A Users Guide to the Millennium by J.G. Ballard is an absolute treasure chest for anyone interested in 20th century pop culture. It's a collection of...moreA Users Guide to the Millennium by J.G. Ballard is an absolute treasure chest for anyone interested in 20th century pop culture. It's a collection of essays and reviews that spans 30+ years, culled from a wide range of magazines and covers such subjects as art, history, science, cinema and science fiction and such personalities and icons as Marilyn Monroe, Elvis, Dali, William Burroughs, Howard Hughes, Einstein, Warhol, Henry Miller, the list goes on.
Most of the pieces are short but pack a punch. Brilliant observations, a wicked turn of phrase and loaded with information, history and little-known facts, this gem has the effect of whetting your appetite for more. I, for one, will be tracking down books on various of the subjects and people explored in this volume.
One might think that a hotch-potch collection like this can't have anything like a cohesive quality to it, but, more than anything else, the sheer breath of the canvas painted and the uniquely skewed view of Ballard gives us an inside look at the mind of the writer. Of particular interest are the autobiographical essays which serve as the core of the book and paint a vivid picture of Shanghai in the 30's and 40's.
I picked up Bigot Hall by Steve Aylett not knowing what to expect and it just blew me away. It is anarchic black humour at its best, filled with witty...moreI picked up Bigot Hall by Steve Aylett not knowing what to expect and it just blew me away. It is anarchic black humour at its best, filled with witty observations and completely off the wall characters, whose volatile natures and violent dispositions I have never met the like of before. I never laughed so much at such outrageous brutality; I'm utterly ashamed of myself.
There were many things I was reminded of during my journey through this book: the quasi-dimensional eponymous Bigot Hall, which maintains a tenuous grip on reality, had many of the attributes of Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast, along with the quirkiness of its characters. Uncle Snapper was very much like Trevor Howard in Sir Henry at Rawlinson's End. There was even a touch of Moorcock in here a la Jerry and Catherine Cornelius' obsessive incestuous relationship.
Yes, it's a crazy mix, but shining through is Aylett's very own wicked sense of humour and style. If I have a quibble it's that the book is episodic with no real sense of a beginning, middle and end, and the price tag is a little steep for such a short work. However, it was a refreshing change from the standard, long-winded epics you tend to find on the shelves these days; definitely a question of 'never mind the width, feel the quality'.(less)
Any new book by Lucius Shepard is to be welcomed and snapped up eagerly, and Barnacle Bill the Spacer and other storie...moreUS title: Beast of the Heartland
Any new book by Lucius Shepard is to be welcomed and snapped up eagerly, and Barnacle Bill the Spacer and other stories is no exception. A collection of seven very long stories (I think most of them are novellas), Shepard has the room to develop ideas and explore character. It's been said that the novella is the perfect length for science fiction and this collection supports that argument admirably. Ironically, the weakest piece in the collection, for me, is the title story, winner of a Hugo in 1993. A Heinlein pastiche with added style, it failed to grab me. I guess I've tired of space opera type stories and Hugo voters haven't.
There are three outstanding stories, however, which more than justify the price of entry: 'A Little Night Music', about a music critic writing a review of a concert given by a band of zombies, 'Sports in America' about two hitmen on their way to bump off some poor unfortunate and 'Beast of the Heartland' about a boxer who is slowly going blind but who keeps on fighting.
At times Shepard is a little verbose, almost purple, in his attempt to maintain a literary style, but he just about pulls it off and you are left with the feeling of having read something worthwhile as well as entertaining. Recommended.(less)
Welcome to Grail, Louisiana! A little hole of a town near the Gulf - next to nothing and just beyond reality - where hoodoo meets Jesus and the townsf...moreWelcome to Grail, Louisiana! A little hole of a town near the Gulf - next to nothing and just beyond reality - where hoodoo meets Jesus and the townsfolk pray to them all. That's what it says on the inside jacket cover of this beautifully presented hardback from Golden Gryphon and it pretty much sums what you can expect from the always entertaining Lucius Shepard. Jack Mustaine's car breaks down just outside Grail and he ends up staying longer than expected in the steamy environs of the town, getting slowly but surely sucked into the scheming lives of its inhabitants. He hooks up with Vida Dumars at the Le Bon Chance bar and things get hot and heavy very fast. Vida is the town's Midsummer Queen and she's about to hand the title over the following evening. However, the whole ceremony is anything but symbolic and is connected to a deal made with the very shady Good Gray Man a couple of hundred years ago. As the ceremony approaches, Jack becomes more and more entangled with the potential consequences of the event. Darkness gathers and the Good Gray Man comes callin'. In terms of atmosphere, Louisiana Breakdown shares many elements with The Big Easy, Blood Simple, Fargo, Red Rock West and U-Turn, to mention but a few examples. You can smell the swamp, you can hear the people tawk, you can sense the isolation, you can feel the impending doom approach with inexorable slowness. This novel begs to be filmed. While not quite up to the mark of his work in The Jaguar Hunter and Barnacle Bill the Spacer collections, it's very, very good and the series of wonderfully evocative paintings by J.K. Potter doesn't hurt either. Highly recommended.(less)
No Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a down in his luck ordinary guy (Llewlyn Moss) who stumbles across the scene of a major s...moreNo Country for Old Men by Cormac McCarthy tells the story of a down in his luck ordinary guy (Llewlyn Moss) who stumbles across the scene of a major shootout in a middle of nowhere section of scrubland down near the border with Mexico. Finding a briefcase full of money amongst the dead bodies, he makes a run with it, along with his girlfriend. Soon, of course, the missing money is noted by one or more of the people involved in the ‘business transaction’ gone wrong and a killer in the shape of Chigurh is dispatched to retrieve it. Into the fray enters Sheriff Bell as he follows a trail of destruction left by Chigurh in his pursuit of Moss.
The novel tells the story from the points of view of Moss, Chigurh and Bell. Moss’ desperation is palpable as he tries to keep ahead of Chigurh. The relationship between Moss and his girlfriend is fraught as they yearn for a better life for themselves and slowly realise that the theft of the money is not going to deliver this to them. Chigurh is the most chilling fictional killer I’ve come across in a long time, exemplified by a number of scenes in which he dispatches (or doesn’t) several people in the most clinical way imaginable. Sheriff Bell brings the light of reason to the story as he longs for the old days when life was not so brutal.
While the basic elements of this story have been used before by many writers, what makes No Country for Old Men so effective is the radically pared back prose. There is an economy of style and usage that suits the locale and the characters perfectly. The sense of place is wonderfully evoked. The dialogue (once you get used to the lack of quotation marks, punctuation and apostrophes, etc.) is spot on. You can practically smell the decaying bodies at the scene of the original shootout, hear the defective air conditioning units in the decrepit motel rooms and feel the hot, dry sun beating down on your shoulders.
As an exercise in pure storytelling and gripping tension, No Country for Old Men can’t be beaten. Highly recommended.(less)
The Tax Collector by Peter Carey tells the story of a young heavily pregnant Tax Inspector called Maria Takis tasked with conducting an audit of Catch...moreThe Tax Collector by Peter Carey tells the story of a young heavily pregnant Tax Inspector called Maria Takis tasked with conducting an audit of Catchprice Motors in the small backwater of Franklin on the outskirts of Sydney in the State of New South Wales, Australia. That may sound boring, but it’s the Catchprice family that are the real stars in this ever so slightly bizarre novel. Granny Catchprice, who believes she still runs the company, is wonderfully realised as a character, and the flashbacks to her childhood and early adulthood and the original dream she had for the business are worthy of a novel in their own right. Her son, Mort, who manages the repair end of things, is one of the most repellent characters I’ve come across in a long while and yet Carey doesn’t resort to any of the obvious clichés in letting us know what he is really like. Her daughter, Cathy, does run the family business, along with her husband, but dreams of extracting herself to pursue her career as a Country and Western singer. Granny Catchprice’s grandson, Benny, who is continually passed over for promotion and actually fired by Cathy at the beginning of the book, simply won’t stay fired and secretly wants to become an angel.
Benny becomes obsessed with Maria despite a big age difference, and Maria is drawn to Mort’s charismatic brother, Jack, who has pursued a career as a property developer and returns to Catchprice Motors to stave off the imminent disaster of her discovery of long standing tax evasion. As several of the characters become increasingly unstable and things spiral out of control, the story becomes one of lost dreams and the awfulness of being trapped in the stifling confines of other people’s failed dreams. I read recently that Carey’s family ran a car dealership when he was a child and I wonder how much of this novel is based on actual experience. I hope it’s very little; the Catchprice family is one of the strangest dysfunctional groups of people you’re likely to encounter in literature.(less)
A number of years ago I tackled Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter and found it heavy going, so I was reluctant to take on another of his works. Ho...moreA number of years ago I tackled Richard Ford’s novel The Sportswriter and found it heavy going, so I was reluctant to take on another of his works. However, I picked up this collection of his short fiction and decided to give him another chance. And, boy, am I glad I did. Rock Springs gathers a number of stories that generally take place in and around Great Falls, Montana, and feature characters either fallen on hard times or living a life of limited scope of opportunity.
In ‘Rock Springs’, a man travels in a stolen car with his girlfriend and daughter and their dog towards what they hope is their next chance at a life together. In ‘Sweethearts’, Russ and Arlene try to help prepare Arlene’s ex-husband for a prison sentence he’s handed down for bouncing cheques. In ‘Children’, George and his half-Blackfeet Indian friend, Claude, take custody for an afternoon of a young girl Claude’s father has shacked up with for a night or two. They are charged with keeping her occupied for the day and take her fishing, along the way examining in their limited way the enclosed horizons of their lives.
These are stories that capture the essence of small town American life. The sense of place is astonishingly well realised. The characters share much in common; many are on their way nowhere fast. There is a strange ambivalence displayed by many of the main viewpoint characters when it comes to love and/or fidelity, a sense that there will not or cannot be any serious repercussions to living in the moment of a cadged physical intimacy.
Ford’s women are perhaps more resilient than the men, fatalistic, accepting of the restricted circumstances of their lives, to an extent forgiving of their partner’s weaknesses. I especially like Lois in ‘Fireworks’ with her unbounded optimism in the face of economic blight.
As you will guess from the title, The Gates of the Alamo is about the famous siege of the Alamo in 1836. There have been numerous books and a couple o...moreAs you will guess from the title, The Gates of the Alamo is about the famous siege of the Alamo in 1836. There have been numerous books and a couple of movies dedicated to this pivotal moment in US and Mexican history and the event is ingrained in the popular consciousness of most Americans. Most people will be familiar with the event itself, but many may not know much about the events leading up to the siege or the aftermath. This major piece of historical fiction focuses on all of this, and the siege itself, in a way that truly brings the time, the situation and the people alive.
Harrigan’s approach is to tell the story mainly through the eyes of three viewpoint characters: Edmund McGowan, a naturalist whose work is threatened by the encroaching war, Mary Mott, a widowed innkeeper, and her son Terrell. We learn of the history of the area, where the Mexican government was happy to give the land over to immigrants from Ireland and Germany because of its arid and unworkable nature, and the growing concerns of the Mexicans at the increasing numbers of Americans settling in the region. We get a brilliantly illustrated sense of place and the growing tensions as various players, including all the historical personalities, move into place for an impending showdown. All of this is shown to us through the actions, thoughts and dialogue of the main characters and assumes an immediacy that drags the reader right into the heart of the story.
What adds to the epic quality of the storytelling is the introduction of a Mexican viewpoint character in the shape of Telesforo Villasenor, a cartographer with the Mexican Army. Through him we are treated to a Mexican view of the proceedings as the army mobilises and travels an appalling distance, mostly on foot, to the Alamo in order to quell what they see as an uprising. There are genuine fears that the region will attempt a fight for independence or, worse, be annexed to the United States. The chapter recounting the army’s journey north is astonishing in its descriptive power, with the hardships the soldiers endure a real surprise to anyone acquainted with just the classic version of events.
The Gates of the Alamo is another book that joins my Top 10 and I cannot recommend it highly enough.(less)
We live in a world swamped with books on how to write, all of which pander, with varying degrees of success, to the vast army of nascent novelists amo...moreWe live in a world swamped with books on how to write, all of which pander, with varying degrees of success, to the vast army of nascent novelists amongst us. It is, very much, an industry in its own right, somewhat comparable to the even vaster self help industry. Picking the right book for you, should you feel the need of one, can be a daunting task. I, myself, have read only a couple over the last decade or so, preferring to do things the hard way and learn by trial and error. Just as well I'm a masochist. The fact is, however, that a lot of time and wasted effort can be saved by consulting the better of these books and How NOT to Write a Novel by Sandra Newman & Howard Mittelmark is not only one of those better books but one of the very best.
What makes this book such a joy to read is the tack the authors have taken in outlining the things you really need to do to ensure that your novel never sees the light of day. We are taken through the intricacies of developing plots that will sink your novel, characters that will send the editor/agent to sleep (and spare potential readers the same fate), and narrative, dialogue and settings that are silly, indiscrete, inappropriate, offensive or just plain cringe-inducing. There's a chapter on writing sex scenes, telling jokes and taking a post modernist approach to your magnum opus. And finally, there's good advice on the worst ways to write cover letters and synopses, how to format your novel so it ends up in the editor's bin and a host of other useful ways to guarantee that all your blood, sweat and tears have been for nought.
What emerges is an astonishingly useful and highly entertaining guide on HOW TO write and present your novel and give it the best chance of success. Even if you're not a writer, this book will give you a wonderful insight into the mechanics of what goes into the writing of books and what poor editors and agents have to wade through in order to bring you the books you end up reading.(less)