Review: Neil Gaiman – American Gods

American GodsAmerican Gods by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The underlying premise of American Gods is that deities were imported into the USA by immigrants through the centuries, but were weakened for inattention. Their descent into quasi-humanity sees them opposed by new American gods, those of technology. A great battle is to be fought between the two factions, the new gods to eradicate the old for once and for all while the old are to fight for the preservation of what little is left for them – their lingering existence.

Enter Shadow, tough guy, enlisted by Wednesday, (a god whose identity is evident from his chosen name). We see what ensues from Shadow’s perspective both as an observer and, later, very much as a participant. Indeed, Shadow’s role is to become pivotal.

The underlying theme has echoes of Terry Pratchett and Douglas Adams, but Gaiman isn’t in this for laughs. Quite what he’s in it for I’m still none too sure having reached the end of the work, nor do I feel as if I’ve lost something along the way that may have revealed Gaiman’s authorial intent. But so much for the premise. What of how it is presented?

For well-over the first half of the work there was something of a film noir atmosphere as American Gods seemed set to fail my otherworldy test. Some works of fantasy and science fiction seem to have their otherworldliness as an add-on to a story which would have worked equally well with the main protagonists being realistic, functioning in a realistic environment, and for over half the novel this may have been a tale of two rival gangs sufficiently powerful to have a national reach. Wednesday roams the country trying to enlist other gods for the battle ahead with varying degrees of success, but though the story wanders strange realms from time to time given the underlying premise there’s nothing there that makes that wandering essential. Moreover, though there is action aplenty, there’s little real development in the plot. An enjoyable read, yes – Gaiman is a good writer – but still, reading was becoming a bit of a slog by half-way with the story seeming to get pretty-much nowhere.

Some way into the second half of the work the pace begins to accelerate and hits a nice tempo, but not for long. The pace continues to accelerate until it ends in something of a rush leaving me regretting Gaiman hadn’t pruned the first half of the novel to give himself more breathing space for the final third. It’s here the otherworldliness justifies itself, here that the plot truly develops, and here that some of the more fetching ideas are to be found only to be hurried over as if Gaiman wanted to get it all over with. I gather from his acknowledgements at the end that he wasn’t hitting deadlines, so perhaps that would explain it. The pace drops back to a reasonable level at the end for an extended coda as Gaiman ties up the loose ends, and here we have some of the best writing in the book as a consequence.

Bemusing throughout is Gaiman’s selectivity. We seem to have many religions represented here, but some notable absences – namely the Judaic religions. I had expected Jesus, or perhaps Moses to pop up somewhere to play some crucial role, but these more powerful aspects of thriving religions were notable in their absence. Perhaps the antics of these lesser gods is beneath them, but certainly I’d have liked a little more expansion on that, and perhaps a nod in their direction. American gods in the absence of reference to Christianity in particular is too glaring an absence. True, the Judaic religions would have been difficult to fit into the narrative as it stands, but by not doing so Gaiman rather undermines the premise of the work.

Nonetheless, Gaiman is a good writer and that is the work’s saving grace, and American Gods is readable for that if for little else.

Review: Paul Harding – Tinkers

TinkersTinkers by Paul Harding
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Tinkers needs to be approached slowly and savoured, read less as a novel than as poetry. I say this having approached the novel myself at a gallop, charging through the first several pages on the strength of my momentum, and wondering at the end of it what I may have missed. Perhaps nothing of importance. And there, perhaps, is the rub.

Tinkers is a tale of how illness affects families in their response to the person afflicted. It is also very much a novel of reminiscence in considering how the afflicted person sees himself in the context of his illness. George is dying. His bed, which he knows is to become his deathbed, is set up in the family living room in which his children and other relatives come initially to express their concern and to provide George with assistance but, as time goes on, he becomes increasingly a part of the furniture with life going on around him as if he barely exists. This leaves George with much time to think.

Where it becomes a little confusing is in the introduction of George’s own father. Afflicted by his own illness – epilepsy – with which his own family can barely cope, we do not see Howard through the eyes of George. There is too much there he could not have known. Instead, Howard enters the work as a second protagonist in effect. I say in effect because George’s lack of lucidity, made plain from the outset, may mean that this is a false reminiscence with George filling in the gaps. I may have missed something. I may not. Perhaps it makes no difference.

By the novel’s end, Howard’s own father and his own indisposition is introduced, something George – or Howard – makes plain that George could never have known about given Howard had never discussed it with him. However, most of the narrative is given over to George and Howard, with Howard having the bulk of it.

There is something here of Kafka’s Metamorphosis, a realistic twist on its theme of family development in the face of a key member of it becoming ill and even, in the case of Howard in particular, in the effective rejection of that member in the metamorphosis illness produces. It seems likely Harding had Kafka’s work in mind, even if only subconsciously, in writing this novel. Indeed, at the beginning with effective ‘dream sequences’ being presented, the novel suggests it is to be less realistic than it turns out to be, but these sequences are soon lost and the realistic approach largely prevails from early on in the novel, albeit with echoes in the strange turn of mind that affects Howard prior to one of his fits, or in George’s own consideration of clocks – as a horologist – as suitable metaphors in considering his own condition.

There seems to be no marked linearity in the development of plot, or plots, as we watch these men in their actions and activities. Significant events are presented. Decline is marked. So we follow the characters through notable moments in their lives and in their illness as a series of anecdotes, usually inconsequential in themselves. Or apparently so.

If I sound uncertain throughout this review, that’s because I am. For that, a potentially five-star novel loses a star. In some of the turns of events, the strange goings-on, the dream sequences, the disjointed happenings, I feel as if I am supposed to be seeing something here that I’ve missed. For example, at one point we are presented with a (perhaps illusory, perhaps not) native American in a river, his head alone above the water. He opens his mouth, and a fish jumps straight down his throat so obligingly that the recipient of its sacrifice doesn’t even need to swallow. It’s things like that leave me wondering whether I’m supposed to have spotted something I simply can’t spot. Or should I just take it as read and move on? Is this a novel too clever for its own good, too clever for mine, or am I finding the potential for cleverness where none actually exists? In these considerations I can’t find anything solid to examine. There seems to be nothing more I can derive from such things than that they simply are. I’m happy – more than happy – to leave a novel puzzling over hidden meanings and deeper understanding but instead, with Tinkers, I’m left pondering structure and authorial intent. And, indeed, the possibility of my own want of intelligence. Such thoughts are considerably less appealing.

I am tempted to read the novel again at some point, but fear in doing so I will emerge with the same bemusement… so perhaps not. The work is beautifully written, the events interesting, the characters well-delineated if, overall, a little passive and internal, not in itself a bad thing though it can feel at times that life goes on too much around the central characters than within them. That, though, is in accordance with the theme. Perhaps these positives should be enough and that is all there is, the negative purely my own sense of something missed with no way for me to find it. I’m glad I read it once, but that mild irritation lingers. Perhaps a second reading would not dispel it, only intensify it.

Review: Fyodor Dostoyevsky – Notes from Underground

Notes from UndergroundNotes from Underground by Fyodor Dostoyevsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Doubtless the narrator of these notes would, today, be diagnosed with some three-letter syndrome, and an analyst would require no more than this confessional in order to do come up with that diagnosis. Not bad considering Dostoyevsky pre-dated those syndromes by some considerable time.

We begin with our narrator philosophising about life in the first part of a two-part short novel. This section makes for difficult and painful reading. The writer pulls us in and pushes us away by turns as he presents us with an existential viewpoint which, in fearing its rejection by the reader, then leads him to dismiss the reader in often spiteful terms. This is a man in search of an identity. He doesn’t much care what identity that may be – good or bad, though perhaps not indifferent – so long as it is a solid foundation upon which to build his sense of himself that he may then present to others for validation. He must be writ large in our minds as we, it seems, are writ large in his. We have our identities, he believes, and faced with us he feels crushed, insignificant.

This is clearly an intelligent man. His philosophies when disentangled from his self-obsession pass muster, albeit they are not ground breaking being too tainted with his preoccupation. Nonetheless there’s a sense here of a man who has something to offer the world as much as anyone ever does were it not for the fact that he needs to establish himself too firmly in order to elevate himself to the level he perceives to be occupied by the rest of humanity, an unrealistic level to which he himself has elevated it and which he is thus unable to attain. Perhaps the most telling line in the entire work is that in which he states himself to be alone while we, his readers, are of the elevated class of everyone else.

The second part of the novel makes for easier reading. Our narrator describes a few days in his life in the course of which he seeks the acceptance of some former school acquaintances only, of course, to annoy them and push them away with his aggression for fear of their non-acceptance. For the most part, though wary of him of old, these acquaintances seem amiable enough and willing to try, but he sabotages his own efforts from the beginning. By the evening’s end they have escaped him, and he falls in with a prostitute who, vulnerable to his erudition, (which is precise in its analysis of her predicament but is played out for spite rather than the concern he feigns), sees him as a potential redeemer. However, there is the sense here that anyone who may regard him so highly must themselves be worthless, and so he ends up abusing her both mentally and physically in order to have a better footing for the drama he needs his life to be. With that, we know he can never succeed in his purported goal of gaining acceptance given it would be self-defeating. No one for whom he is good enough can be good enough for him. He ends the encounter seeking for her again after she rejects him. Having rejected him she has elevated herself once more.

This is quite the most extraordinary character study I have read, at least to the best of my memory. I have known a (thankfully) few individuals like this in passing, but surely Dostoyevsky himself must have had more than a mere passing encounter with the type. However, this is about more than mere acute observation. Written in the first person, the narrator must account for himself. For Dostoyevsky that means probing beneath the surface manifestation of our narrator’s malaise to the existential viewpoint that gives birth to them as its symptoms. He does so with unerring accuracy, his involvement with the character total, his empathy immense. This could so easily have been a pastiche, just as easily too conservative in trying to avoid such a pastiche, but Dostoyevsky walks a razor’s edge in his writing in falling neither way. Our narrator lives within and breathes from the page. As a piece of writing it verges upon the startling.

I say again, this is not an easy read. The first part in particular, a stream-of-consciousness ramble, takes us into the character’s mind but it is a difficult mind to inhabit in its fits and starts, its enticements and its thrustings away. It makes for a bruising read, but is worth persevering through inevitable lapses of concentration as a unique and excellent work.

Review: Andy McNab – Crisis Four

Crisis FourCrisis Four by Andy McNab
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

After Remote Control, the first of McNab’s ‘Nick Stone’ novels, I wasted little time getting hold of the second. Crisis Four gets marked down a star on a technicality – the plot didn’t quite ring true in Stone being given his assignment in the first place, let alone the ease with which he accomplished the first part of it – and, indeed, much of the plot at the end rather depended upon him being the wrong person for the job. Still, I found it as much a pleasure to read as the first for all that.

In the first novel, our special operative Stone was saddled with a seven-year old girl throughout and, I must confess, I was rather pleased to see the back of her in this one. I find something somehow unfair about a seven-year old being dragged through violent and dangerous situations, even if she is fictional and has to be for the sake of the story. Then there’s the idea of good plans not coming together because she needs to go to the toilet that intrudes upon the action with too homely a tone. Once I could stand, but a second of the same I’d have probably been yelling ‘Shoot her and have done with it, damn it!’

However, the absence of Kelly is not the only marked difference between this novel and the last. That had action throughout. This takes a while to get going, but while we wait McNab really shows his chops as a writer and an expert in the craft of special operations. There are many ‘Don’t try this at home’ tips which would look good in any anarchist’s cook book, but also views of American life through the eyes of an Englishman that have immense veracity. McNab could probably try his hand at pretty-much anything and come up with a decent novel. He has an eye for things and can provide detail, even irrelevant detail, without it dragging. That’s quite a knack.

The action, when it comes, is of the sort where you can find yourself putting the book down and getting a cup of coffee just to take a break from it. McNab is an intelligent writer not above writing thrillers, and the genre benefits from that. Yeah, I know, his background, but that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have written historical fiction about the Napoleonic wars, does it? Indeed, he almost certainly could were he so inclined and it would be worth reading. (Yes, ashamed as I am to confess it given it doesn’t fit with the image, darlings, I am becoming something of a fan).

The plot, and I can say little without spoilers. However, if you’re familiar with Nick Stone from the first novel, it’s the same bloke. If you’re not, check the first novel before this one. They stand alone just fine, but the first novel provides a useful introduction.

Review: Barry Hughart – Eight Skilled Gentlemen

Eight Skilled GentlemenEight Skilled Gentlemen by Barry Hughart
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I gather Hughart had intended his three works focused upon Number Ten Ox and Master Li to extend out to seven novels in total. However, fate intervened in his falling out with his publishers. The works were then not written given that, as Hughart remarked, he was afraid of becoming repetitive.

I think that was a wise choice.

All three works – Bridge of Birds, The Story of the Stone, and now this can be summarised in much the same way. Hughart draws upon Chinese myth and legend to construct stories of improbable characters and matter-of-fact magic throwing his two heroes into the midst of it all to solve a mystery and to attempt to stop the bad guys wreaking havoc. The story lines are complex, but our heroes are fun and fun is to the fore.

Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

It was, perhaps, unwise of me to read all three novels back-to-back, but I think it’s probably right to three-star this one for quality rather than as a reflection of my feeling I’d probably had about enough by the end of it. The trilogy started off well, Number Ten Ox and Master Li amusingly eccentric in their relationship, their rhetoric, and their actions, though the plot was a little skittish and difficult to follow. With the second work, our heroes were somewhat less fun, but the plot less skittish, (though still more difficult to follow).

With Eight Skilled Gentlemen, though, it’s clear that the amusing eccentricities of Li and Ox are insufficient to span a triology of novels, and the complexity of the storyline is to the fore. In this plot, as previously, everything pivots on ancient Chinese stories which we see played out in their repercussions as the novel progresses. The trouble is it’s difficult to know which elements of the fable need to be remembered in order to make best sense of what follows, and by the end any reference to information we were given a hundred and fifty pages earlier is lost. Well, for me it was lost.

Moreover, the twists become somewhat repetitive across the three novels. I could see what would happen at the end from the beginning, if not in detail then at least in outline, with one of the characters in particular. Moreover, Hughart doesn’t expand such supplementary characters sufficiently to make up for the deficit brought about by the over familiarity with Ox and Li that sees them mined out here.

This is not a terrible work, far from it, and doubtless – as already suggested – the fact I was glazed over by the end of it had as much to do with my mistake in reading all three novels back-to-back instead of spacing them out as any fault with the work itself, this approach to the three novels thus something not to recommend. Nonetheless, with this third novel, Ox and Li have outlived their potential, and though it would be too much to characterise it as a novel too far, it certainly verges upon being so.

Review: Andy McNab – Remote Control

Remote ControlRemote Control by Andy McNab
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My first five-star book for a while for a work which, while not in my most favoured genre, pressed all the right buttons and then some for what it is. So much so I actually enjoyed it.

Nick Stone is an agent running out of London. Sent to the USA on the heels of some members of the provisional IRA he is suddenly called off the case. He decides to visit an old friend and erstwhile companion-in-arms, but arrives to find him – and all his family bar one – brutally murdered. The lone survivor, a seven-year old girl, becomes his companion given Stone knows she must still be targeted as a witness, and so begins a frenzied running around trying to uncover the details of an event which sees him not only head-to-head with law enforcement in the USA, but also the target of terrorists, and someone his own command back home now regards as an outsider.

Stone is very much in the British tradition of such heroes, James Bond aside. If guns are drawn every five seconds and thousands of rounds fired in the course of much of American literature of the genre, when guns are pulled in Remote Control their bullets smash through flesh, bone, and internal organs making quite a difference to the recipient. Fist fights are messy affairs in which blood spatters and there are no gentlemen. None of which to say this is a gore novel, far from it. It is just that when there is violence, McNab doesn’t give it the comic-book feel of so much else that’s on offer. He makes it plain this is for real, lives really are at stake, and guns in real life aren’t just there for decorative effect or to go ‘bang bang bang bang bang bang bang’ from time to time to no ill effect in order to keep the tension high.

Stone himself is a sympathetic hero, certainly, but McNab doesn’t give him the good-guy treatment. Shortly after we’re introduced to him we’re told of a botched operation in which, to cover the British government’s backside, he was told to kill his own allies once the mission was successfully completed. Stone’s regret is there, but not marked. The only thing that makes Stone sympathetic in the end, perhaps, is that the bad guys are even bigger bastards than he is.

The plot treads carefully on the comprehensible side of convoluted. I think I lost the odd detail along the way, but nothing important enough that I wasn’t pretty sure what was happening throughout. McNab manages to keep the intrigue going without making it feel artificial as he does so.

All in all, without resorting to gratuitous carping, Remote Control is a page-turner of immense veracity, well-written and carefully crafted, worthy of its rare five stars.

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Review: Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – The Sorrows of Young Werther

The Sorrows of Young WertherThe Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In theorising about Werther – and yes, let that be a warning from the outset that that is what I am about to do – I am aware that I’m either walking a well-trodden path or will be scoffed at for my conclusions. I should probably do some research to find out which. But no, that would be cheating, so hey, here goes anyway.

Werther is a bit of a jerk. There, I said it. Yeah okay, not much of a theory as it stands, so let me justify it. This man, who is later to be so distraught in his love for an unattainable woman – unattainable because married – is introduced to us as having perhaps fled the discomfort of having been in affairs with two sisters and the ruck he caused in so doing. When he says he must reform himself in the wake of this, the reform he envisages is not of treating people with a little more respect but, rather, in letting the inconvenience trouble him when he should just forget about it and look to the future.

This is a man who can’t write official reports because his mind is so elevated that he has to break out into poetry, but that begs the question of whether he was, then, incapable of writing a shopping list unless the things he needed to buy formed themselves into rhyming couplets.

This is a man who condemns the local aristocracy for not protecting some trees in the neighbourhood when, if he were a prince himself, then… well, as it turns out, Werther’s mind wanders at this point and he realises that, were he to be a prince, he would probably have other ways of spending his time than protecting the local vegetation.

This is a man charmed by another we can only assume to be a rapist given that the man, in Werther’s mind, was motivated by a passion brought about by love.

And what is love for Werther? In all the acres of words he gives us in describing her, we get little sense of his beloved. We see glory and brightness and wonder and behind all this we assume a human being, but it would be difficult in all the refulgent descriptive to say who she is in herself, hidden as she is behind the projective glare. If I didn’t feel I knew her by the end, and find it difficult to believe Werther knew her very well either. She seems little more than a symbol of Werther’s own self-obsession, his self-indulgence. Moreover, I couldn’t help feeling that her husband, by Werther’s own account a decent chap, was given scant respect in all the melodrama, enduring it all with the patience of a saint. At one point we learn that Werther saw three choices in the end. To kill himself, to kill the husband, or to kill the beloved. Sure he made the right choice in the end morally if it had to be one of them, but it’s disconcerting the other options should even have crossed his mind as somehow reasonable.

Perhaps there is a measure of poignancy in a man living in a world that must be so perfect that it must oblige him in all his fitful imaginings, so much so that he kills himself when it doesn’t, but my desire throughout was to avert the crisis of the book’s closing by intervening with the psychological technique of slapping his face and telling him to pull himself together.

It’s reasonable to assume that Goethe, in giving us this portrait of a romantic hero, was being ironic, but he has an empathic way with Werther nonetheless. We are not presented with a buffoon. Far from it. Werther has interesting thoughts, makes some incisive observations. This is no caricature, not a one-dimensional character entirely shallow, and his observations are often illuminating. However, taken all in all, I can’t help feeling that the youth of the period of the novel’s publication who took to wearing the clothes Goethe describes Werther wearing in emulation of him were as much a source of amusement for Goethe as was Malvolio in his yellow stockings and crossed garters for Maria.

The work is excellent in its characterisation – largely of Werther given that he’s rather too self-absorbed to give us much of anyone else in his first-person narrative – but Goethe chose at the end to drift away from this form of presentation, breaking with Werther’s voice with good reason I’m sure, though I can’t for the life of me work out what that reason was. This made the end somewhat confused and unsatisfying. However, that aberration only mildly detracts from the intelligence and skill in composition of the work overall.