What did I read pre-blog?

I’ve been doing some maintenance on my master spreadsheet. It contains a record of every book I’ve read since 2007 and some from earlier. I used to write capsule reviews on it – I was able to refer back to my one on Shirley Jackson’s We Have Always Lived in the Castle just the other day during Shirley Jackson Reading Week so they do come in useful!  Once I started my blog in September 2008 I stopped recording notes in this way – but I thought it would be nice to revisit my archives and share a few of these mini-reviews with you now and then, so here are a pair from earlier in 2008 …

A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews

Feast of SnakesThe annual rattlesnake round-up in Mystic, Georgia bears no relation to ‘whacking day’ in The Simpsons at all. When the thousands turn-up to take part and watch, by the day of the actual hunt, you know it’ll have all gone horribly wrong. Throw a handful of good ‘ol boys and their women, moonshine and whisky, fighting dogs, diamondbacks and the return of the prodigal cheerleader queen into the mix and you have a heady brew that will burst its bottle in a flash. At the centre of this is Joe Lon Mackey, a former footballer who didn’t get the grades to go to further. Stuck in a trailer with his fading wife, two babies, and with nothing to do except mind his father’s liquor store, he misses his former girl – Berenice the cheerleader and finds himself taking it out on everyone …

It’s tragedy in the making, and the writing is brutal, visceral, yet not without a wicked sense of humour in the caricature of the characters. No words are wasted in this cinematic novel of murder and mayhem, and the tension builds and builds until it finally explodes in an stunning ending that shakes you to the core.

9/10  (July 2008)

NOW: I do so love a bit of Southern Gothic. I shall have to re-read this one!

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The End of Mr Y by Scarlett Thomas

end of mr yThis ambitious novel is hard to pin down – a sort of post-modern psychodrama with Gothic overtones involving philosophy, quantum physics, mind-melding and time-travel. It’s an attractively produced book with striking covers and brilliant black page edges – does it live up to the design? Well partially – mainly because at 502 pages in the edition I read it is rather sprawling…

The main plot about a lost book, which contains the recipe for mind & time travel, and is said to curse all who read, it is top notch. Ariel, the heroine, is a sparky and independent post-doc student, yet is needy and always broke. The bad guys are suitable threatening, and Ariel gets the help she needs in the right times and places to resolve matters.

Yet interspersed with the action are myriad philosophical discussions about deconstruction (c.f. Derrida) and quantum mechanics, which while very interesting, do slow things down significantly. Their purpose as I see it is to posit a deconstructivist framework in which mind/time travel ‘could work’ using the wave-particle duality – in that everything exists as waves until you look for something and then it is pinned down in time/place. (I’m glad I have a basic grounding in the subject so wasn’t put off by it).

A novel that requires serious concentration – it took me a week to read, which is slow for me, but is no less enjoyable for that!

8.5/10 (June 2008)

NOW: Derrida? I don’t remember this part of the book at all and I’m not really up on dead French philosophers. I’d also never write a phrase like ‘posit a deconstructivist framework’ now – would I?!   I am, however, looking forward to reading Thomas’s new novel The Seed Collectors very much indeed.

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To explore further on Amazon, please click below:
A Feast of Snakes by Harry Crews, pub 1998, Scribner. Paperback 188 pages.
The End Of Mr. Y by Scarlett Thomas, pub 2007, Canongate. Paperback, 512 pages.

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A near-future techno thriller…

Deja Vu by Ian Hocking

deja vuThis novel is one of the first publications from a new indie publisher called Unsung Stories, specialising in ‘genre fiction that defies categorisation’. Déjà Vu is essentially near-future science fiction with a techno-thriller slant to it.

It is 2023. Saskia Brandt is a Berlin-based detective in the European FIB. Returning from a stressful holiday during which she became single again, she finds her receptionist has been murdered – and she has been implicated. Her boss Beckmann gives her twelve hours to prove her innocence.

Meanwhile in Oxford a university professor, David Proctor, is getting up – he dresses in ‘his usual loafers, chinos, shirt and blazer; clothes that Joyce, his girlfriend, called CGC, or Consultant Gynaecologist Chic.’ (that tickled me for some reason). David is instructing his prototype AI computer, Ego, when a call comes to tell him the other Ego units have been stolen. No sooner has he finished the call than he realises that a door is open somewhere, then he feels a weapon pressed into his back and Ego starts talking to him telling him it’s been hacked, and that he has return to Scotland when he gets a call from Colonel McWhirter about Onogoro, the virtual world he had created with his old colleague Bruce Shimoda. ‘Onogoro must fall,’ the voice tells him.

In Nevada, billionaire John Crane arrives in secret at Helix Base. He searches out Jennifer Proctor (David’s daughter) in her lab. Jennifer has been putting the finishing touches to the Déjà Vu project – enabling time travel – and her employer Crane needs her to send him back in time…

Even though they don’t know it, the fortunes of Saskia, David and Jennifer are already closely linked. David had previously been accused of trying to blow up the West Lothian centre, his wife Helen had been killed in the explosion – surely he couldn’t have done it?  Why do they want him to come back there? Saskia has a big personal shock in store for her once her twelve hours are up. Surely the key is going to be Jennifer’s project – is whatever will happen already pre-destined due to the impossible paradoxes otherwise of time travel? It’s telling that Saskia has a recurring dream of the three Fates of Greek myth: Clotho, Lachesis and Atropos who respectively spin, measure and snip the thread of life.

I’m not going to deliberate further on the plot of this novel as it is complicated with the layers of conspiracy and paradox. At its heart though is the simpler re-kindling of the relationship between father and daughter, wrenched apart when Helen died, together with Saskia’s search for her true self. To understand the present you need to understand the past and untangling the threads of what happens when is the key.

Published in print and e-book form by Unsung Stories last year, the technology in the book seemed too futuristic for less than ten years into the future – but doing some digging afterwards revealed that Hocking originally self-published this novel in around 2005 and has penned two more self-published Saskia Brandt novels since. So if it was originally written some more years ago, that definitely fits this vision of the near future better – although Apple are probably not so far off the Ego computer with its fledgling artificial intelligence – Ego could be the iPhone 25 or something! Much more futuristic is the implant chip in Saskia’s brain which controls and modulates her to some extent – does that make her a cyborg or bionic?

Apart from that niggling incongruity between the publishing year and the technology, what also irritated me were little bits of over-writing here and there: “The high ribwork of the orangery joined a sternum thirty feet about the floor.”  In its defence, the techno-thriller plot was quite fun, having a feel of the brilliant 1980s TV series Edge of Darkness to it in many ways (a political/nuclear thriller drama from the BBC). I did like the character of Saskia though and I hope she develops in her further adventures which are to be published too. (6/10)

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Source: Publisher – Thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Deja Vu by Ian Hocking. Unsung Stories, 2014, paperback 328 pages.
Edge Of Darkness – The Complete Series [1985] [DVD]

Mix Douglas Adams with Jewish Mysticism, Marco Polo, a dash of the X-Men and time travel for weird fun!

A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor

Rachel CantorIf I said that a wacky speculative fiction novel about a 21st century world governed by the philosophies adopted by fast food chains was actually great fun to read, you might begin to doubt my sanity.  I wasn’t sure about this book before I started reading it, but on the back cover is a quote from Jim Crace, an author I respect:

It’s as if Kurt Vonnegut and Italo Calvino collaborated to write a comic book SF adventure and persuaded Chagall to do the drawings. One of the freshest and most lively novels I have encountered for quite a while.

That sold it to me, and I’m glad I gave it a go, for it was a total hoot.

Leonard lives in his sister’s garage in which he has a totally white room where he works the night shift for Neetsa Pizza, the Pythagorean pizza chain, fielding customer complaints. Leonard is a natural listener, and this job suits him fine, for except for meeting his sister’s son Felix off the school bus, Leonard doesn’t go out.

One night Leonard gets a call from a guy called Marco, who tells him all about his exploits as a 13th century explorer. His sister, meanwhile theoretically works for the Scottish tapas chain Jack-o-Bites, but is more likely than not to be involved with her ‘Book club’ with whom she keeps disappearing on missions, leaving Leonard to look after Felix.  She’s totally unsympathetic to Leonard:

You sedate the postindustrial masses with your pre-Socratic gobbledegook, she said, running a pick through her red afro. Pythagorean pizza is the opiate of the middle classes!
Is not! Leonard said.
Is too! she replied. Pass me my tam.
Carol only pretended to be a Jacobite: in fact, she was a neo-Maoist. According to her, the revolution would originate with suburbanites such as herself. It had to, for who was more oppressed, who more in need of radicalization? She took issue with Neetsa Pizza’s rigid hierarchy, its notion that initiation was only for the lucky few – the oligarchy of it!
Pizza, she liked to exclaim, is nothing more than the ingredients that give it form.
No! Leonard would cry, shocked as ever by her materialism. There is such a thing as right proportion! Such a thing as beauty!
Leonard lacked his sister’s sense that the world was broken. He’d been a coddled younger child, while she had been forced by the death of their parents to care for him and their doddering grandfather. No surprise she found the world in need of overhaul. In Leonard’s view, bits of the world might be damaged, but never permanently so. It was his mission, through Listening, to heal some part of it. No need for reeducation, no need for armed struggle.

Leonard’s calls from Marco end, and someone called Isaac who sounds exactly like his dead Jewish grandfather calls, telling him that he passed the test with Marco and that he must give up his job, and go to the library where he’ll meet the grandmother of his grandchildren.

Leonard who is not used to being outside, eventually engages his inner rebellious streak, and does what Isaac says. Taking Felix with him (for Carol has not returned from her ‘Book club’) goes to the library where he meets Sally, a librarian and Baconian (after Roger Bacon), who shows them this ancient Jewish manuscript written in an unsolvable code, which it turns out Felix can read.

However, they are interrupted by the police and have to flee, and eventually end up time travelling back to the 13th century where they have to pretend to be pilgrims to Santiago de Compostela and escape the Spanish Inquisition to get Felix back, who was taken off by Abulafia, another mystic whom they have to stop to save the world.

Once Leonard is hooked, the story becomes one massive adventure, with Leonard as the archetypal fish out of water, who has to overcome his neuroses and show hidden reserves of gumption to survive.  Initially Sally is stronger than he is, but these roles reverse once they time travel and Leonard starts to come into his own, finding his inner-hero and living up to his grandfather’s expectations.

The wackiness and wordplay reminded me strongly of Douglas Adams minus speech marks – the author doesn’t use any, but who says what is pretty clear so that didn’t matter. Some of the set pieces could have been Monty Python sketches. I also liked her weird vision of this 21st century via Brave New World crossed with the Summer of Love with its kaftans and afros.  The whole was great fun and I rather enjoyed it, despite (still) knowing absolutely nothing about Jewish mysticism! A diverting and humorous tale of pure escapism. (7/10)

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Source: Publisher – thank you. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
A Highly Unlikely Scenario : Or, a Neetsa Pizza Employee’s Guide to Saving the World by Rachel Cantor, pub 23rd Jan 2014 by Melville House UK,

‘A Duty-Dance with Death’ – ‘So it goes’

Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut

vonnegut This was our book group’s choice for discussion in November. Whilst it’s fair to say that whilst nobody loved it, and some didn’t get on with it at all, it did provoke some good discussion. I quite enjoyed it, and would certainly read more by Vonnegut. My only previous experience with him was having read Breakfast of Champions as an older teen – and having to make sure my parents didn’t see the diagrams, (if you’ve read it, you’ll know what I mean!).

vonnegut 2

S-5 is commonly seen as Vonnegut’s most influential novel, as it builds in autobiographical elements of Vonnegut’s own experience of the firebombing of Dresden as a PoW, escaping death by hiding in the cellar of ‘Slaughterhouse-5’. Other themes are time travel, alien abduction and living an otherwise normal life!  Vonnegut sets it all out on the book’s title page after the title and sub-title The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death:

A fourth-generation German-American now living in easy circumstances on Cape Cod (and smoking too much), who, as an American infantry scout hors de combat, as a prisoner of war,
witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden, Germany, “the Florence of the Elbe,” a long time ago, and survived to tell the tale.
This is a novel somewhat in the telegraphic schizophrenic manner of tales of the planet Tralfamadore,
where the flying saucers come from.
Peace.

Before we get to the story of the man in question, the introductory chapter introduces the narrator – clearly a metafictional version of Vonnegut himself, explaining his writing of the book:

Over the years, people I’ve met have often asked me what I’m working on, and I’ve usually replied that the main thing was a book about Dresden.
I said that to Harrison Starr, the movie-maker, one time, and he raised his eyebrows and inquired, ‘Is it an anti-war book?’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘I guess.’
‘You know what I say to people when I hear they’re writing anti-war books?’
‘No. What do you sau, Harrison Starr?’
‘I say, “Why don’t you write an anti-glacier book instead?”
What he meant, of course, was that there would always be wars, that they were as easy to stop as glaciers. I believe that too.

And, even if wars didn’t keep coming like glaciers, there would still be plain old death.

Then the narrator tells the story of Billy Pilgrim, who as a young soldier and prisoner of war in Dresden, returns to a normal and rather dull life in America. He becomes an optometrist, marries, and lives into his old age and senility. However Billy is convinced that he’s become a time traveller, slipping up and down his timeline as a result of being abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore where he was kept in a zoo, and gained their ability to see in 4D – so he could be in all times at once.

This means that the novel goes back and forth with Billy. But is he travelling in time? Or is it just memories coming to the fore of a brain with dementia, or schizophrenia? We discussed these elements at length in our book group – it was obvious that Billy thought he was time-slipping, that he really was abducted by aliens – some were happy to accept that. Others including me, took a rational view.

Given that the novel was published in 1969, and it being most of the group’s first experience of him, we wondered how much the time-travel and alien themes were linked to any trippiness of the time…

Something the narrator does throughout the novel, which we all thought worked really well, was that every time someone dies (which is a lot), the paragraph ends with the phrase ‘So it goes’. This becomes a real mantra and emphasises the inevitability of death – one way or another.

One fact that surprised us was that more people died in the bombing of Dresden than were killed in Hiroshima. For us subsequent generations who didn’t live through WWII,  the nuclear carnage is seen as the greater tragedy. The bombing destroyed over 90% of the city of Dresden.

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

Dresden 1945. Photographer G Beyer. German Bundesarchiv

As if Vonnegut’s anti-war messages about the damage that can be wreaked by conventional weapons weren’t enough, he makes his selection of the novel’s subtitle perfectly clear too. Billy the teenaged PoW is introduced to some English officers in the prison camp:

And he said, ‘You know, we’ve had to imagine the war here, and we have imagined that it was being fought by aging men like ourselves. We had forgotten that wars were fought by babies. When I saw those freshly shaved faces, it was a shock. ‘ “My God, my God-” I said to myself, “It’s the Children’s Crusade.” ‘

Despite the novel being written in short sections, jumping back and forth through time, snapping from one theme to another, sometimes serious, sometimes funny, sometimes even beautiful, Vonnegut’s writing is always interesting: ‘Four inches of snow blanketed the ground. The Americans had no choice but to leave trails in the snow as unambiguous as diagrams in a book on ballroom dancing – step, slide, rest – step slide rest.’

This was a surprisingly moving book to read, and a good book group choice. (8.5/10)

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Source: Own copy. To explore further on Amazon UK, please click below:
Slaughterhouse 5, or The Children’s Crusade – A Duty-dance with Death, Vintage paperback, 192 pages.