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He snorted softly to himself. It wasn’t selling souls that got you into trouble, it was buying them. Next time he would have to make sure there was a return policy. He laughed, opened his eyes a little. The dead man, Craddock, sat in the passenger seat next to him. He smiled at Jude, showing crooked and stained teeth and his black tongue. He smelled of death, also of car exhaust. His eyes were hidden behind those odd, continuously moving black brush strokes

Brrr. Spooky.

I feel for Mr Joe Hill though, I really do, because every review of this book starts with the same phrase. I don’t see any reason to break the tradition – see Joe Hill is Stephen King’s son.

I will say this though, I reckon he’s a better writer.

Judas Coyne (everyone calls him Jude) is a fifty-something rockstar who came up with the era of heavy metal and is now a lion in winter decked out in black leather, enjoying his reward for a career of Satanic-ish heavy metal by sleeping with goth-girl groupies named after the states of the union. He also has a predilection for the trappings of the occult and weird stuff in general. Not that he believes in any of it, he’s just a compulsive collector. Preserved skulls of madmen who had been trepanned, signed confessions of a witch burned at the stake, Aleister Crowley’s chessboard. Stuff like that.

So when a ghost comes up for auction online he immediately slaps down a bid for a thousand dollars. Judas Coyne’s very own ghost. The media release alone would make it a purchase worth its weight in gold.

Then the sceptic who enjoys scaring middle America with satanic rock finds himself trapped in a house with the ghost of a dead hypnotist. And it dearly wants to hurt him for what he did to its stepdaughter, another in a long line of groupies used up and dumped by Judas over the years. His own house becomes a prison, the stereo system whispering death threats and television announcers predicting his suicide. In a panic Judas takes to the road, racing through the night as a dead man in a funeral suit and fedora hat follows close behind.

Heart-Shaped Box comes with ecstatic blurbs from Kelly Link and Neil Gaiman. That got my attention. I open the book and there’s a quote from Alan Moore’s The Voice of FireHow may the dead have destinations? Ok, I was sold. It’s an impressive debut and Hill shows excellent promise. This is a simple ghost story, one that relies on that basic fear of death we all feel. No monsters or vampires jumping out from cornfields. Here the scares are delivered by spectres appearing at the end of a long, dark hallway, or Ouija boards suddenly jumping to life and dogs growling in fear at invisible presences. The haunt itself, Craddock, is a malevolent spirit, whose hypnotist powers add an extra dimension of fear, controlling the will of Coyne and those around him to harm themselves. Reminiscent of the demented preacher Kane from Poltergeist II, his relentless pursuit of the terrified former rock star turning a more or less traditional haunted house story into a spooky road trip across America.

As the title implies, this is a book written by a member of the post-Cobain generation. The media hysteria surrounding heavy metal, grunge and goth music is rejected with the simple truth that true horror often happens behind closed doors in family homes. The lyrics of bands tarred with the ‘satanic rock’ brush often expressed feelings of rage and self-loathing that attracted troubled teenage listeners without the means to speak out themselves. Judas Coyne is cynical about his music and the trappings of a rock star, but Hill establishes that he is just as much of a victim as some of the emotionally damaged young people who buy his records. Ozzy Osbourne, Motley Crue and Trent Reznor are name-checked in the novel, with Coyne’s association with them allowing the character to represent the era of their music.

This is a gripping debut, a frightening race into the black night. Read it with the light on.

Books always tell me to find “solitude,” but I’ve Googled their authors, and they all have spouses and kids and grandkids, as well as fraternity and sorority memberships. The universally patronizing message of the authors is “Okay, I got lucky and found someone to be with, but if I’d hung in there just a wee bit longer, I’d have achieved the blissful solitude you find me writing about in this book.”

Ever since Liz Dunn was a child she knew she was the loneliest girl in the world. Having grown into a 42 year old office worker, she has found herself stuck in the role of a spinster, harangued by her disappointed mother and pitied by her older and more successful siblings. Liz has taken to writing a record of her life after seeing a meteor shower while standing in the carpark of a video store. We learn about her childhood discovery of a dead body, a fateful encounter in Rome when she was on a school trip aged sixteen and the arrival of a handsome and  bewitching young man named Jeremy seven years ago – her twenty year old son.

Liz gave her baby up for adoption when he was born. The first she hears of him is when she is a late night phone call from hospital admissions saying she is listed as his emergency contact. Jeremy is recovering from a drug overdose and Liz agrees to take him in. In a single evening she has become a mother to a child she never thought she would see again. Jeremy is a charismatic, funny young man, who has his own little eccentricities. Including convincing Liz to crawl along a freeway in the middle of the afternoon. Having been bounced around adoption services his whole life, she discovers her son is a capable and independent young man, with a wicked sense of humour. They both get along incredibly well and Liz for the first time in her life no longer feels lonely. She refuses to reveal who Jeremy’s father is though and through her journal we learn more about the circumstances of her son’s conception during the school trip to Rome. Unfortunately having spent her life alone obsessed with death, Liz’s happiness is tragically cut short.

All the lonely people/ Where do they all come from?

Coupland writes stories about real people who endure lives of fantastical extremes. All Families Are Psychotic begins as a story about a mother and son who have contracted HIV, yet evolves into a gentle comedy about dysfunction, with a miraculous third act. This book continues Coupland’s themes of feuding families, mortality, owing to his own childhood as an army brat whose parents came strong religious backgrounds. His writing contains a lot of dry wit and low-key eccentrics lost in life’s twists and turns. This is tragedy on novacane, a numbed, weary response to the pain of loss, that gives way to a bleary kind of hope.

Each of Coupland’s novels are self-contained meditations on life and death, a formula he has perfected since his trope defining debut Generation X (despite his objections to being seen as a kind of spokesperson for shiftless slackers and baby boomer offspring).

Oh and the title? It’s Liz’s email address.

He even devised for himself a pseudonym for his alchemical work – ‘Ieova sanctus unus’, as a near anagram of ‘Isaacus Nevtonus’. The assumption of a name meaning ‘the one holy Jehovah’, may seem somewhat blasphemous, but it is perhaps indicative of the young Newton’s self-belief. Had he not been born, like the Saviour, on Christmas Day?

Peter Ackroyd’s historical fiction and biographies of notable figures are always a pleasure to read. He is incisive, witty and brings a vast array of references to the work at hand. He has published collections of his criticism that I would strongly recommend to fans of Clive James, or Anthony Lane. In the past I have enjoyed his novels such as The Lambs of London, The House of Doctor Dee and Hawksmoor, notable for inspiring Alan Moore’s Jack the Ripper tome From Hell.

In short he writes dense, yet very readable accounts of English history. I was surprised that his book on Newton was a straight biography, part of his Brief Lives series. I was expecting a fictional account, more along the lines of John Banville’s Kepler. It remains an authoritative text, despite its slim size.

Isaac Newton’s birth on Christmas Day was seen as something of a good omen, despite his sickly and weak appearance. His family’s circumstances were quite poor, his father already deceased and in truth he was not expected to live. Out of these troubled beginnings grew up a solitary, distracted young boy, already given to explosions of temper that would later be demonstrated by his inability to take criticism as an adult, as well as his controlling nature. Accounts of his early life often express surprise at his poor academic record in school, yet Ackroyd attributes this to a precocious intellectual fascination with more extra-curricular studies, such as experimenting with kites and self-made devices.

His head master and other notables recognized the adolescent’s more cerebral gifts and convinced his mother to allow him to continue with his studies as opposed to a life on the farm. He eventually achieved a place at Cambridge University, where he would spend most of his life. His early fascination with optics led him to study the philosophy of Rene Descartes, even going so far as to insert a ‘bodkin’, between his own eye in order to prove through experiment his own conclusions. Even at this early stage Newton was a fierce critic of overly hypothetical discourses, arguing that experimentation and logic were the only true arbiters of reason. Such passionate self-belief would lead to confrontations with peers such as Robert Hooke and Irish philosopher Robert Boyle. Newton’s contentions with these luminaries emerge only through private correspondence for the most part, as the student was still a sheltered and private man. He was also given over to controversial religious beliefs, such as a refusal to accept the Holy Trinity, preferring early Christian notion of Jesus being the son of man, not the Son of God. In addition, his fascination with alchemy would remain hidden well after his death, as it was seen to besmirch his later rationalist successes.

However, the support of Edmond Haley and his help in Newton’s eventual publication of The Principia Mathematica, a purely logical account of the forces of nature (written in Latin to warn off too-eager critics) catapulted the author onto the world stage. He would be feted by kings and tsars, contend with Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz and be cited by Voltaire in jest, earn the acrimony of William Blake and the Romantic poets for, in their eyes, stripping the natural world of its wonder. He was even chosen to be the Member of Parliament for Cambridge, on the side of the Whig party and a staunch defender of Protestanism. His quote regarding ‘standing on the shoulder of giants’, is printed on the British two pound coin, as he rose to the rank of controller of the Mint itself. He was a remarkable man, a polymath and undisputed genius.

Ackroyd shines a light on the superficially conflicting aspects of Newton. He was a rationalist with a mechanistic vision of the world who was nevertheless devoted to study of the Scriptures and the alchemical pursuit of the Philosopher’s Stone. A philosopher who has done more to define the nature of science and the necessary objectivity of the scientist. A thinker who was determined to apply himself to the practical considerations of running the Mint.

This is an informed and revealing account of one of the most important minds in scientific history, who did more to define our understanding of the world in his time, than anyone since Aristotle. A brilliant man and a fascinating study.

‘Gentlemen,’ he said gravely. ‘We must partake of the game of the people – from whom, I might add, we derive. Has any of us, in the last few decades, even seen the game being played? I thought not. We should get outside more.

Football. Football, football, football! Right, that’s that over with. The game of two halves, jumpers for goal posts, all that, has landed in the city of Ankh-Morpork. Of course this means disaster is just around the corner.

The wizards of the Unseen University have discovered that essential funding for the faculty (mostly spent on their multiple breakfasts, lunches and dinners) is tied up with an arcane law that requires them to play a single game of foot-the-ball. Unfortunately the game has been made illegal and is played on the back streets of the city. Well not so much played, as fought. Often to the death. Of course Lord Vetinari the Patrician of Ankh-Morpork has a plan.

There’s also the matter of the mysterious Mister Nutt, a goblin with a dark secret. Hidden beneath the University, employed as a dribbler (which is somebody who dribbles candle wax on the wick to give that perfect eldritch look that wizards require in their light sources). Seen as a posh sort, for having a vocabulary of more than seven hundred words, Mister Nutt is an unlikely candidate for such a dreary job. Yet he seems harmless enough and is taken in by Trev Likely and the kindly Glenda Sugarbean. Unbeknownst to them, their new friend’s past is about to catch up with them all. He is not just any ordinary goblin. The city has become a home for dozens of races, trolls, dwarves, even vampires. Mister Nutt is different, a pawn in a dangerous game of Vetinari’s to resolve centuries old racial conflict. It just so happens he’s chosen the game of foot-the-ball to resolve these issues.

The danger in reviewing Pratchett books is the temptation to try and be as funny. Of course, this is impossible. Also Unseen Academicals contains his usual mixture of satire and commentary. The Discworld novels may be set in a world of mythical creatures, but Pratchett introduces more and more contemporary issues into the mix. Of late the multicural mix of Ankh-Morpork has been given a great deal of attention.

Glenda Sugarbean is yet another strong Pratchett heroine, the only one who sees Mister Nutt for who he really is. As a cook working in the Unseen University, she is privy to the discussions on gentrifying football and resents the manipulation of the working class by ‘the nobs’. Vetinari’s plan is to make the city more progressive, no matter what anyone thinks. The men who play foot-the-ball in the backstreets are being chewed up by mob violence and their wives and daughters are trapped at home hoping for opportunity to snatch them away from their dreary lives.

Pratchett throws in references to Romeo and Juliet, women’s magazines and useless football commentators to keep the joke quotient high, but at the same time what’s most striking is his interest in people, how they think, how they act. Yes this is satire, but more a gentle ribbing of our weaknesses and failings. If ever you’ve read Pratchett before, you already know he’s a master of this kind of thing. If you haven’t, Unseen Academicals is a perfect introduction.

That there were two sides to Hamzah Effendi was common knowledge. The family man and the crime boss, Jekyll Effendi to Felaheen Hyde. Offend the first and he’d buy out your company and close it down. Offend the second and he’d slaughter your children, bulldoze your house into the ground and sow that ground with rock salt. There was something very biblical about some of those reports on file.

I picked this book up in the library as both the title and premise intrigued me. This is a novel set in an alternate reality where the Ottoman Empire never failed, yet similarities with our world remain. What I did not realize was that this book is the second entry in Courtenay Grimwood’s Arabesk trilogy. Consequently I was a little at a loss when characters appeared without introduction. I imagine the first book in the sequence, Pashazade, probably explains exactly what the points of difference within this alternate timeline are.

Nevertheless I was able to get to grips with the plot of the book, which begins as a murder mystery set in the city of El Iskandriyah, with the investigation conducted by Ashraf al-Mansur (referred to as Raf) uncovering a history of war atrocities and child soldiers. At various points the book introduces flashbacks to a war in the Sudan, which slowly reveals the truth behind the present-day events.

Our hero Raf is an enigmatic figure, whose identity is shrouded in mystery, having arrived in Iskandriyah under false pretences and wrangled himself a position within the police force. The story begins on the 27th October, with Raf acting as Magister to a trio of international judges called to oversee the trial of industrialist and rumoured crime boss Hamzah Effendi. We then cut to July of that year and witness the events that led to the trial. Hamzah is framed for a series of ritualistic murders involving American female tourists in the city. The victims are found to have been partying at clubs owned by the businessman and his own daughter Zara is rumoured to be a target of a kidnapping plot. Realizing that he no longer has the protection of the Governor General Koenig Pasha, Hamzah tries to convince his daughter to leave the country. She refuses believing that he is only looking to marry his daughter off following her embarrassing and very public rejection at the hands of Raf in the previous book.

As more murders occur, each with Hamzah’s initials carved into the wrists of the victims, Raf discovers that there is more than one killer involved. Former European intelligence agents and Soviet Spetsnatz soldiers are carrying out copy cat killings and arson attacks on the city. Furthermore the Governor General seems to know more than he’s letting on, dropping cryptic hints that lead Raf to investigate Hamzah’s past as a child soldier in the Sudan and the mysterious Colonel Abad, presumed dead. On top of all that he has to keep his precocious niece Hani under control and figure out how he really feels about Zara, who may be married off to the young Khedive for her own protection.

I enjoy alternate history novels, imagining how history might have gone if significant events had turned out different. Not only do they allow for interesting science fiction yarns, but they throw new light on how we perceive historical progress. World War I is generally seen as a response to the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. Official accounts do not describe it as a resource war over oil in the Middle East. In Effendi we have a strong, independent Muslim North Africa that controls its natural resources, while mention is made of a more insular United States and there is an offhand remark regarding Scotland’s oil reserves having been depleted. The lingua franca of the region is Arabic first, Hebrew Spanish and French next, with English a distant fourth or fifth. It’s an interesting premise for what is a fairly standard murder mystery/political thriller plot.

The hero Rah himself enjoys certain mysterious physical advantages that are ascribed to extensive childhood surgical implants. He has visions of a fox that advises him on what to do, courtesy of a device in his brain that acts like an augmented reality filter.

What this all adds up to is a quite entertaining and inventive yarn, though strangely for a novel set in an Arabic country, references to Christian Hell and Dante feature throughout. A fun romp.

 

I had no idea, however, that it was a turning point in my career. You realize these things only later and I am a bit impatient with memoirists who claim to have foreseen their destiny. I have never been able to foresee very far beyond tomorrow. Even when I lay a long plan, it is never in the expectation that I will live to see it fulfilled.

Clive James’ talk shows and documentaries were as important a part of my childhood as TRON and the Queen soundtrack to Flash Gordon. My dad was a big fan and he had the remote. In earlier years, he simply commanded authority over the television channels by virtue of being the man of the house. Technology simplifies things.

North Face of Soho takes off from where James’ previous volume ended, with marriage behind him and the slow progress from Cambridge Footlights to a writing career begun. Wisely the focus of the biography is the early stages of a professional career, with little time for kiss and tell revelations. The confessional tone is left intact though, with indiscretions both alcoholic and narcotic the cause of much of his suffering. James’ rueful style of self-reflection is devoid of false modesty and he makes it clear that any success he’s enjoyed has been due to extraordinary luck in the people he has met on the way up.

There’s also name dropping aplenty, with various journalistic mentors providing opportunities to hobnob with celebrities and stars of the London literary scene. James’ brief tenure with the underground magazine Oz is briefly touched on, which I only just recently heard about for the first time in an essay by Alan Moore featured in Dodgem Logic. There’s his failed attempt at a biography of Louis MacNeice; the conclusion of his acting career and an astonishingly wrong-headed approach to negotiations with Equity; his first forays into criticism, moving from the anonymity of TLS, to radio and finally television, his true home; and lunching with the young literary turks of 1970’s London, Martin Amis and Christopher Hitchens.

Peppered throughout are James’ own thoughts on criticism, writing and celebrity. He discusses his media profile as a member of the Australian wave that washed up in London, mentioning Barry Humphries and Germaine Greer. He even makes mention of how as his reputation as a critic grew, his name became shorthand for any particularly apt, or cutting description of a celebrity. In that regard his infamous quip on Arnold Schwarznegger a brown condom filled with walnuts’, manages to conjure up the perfect image, while also managing to be unusually prescient as to the sexual misadventures of the Governator.

I was surprised with how difficult I found reading this book. I’ve read James’ television criticism in the past and found it still very amusing. He had me fascinated to find out who killed JR! Part of the problem for me, one that James’ own mentors describe during his apprenticeship, is that he tries to fit too much into every sentence. It’s especially ironic that he reveres George Orwell so much, as he was a key exponent of the value of short, descriptive sentences. What’s more reading the book does feel like a deluge of cameos and asides on the styles of the time. There are wonderful thumbnail descriptions of Martin Amis, Ian McKellen and The Sex Pistols, but they are lost, adrift in the sea of James’ endless reminiscences. How can someone be so wonderfully knowledgeable and verbose, while at the same time boring? Reading the book felt like being stuck in that lift with Stephen Fry.

However, for me there was one personal high point, when James talks about Tony Wilson, acknowledging his fellow intellectual manqué who chose regional television programming over academic success. This book was published only a year before Wilson himself died and here he is credited with his endless efforts to bring culture to Manchester, singing its praises from the roof-tops.  

Tony Wilson was brilliant. Unfortunately there was no other word for him.

In two pithy phrases Clive James sums up the appeal of Tony Wilson, while also alluding to the root cause of his failure. And that manages to sum up the author himself – brilliant, but in short bursts.

Above all she seemed to fear his sudden death (heart attack, car accident), his “disappearing” – “vanishing.”

Like the first husband Dirk supposed.

Except, strangely, Ariah no longer seemed to recall that she’d had a first husband, before Dirk Burnaby.

Joyce Carol OatesThe Falls begins with a tragedy that leads to an unexpected romance and union between two lonely people. For most stories, that might be scope enough for a novel. Oates goes further though, spinning her tale to take in desire, betrayal, corruption, murder and finally, decades after the events that set this story in motion, a kind of redemption.

When Gilbert Erskine jumps from the railings of the Niagara Falls in June 1950, he leaves behind his bride married only hours before. A tortured young man who expected to find in his older wife a replacement mother figure, he instead found himself repulsed by the act of sex itself, compounding all the contradictions in his character, such as being a Presbyterian minister who rigidly believes in the Biblical age of the Earth, yet also feels fascinated by fossils. His bride Ariah Erskine, nee Littrell, is left feeling abandoned, damned, blaming herself for her husband of less than 24 hours’ death. While emergency services search for the body, she takes up a silent vigil of the Falls, which is reported widely in the media, her story fodder for local headlines and gossip. For seven days she waits, refusing to speak to her parents, or Gilbert’s, lying to the investigators who ask if there was a suicide note so that the reputation of a man of god can be protected. When the bloated corpse is finally retrieved, she collapses after recognizing the ring on his finger.

For years the story of the ‘Widow-Bride of the Falls’, is retold, becoming a timeless urban legend, a ghostly figure who is said to still be seen at her vigil. But Ariah’s life continues. During the seven days a young lawyer named Dirk Burnaby offered his services, interceding on her behalf with the emergency crews, the Erskines and Littrells, trying to keep her picture out of the paper. Dirk is a handsome, charismatic local celebrity, blessed with good luck and a powerful family that protects him from his gambling losses and romantic indiscretions. This golden boy and competitive legal eagle is surprised to find himself falling for the brittle and thin-lipped Ariah and proposes to her. They marry in a civil wedding, ignoring the cries of shame from their respective families.

Ariah takes the name of Burnaby, her third surname, and settles into a contented life of affection and mutual devotion. Still she can never feel truly secure, fearing this second husband will also leave, as the man she refers to only as the other did. When she discovers she is pregnant she is terrified by the thought that this is the product of her abrupt one night of married life with Erskine. In all the husband and wife Burnaby have three children, Chandler, Royall and daughter Juliet. Ariah’s fears of being damned, cursed by causing her first husband’s suicide, never dissipate and soon the family is touched once again by tragedy, with the Falls claiming another life.

Oates’ fluid and lyrical style of writing is matched to a plot that surges like the waters of the Falls themselves. Ariah at first believes in a strict moral universe ruled over by a judgemental God, but slowly sees nothing but random chance at work in her world. Dirk never questions the advantages he enjoys as a member of the jetset upper class. When finally he is confronted with a conspiracy that betrays everything he has taken for granted in his privileged life, he is unable to perceive the nature of evil even as it stares him in the face. In the town around the Falls the tourist industry is booming, but secrets have been buried in the ground, secrets attached to the name of Burnaby. Oates takes this story of two people who have found one another, found love in the midst of tragedy and challenges that love, dashing their happiness against the rocks. It’s a story that is passed along three generations, finally ending in the autumn of 1978. A story of voices luring suicides to their end in the Falls, oedipal mothers availing of face-lifts, the mysterious woman in black and a strange shaven-headed boy who holds the answers to the tragedy that haunts the Burnabys.

A truly amazing book.

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