Review — “Sway” — Zachary Lazar

SwaySway by Zachary Lazar

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

An intriguing diversion that attempts to connect the occult, death, and the later hippie culture. The novel centres around the Rolling Stones, the film maker and occultist Kenneth Anger, and Charles Manson disciple Bobby Beausoleil, and attempts to meld together the early anger of the Stones, the dissolution of 60s youth like Beausoleil, and the death of the hippie dream, using Anger as a device that connects those worlds.

The power of the novel lies in the descriptions of the mess that appeared to be the early, young, Rolling Stones, and, to an extent in the description of the development of Kenneth Anger.
Where it is weakest is in connecting all this somehow with Manson, and with death. Thanatomania (obsession with one’s own death) might be a theme that Anger is working through, and Mick and Keith might have written a song called “Sympathy for the Devil”, yet the connections remain flimsy. I don’t feel that the convergence and conjunction of these elements, these people, is drawing me towards the inevitable murders by The Family, nor towards tragedy at Altamont.

For all its subject matter of murder and death, the book lacks tension. For somebody of my generation (70s freak rather than 60s hippie), the stories of Brian Jones, the Family and Altamont are well-known; there is thus no element of surprise to the novel. What it provides instead is atmosphere, a kind of overarching view of a particular 60s weltanschauung.

It is, however, well-written, and well-researched. When it talks about the Stones, or about Anger, there is a feeling of verisimilitude. There are also nice turns of phrase that arrested my attention. It’s not essential, however, and it doesn’t really tell me anything new about the era, or explain why the peace and love movement ended in death. Yet, for those interested in such things, it is worth a read.

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Something for World Book Day

I had cause today to look at a couple of old books on my shelves, and this reminded me that the oldest book on my shelves that I have read probably dates back to 1976. I thought it might be fun to check through all my shelves, and my database of books I have read*, to find out what still sits on my shelves in the edition I read at that time.

I then decided it might be… a lark? an education? nostalgic? to reread all such books. And to keep this topical and relevant, I decided to read only the books I still own that I owned and read before the end of 1977, forty years ago this year.

So, here they are, the foxed, cocked, water-stained and creased books, smelling of mould and cigarette smoke, that I shall be re-reading.

Under Milk Wood — I began an O-level in English Literature at evening classes with my friend and co-author John in 1975 (while he was also doing an A-level!). Dylan Thomas’s lovely radio play was first on the syllabus. But we both had to drop out of the course as his A-levels and my OND took up more time. I mean, come on man, we had skywatches and band practices to attend as well, you know!

The Trial – I remember finding Franz Kafka’s novel a tough old read back in ’76. Partly down to the translation, I think, and partly down to the tiny text. It might be better now I’m older and wiser; however, I also fear it might not.

Darkness at Noon — I bought this because a friend had raved on about something else Arthur Koestler had written. It is, I recall, gripping, and I read it in a couple of days — although during the course of the revolution described in the book, people switched sides so often that I remember being confused about who was on what side. But that was partly the point, I believe.

The Drought — An early entry in J G Ballard’s disaster cycle, it’s short but elliptical, and I remember it being slightly dry (geddit?) and distant, yet with odd and arresting images.

Operation Trojan Horse — This is, thankfully, the only UFO book. John Keel’s slightly nutty entry in this list will at least be entertaining.

Total Man — A very long exposition by Stan Gooch on the two-sided nature of man, with his A and B personality types, and how these need to be integrated to become… yes, Total Man! I’d like to think that Gooch was using “man” in the old-fashioned sense of mankind, but fear this actually was only about men. Probably the longest and heaviest book I’ll be re-reading. (This turned up for 50p in a sale in W H Smiths. Ah, those were the days.)

Stranger in a Strange Land — Heinlein’s sci-fi epic might out-page Total Man, but one hopes it will be somewhat lighter than Gooch’s opus. I have a horrible feeling, though, that Stranger… is a book best read by 17-year-olds, but we’ll see.

The Private Future — Woolworths used to have a bargain bin of remainders, and very odd things used to turn up in it. This, I seem to recall, was one of them, a short-ish work of popular sociology/cultural studies that envisaged a future in which the world became more private because of electronic media. The author, Martin Pawley meant private in the sense of social physicality and proximity rather than the kind of connections or sociability we might maintain through media now. And yet, given trends such as the decline of the pub, Pawley might have been onto something. This one will be interesting to revisit.

There are three further books that should perhaps be given consideration. It’s possible that Orwell’s 1984 should be on this list, but my copy has my brother’s name in it. And although he did like 1984 it’s difficult to imagine him paying good money for a mere book when he was 15. So, part of me thinks he might have been simply fulfilling his role as an annoying younger brother, and thought it hilarious to put his name in my book. However, neither of us is going to remember the course of events forty years ago with any certainty, so I’ve left it off the list.

Also on the list should be two UFO books, The Warminster Mystery and Warnings From Flying Friends, which relate the ufological events that occurred in Warminster in the 1960s. However, in the course of writing In Alien Heat, my own critical and historical examination of that mystery, I read both books more times than any human should. I have no desire to read them again.

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* Yes, I’m one of those sad people who has a database of books he’s read!

Review — The Bloody Chamber – Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber & Other StoriesThe Bloody Chamber & Other Stories by Angela Carter

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

If this collection of short stories hadn’t been so short I might well have given up reading it. A sense of duty made me return to it each night. This was, after all, Angela Carter. And yet… Once upon a time — yikes, 35 years ago, as it turns out — I’d read another collection of her stories, Fireworks: Nine Profane Pieces, and remembered little about it, such was the effect it had on me. And yet… I had once also found a second-hand copy of Love, her fifth novel, and read it with enjoyment. It was thus in the hope that I would find again what I had enjoyed about Love, while fearing that I would rediscover what I’d found in Fireworks, that I picked up The Bloody Chamber.

It was, unfortunately, another Fireworks I’d found. I wasn’t in the presence of stories, or characters, or, indeed interest. I was in the presence of a writer. I was in the middle of an explosion of beautifully-crafted, writerly sentences. I was eating a pudding laced with chocolate and brandy, smothered in double and whipped cream and custard. The taste was too heavy. The writing was so thick that it distanced me. In fact, I managed to read two pages of the final story, ‘Wolf Alice’ without really reading them — as if I’d been driving a car at night, listening to the radio, and found myself twelve miles up the road with no memory of driving them — because they felt simply like another wardrobe of extravagant finery. Two pages had gone into my eyes and whirled around my synapses, yet I had no idea what had happened in those pages — and I had no care to go back and find out. The story likely made as much sense without the two pages as it did with them. Wolves were involved.

I might try another Carter at some time, simply on the strength of Love. But if I do, I won’t be dipping into short stories again, and I suspect I will start with the earlier novels in the hope that the sauce isn’t quite as rich.

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Review — The Good Soldier –Ford Maddox Ford

The Good SoldierThe Good Soldier by Ford Madox Ford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed this. I had never previously read any Ford Maddox Ford, so didn’t know what to expect. I had no preconceived notions of topic, theme  or style. I thought there might be soldiers.

Written from first person perspective, the narrator might be speaking truth, might be lying, self-serving or just confused. And because of this, my feelings about the others characters, the characters the story is about, wavered and see-sawed. By the end, you might simply think everybody was bad in their own way. Or you might think them just the same as people everywhere. My feelings about them remain in the grey, unresolved middle.

Not knowing where the book was going, nor really what it was about, this Edwardian tale of a fine pair of married couples — one British, one American — soon subverted my expectations by becoming dark and twisty. I think I knew I was going to enjoy it, though, when the narrator, the husband of the American couple, goes on a train journey with the others and completely ignores his wife. Instead, he finds amusement in a cow that is knocked over in a stream by another cow. He laughs intermittently for the rest of the journey, still ignoring everybody else, and not telling them why he is laughing. This shows that there is something… distant and cold, perhaps, in our narrator, something a little cruel.

The novel is well-written. I enjoyed its style, even if it is deliberately rambling and non-sequential. Impressionistic and multi-threaded, it hops about and skates around in time. If you aren’t confused about something by the end of the novel, if you haven’t dropped a thread somewhere, I’ll be surprised. That is part of its charm.

The sheer size of another of Ford’s books, Parade’s End, had been intimidating me. No longer!

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Review — “The Fifth Voice” — Paul Connolly

The Fifth VoiceThe Fifth Voice by Paul Connolly

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is the second self-published novel I’ve read, and proves — if proof were needed — that there are many more story-tellers out there than the gatekeepers of traditional publishing allow through those gates. Although, at the same time, I understand that the gatekeepers only have towns of limited sizes, and can only nourish a certain population they hope will be productive (and I think I’ve strained that gatekeeper metaphor quite enough…).

Anyway, this is the simple tale of a barbershop quartet — yes, I said barbershop quartet — and of the lives and loves of the members of that quartet. The fifth voice of the title is a kind of supernumerary voice created by the perfect unison of the quartet members, but in the book becomes a metaphor for.. well.. many things. The plot and subplots are straightforward enough, with few twists and turns. It is a kind of lighthearted romcom/bromance about singing people. You aren’t going to be surprised where the plot goes, nor where the subplots end up.

But then, not every narrative needs, I feel, to include intricate webs of tangled threads and unusual weltbilds. If this is an ordinary tale about ordinary folk you or I might know, pursuing artistic fulfillment or self-actualisation through ordinary, if slightly unusual, hobbies, it is nonetheless interesting for that. As is often the case, a novel can be introduction to worlds unknown — in this case barbershop and a capella singing, and Lundy Island — and thus enrich a world.

Ultimately, this was an easy read, about people I might know, with problems I might understand, told in an entertaining an engaging way.

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Review — “Matter” — Ian M Banks

Matter (Culture, #8)Matter by Iain M. Banks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A very short review of a very long book…

I found this one of the more enjoyable of Banks’s sf books. I often find I like or appreciate the idea of what Banks is doing in sf more than I enjoy the books themselves, and some of the Culture books haven’t remained in my memory at all. What on earth, for example, was The Player of Games all about?

But Matter didn’t feel quite so overburdened with the weight — ironically, given its title — of its own cleverness and out-of-control invention, although I do think, like other of his books, it was a bit top-heavy with irrelevant detail (the appendix at the end only serving to reinforce this, with its lists of characters, spaceships, world levels and species names). Still, it was a romp, if a 550 page book can ever be a romp.

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Review – The Little Friend, Donna Tartt

The Little FriendThe Little Friend by Donna Tartt

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been sitting on my shelves for the last few years, taunting me. 555 pages long in my Bloomsbury edition, with narrow margins and tiny print, the first time I tried reading it I didn’t get much beyond page 50. But this is the year of attempting the big books; the year when I read many pages but few actual tomes as I work my through the neglected pile of “large, daunting books”.

I read The Secret History many years ago now, and while I enjoyed it, it wasn’t particularly memorable. I liked it and Tarrt’s style enough to want to explore any other books she might publish (and The Little Friend was the next), but couldn’t quite understand the reviews and plaudits Tartt had received.

I really enjoyed this book. Yes, there are a few longeurs — not so much tedious, as drifting slightly, Tartt caught up in her descriptions of her sensuous, well-realised world — but overall, the book kept up to its own slow, dreamy pace throughout. I was suprised, half-way through, to note a review on the cover saying the novel was “unputdownable”. I found it very putdownable. But also — and here’s the important point — easy enough to pick up again. I did want to return to that summer in Mississippi, somewhen in the 1970s, and settle down into the book’s ryhthms, wondering if young Harriet would avenge her brother’s murder or even know how to do that. Again, another review spoke of Tartt’s mastery of suspense; and again, I found myself surprised because the book never struck me as a novel of “suspense”. There are a few tense, gripping incidents, but over the course of nearly six hundred pages, suspense would be stretched far too thin, and the sensation would be lost. The book was better for having hard knots of action rather than tenuous “suspense”.

Tartt has a lovely way with language. It’s not my way, and I rather envy her for it; at the same time, were I to write like that, I’d be Tartt, and not me. She conjures a very rich world, a world thick with sight and sound and scents. And yet there lies the danger… Such evocations can spin away, and the language itself seems to become the point of paragraph after paragraph; it is during such flights that you might find yourself wishing for some of that promised suspense.

Nonetheless, the book was a qualified delight, and I shall now look forward to the equally daunting The Goldfinch with slightly less trepidation.

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