
It’s erudite, but not condescending or patronizing; it kindles a fire that is latent in us all, even in those who refuse to acknowledge its presence, one which burns for a connection to nature and the natural world; and it made me want to climb straight up the nearest tree.
But you knew that already.
It also re-opened for me the door to Roger Deakin, one of my forgotten heroes, an author and pioneer who lived his love of the outdoors to the extent that it most often crept indoors. A man whose short relationship with MacFarlane brought tears to my eyes as they explored the world together.
I have added Wildwood to the teetering pile of books on my bedside table.
So, to fill up some space not being used to extoll the virtues of his prose or the wonderful subject thereof, I thought I’d mention the fact that I…

High-Rise by J.G. Ballard

Ballardian Architecture. It’s a thing, so I’m told. And I don’t doubt it. He did so love to explore the psychologies of gated communities, and the utilitarian, Brutalist monstrosities such as La Défence and Trellick Tower (particularly, given fictional architect Anthony Royal is likely an avatar of Trellick’s architect Erno Goldfinger, who rumour has it was turned into a Bond villain as a result of his building an awful modernist house near to sometimes-Hampstead-neighbour Ian Fleming, but did, in fact, live in the penthouse suite of the nearby Balfron Tower for a few months, before moving out). High-Rise itself is the fourth in a tetralogy of early explorations of such structures and their communities. In his last, loosely grouped tetralogy, Cocaine Nights, Super-Cannes, Millennium People, and Kingdom Come he returns to this thematic exploration and the types of people who choose to live in these communities.

And they’re worth exploring.

Indeed, anyone who has seen recent series like T…

Borne by Jeff VanderMeer

You may recallthat I’m a fan of Jeff VanderMeer. You may recall also that I mentioned the dreaded epithet “genre fiction”.
I did.
Well, I can’t lie, it may be. If you have to put it somewhere I guess that’s the place. I’ve read quite a number of Amazon ‘reviews’ of his work in my time and a few names keep coming up in the context of front-runners for the top “new weird” writer, most notably China Miéville. I would argue VanderMeer’s work more than bears the comparison (if you’ll pardon the pun, Mord fans), but yes, he does tend to inhabit this odd space at the edge of science fiction between post-apocalyptic fiction and the, some might say, insignificant sub-sub-genre of ecological fiction. But to push him in there and lock the door would be to do both him and yourself a disservice.
The world of Borne is a post-apocalyptic, post-ecological-melt-down landscape, where humans are few and far between, where your neighbours are more likely to be feral, bio-engineered children or a bear the si…

The City of Mirrors by Justin Cronin

I guess at some point I should give all this* up and resign myself to the facts of my life - that there will never be enough time for everything and everything that is not everything will get in everything's way, without a shadow of a doubt. Some six months has passed since I first picked up book three of The Passage trilogy and once more I can't remember any of the characters' names, except Amy, the girl / vampire / heroine / old lady as it turns out of the story. There are some people in it from before, some names I can sort-of scratch at from under the silver foil of my hazy memory, but without ever winning the jackpot of full recall. Peter? Michael? And the former army-type person and now, unsurprisingly, a vampire-type, whose name escapes me.

And there's a new bad guy (of course there is), the original bad guy who has been hiding the whole time in an unwritten back story. 

Well, now it's written. And I can remember nearly nothing of any of it.

Anyway, from what I…

The Elephant by Sławomir Mrożek

It’s a wonder that Sławomir Mrożek lived to be 83. Maybe the post-Stalin regimes of Georgy Malenkov, Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev were less likely to pitch a critical satirist into an unmarked grave or have him dragged off to winter in Siberia than was Uncle Joe. Maybe he just wasn’t widely read and therefore not deemed a threat. Or perhaps his support of the Stalinist persecution of religious leaders in Poland and his membership of the Polish United Workers’ Party (until he defected) stood him in historical stead good enough so that he didn’t find himself on the sharp end of a radioactive umbrella. Because frankly, having read The Elephant, published in 1957 but not banned until 1968, it’s hard to see anyone in the Soviet bureaucracy letting this level of criticism go unpunished.
Take the titular story, The Elephant, one of 42 similarly absurd political satires in this slim volume. A provincial zoo, lacking “all the important animals” is awarded an elephant by the Party, muc…

Augustus Carp, Esq., By Himself: Being the Autobiography of a Really Good Man, by Henry Howarth Bashford

So it goes that, for one reason or other, I was asked recently* to recommend a list of classic British comic novels that one might take on holibobs, to be read at the pool, on the beach, or in this case at a sprawling, crumbling ancestral seat in the heart of Ireland during a month-long fishing expedition.
Unfortunately, every suggestion I made was knocked back, either for reasons of personal (bad) taste or because it had already been read. I thought long and hard** and serendipitously, most likely due to having read this post from the most excellent Neglected Booksblog, but equally likely due to a ringing endorsement from Anthony Burgess at some point or other, I came upon Augustus Carp Esq, a book I noticed I had on my e-reader, although how and why it was there is anybody’s guess.
Penned by a notable English physician, one which any blog of note would not neglect to mention once was physician to a contemporaneous English King (George the something?), it is ill-in-keeping with any of …