NEVERHOME by Laird Hunt

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neverhomepicSet during the American civil war Neverhome tells the story of gallant Ash Thomson, a married farmer who joins the Union Army in search of adventure. What makes Ash’s story stand out from the thousands of young men who followed a similar path is the fact that Ash is a woman.

Referring to her husband, Ash reasons: “I was strong and he was not, so it was me went to war to defend the Republic,” Leaving him behind to tend their farm, Ash is driven to fight by the memory of her formidable mother and a wanderlust which taunts her like an itch that can’t be scratched.

Passing as a man isn’t too difficult for Ash given her fondness for arm-wrestling and facility with a firearm. She soon enlists and undergoes training.

On the way to battle Ash earns the nickname “Gallant Ash” by giving her coat away to an overexposed young lady who has suffered a wardrobe malfunction whilst cheering on the troops. This exploit is made into a ballad which follows Ash throughout her travails.

Over the course of the novel Ash experiences the horrors of soldiering first-hand and finds the possibility of switching between genders strategically useful. Her dual gender roles also give her more access to female perspectives and what their wartime experiences entails.

Along the way she encounters a heroic former agoraphobic, a professor of classics who is a reluctant colonel, a village where the soon to be dead bear witness to each others indiscretions in a public forum, and a widow who keeps an outdoor bed beneath the stars.

The story is told from Ash’s perspective so we have to take her word for truth in regards to the veracity of what transpires, although at times we are left to wonder whether our narrator is embroidering certain aspects of her tale.

As a result of experiencing the story through Ash’s eyes we are party to what may be hallucinations as war takes its inevitable toll on her psyche. A memorable moonlit bath with confederate soldiers ending with asphyxiation is one of the events of uncertain provenance.

Throughout the novel allusions are made to different tales about war, most obvious are the references to Odysseus. Similar to the Odyssey, the plot of Neverhome is as much about Ash’s homecoming as it is about her going to war.

Ash’s post-war encounter with Bartholomew, an inconstant Penelope as it transpires, is as important as her decision to go to war in the first place.

Neverhome is a very enjoyable novel. This is due, in a large part to the character Ash who is a well realised and genuinely interesting character. She is a pragmatist who does what she must to get by. While her actions are radical in terms of women’s expected roles at the time, Ash proceeds without an ideology, preferring actions over words. She doesn’t politely insist on equality but instead takes it using her cunning and her pistol.

Interestingly the physical aspect of Ash’s transformation is not dwelt on by the author. An occasional reference is made to certain precaution Ash must take to avoid discovery but it is not a central preoccupation of the novel. We are spared over-long depictions of breast binding and “gosh darn yer a girl!!!!” moments.

For the most part other characters accept Ash for what she presents herself as, her superiors perhaps willing to turn a blind eye to details like gender in the case of such a capable soldier.

By avoiding the temptation of stock gender switching clichés the author is free to create a genuinely original and engaging character who breathes new life into an almost  worn out old trope.

I have not read any novels by Laird Hunt prior to Neverhome but I intend to rectify that in the near future.

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The Spinning Heart by Donal Ryan

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ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

ISBN: 978-1-781-62007-6

Donal Ryan burst onto the Irish literary scene last year helped in no small part by his novel The Spinning Heart being nominated for the 2013 Booker prize. The Spinning Heart paints a picture of post boom time Ireland and features some of the most bewitching prose I’ve come across in a while.

The backbone of the story centres on the fall of local hero Bobby Mahon. Bobby is a former football star who worked as a building site foreman during the times of economic prosperity. Despite being adored by his fellow towns people Bobby is a self-effacing, hardworking man who does not like too much of a fuss being made about him.

Things begin to unravel for Bobby when his boss, the quintessential Irish boom time property developer, ‘Pokey Burke’ skips town to avoid paying debts.  Pokey leaves a half-finished housing development or “ghost estate” and a crew of disgruntled builders in his wake.

On top of all this Bobby also has to shoulder the burden of his spiteful father, an undying man who seems to be sustained by hate. His father, jealous of Bobby’s relationship with his now deceased mother, was a man who; “sat silently swallowing her claim to a life…drunk he was leering and silent and mostly asleep. Sober, he was watcher, a horror of a man who missed nothing and commented on everything. Nothing was ever done right or cooked right or said right or bought right or handed to him properly or ironed straight or finished off fully with him. We couldn’t breathe right in a room with him.

Matters go from bad to worse when it transpires that the greasy Mr.Burke has neglected to pay social security on behalf of his employees meaning they are not entitled to redundancy payments or unemployment assistance. Bobby, decent man that he is, feels responsible for this situation despite being unaware of Burke’s machinations.

Amid the aftermath of Pokey’s flight a murder happens in which Bobby is implicated and the consequences reverberate throughout the town. The story is related to us from the vantage point of the various townspeople, twenty-one in total, their fragments revealing the broader story to the reader.

Ryan successfully finds distinctive voices for each member of his literary symphony, each possessing their own idiosyncrasies, and back stories which could stand alone as short stories. The only shortcoming in the novel lies in one of these characters narrative trajectories which features an ill-conceived child kidnap sub plot which fails to convince.

This lapse is forgivable in light of Ryan’s prose and highly memorable turn of phrase. The local gossips are referred to as “The Teapot Taliban,” whose aged veins run with “pill thinned blood”. I will restrain myself from quoting any more as once one begins quoting a writer of Ryan’s quality it’s hard to know when to stop.

I highly recommend this book to anyone with a love of literary fiction or an interest in seeing a snapshot of modern rural Ireland. The Spinning Heart was one of the most enjoyable pieces of fiction I read in 2013.I hope to have a review of Ryan’s second published novel The Thing About December posted by early next week.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane by Neil Gaiman

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ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

ISBN:978-1-4722-0032-7

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is the title of British fantasy superstar Neil Gaiman’s latest novel. It tells the story of an unnamed protagonist who revisits his childhood hometown while on his way to a wedding. On arriving there he pays a visit to the home of the Hempstocks, a neighbouring family who live on an isolated farm.

The Hempstock family are comprised of three feisty, independent minded women who represent three generations of the family. If you are familiar with fantasy/mythological tropes or know your Macbeth, I needn’t tell you the significance of a triumvirate of females who live outside society…

While visiting the Hempstock house as his adult self the protagonist takes a while to sit by a pond, the “ocean” of the title. Here long forgotten/ magically repressed memories of a childhood adventure come flooding back allowing him to revisit them from his present day adult perspective.

The narrator recounts an incident from his past involving the suicide of a lodger, who stole the protagonist’s father’s car in order to commit the dark deed. This act triggered a sinister supernatural shift which altered the benign world of the narrator’s childhood into something altogether more unsettling. Help comes in the form of Lettie Hempstock, the youngest, in appearance at least, of the Hempstock women.

Lettie helps the narrator battle a supernatural entity that has been causing chaos, by granting wishes in an over literal manner, tending to the baser more materialistic side of human nature. The narrator and Lettie defeat the malign entity, or so it seems. Alas the narrator commits the classic mythological error of not following instruction given to him by the magic literate Lettie down to the tiniest detail.

Gaiman is writer who has a compendious knowledge of global mythology and incorporates these tropes into all his work. Magic as presented in fairy tales and myths is mercilessly legalistic and is defined and regulated by tightly bound ritual contracts. By having his protagonist deviate from the instructions given to him by Lettie, Gaiman pays his mythological dues, and signals to us the reader that there will be consequences.

These consequences come in the form of a sinister new house keeper Ursula Monkton. Ursula insinuates herself into the heart of the narrators family by seducing those around her. To the narrator’s mother she is a young woman with impeccable qualifications for minding children, to his sister a glamorous role model, and to his father an object of sexual desire.

Only the narrator is immune to her charms, as his adult self recounts, “She smiled at us both, brightly. She really was pretty, for a grown up, but when you are seven, beauty is an abstraction, not an imperative. I wonder what I would have done if she had smiled at me like that now: whether I would have handed my mind or my heart or my identity to her for the asking, as my father did.

The narrator’s immediate suspicion of Ursula Monkton soon puts him at odds with the rest of his family. With no one else to rely on he must seek out the Hempstocks for assistance, but this is more easily said than done when you are seven years old and grounded.

The Ocean At The Lane is a fun but rather slight read which is not without its flaws, the primary one being missed opportunity. By using the device of having an adult recount his childhood adventure from the perspective of middle age, Gaiman creates a potentially fascinating way of exploring the disparities between our adult and childhood selves.

Instead of being used to explore the rich psychological seam it promises, this device is used in a rather mechanical way to propel the narrative which doesn’t do justice to the premise of the novel. His narrator credulously recounts his fantastical childhood adventures without once doubting the veracity of these memories.

My other problem with the novel is a recurring one I have with Gaiman’s work, his characters seldom become more than archetypes. Perhaps this is due to the influence of myth on the authors writing where archetypes are the norm and stories are told in broad strokes in order to convey ideas rather than nuance, sadly it doesn’t work well in the novel format. The main character is an empty vessel who reacts to the exigencies of plot in a rather clockwork way.

The supporting characters, with the exception of the Hempstock women, are paper-thin, the mother in particular being an absent cypher. Her existence barely extends beyond the letters used to spell the word ‘mother’ on the page. The Hempstock women are a portrayed with a little more success. Their characters are more rounded and their interaction feels genuine.

The depiction of the Hempstock women is interesting as it reveals a certain laziness on behalf of the author. One gets the feeling that the author was more invested in thesecharacters, their magical nature making them more entertaining to write. The evidence suggests that Gaiman can write characters with a bit more depth, but only when they are of particular interest to him.

All in all, The Ocean At The End Of The Lane is a novel which doesn’t live up to its promise. A tangible element of auto pilot has entered Gaiman’s work and one feels a change in genre might be in order. It is hard not to feel that Gaiman’s writing has suffered since he moved away from comic books to the novel form, a feeling which is confirmed by rereading his majestic Sandman series published by Vertigo comics.

The Ocean At End Of The Lane is by no means terrible it is also not particularly memorable.  This novel will keep Gaiman’s fans happy but is hardly likely to win over the unconverted. Regardless there is a large audience for this kind of thing in our post Harry Potter cultural landscape and the book will no doubt be a smash hit. Expect an inevitable movie version.

Bedlam by Christopher Brookmyre

ISBN: 978-1-4087-0407-3

ISBN: 978-1-4087-0407-3

Video games seem to be undergoing something of a makeover in popular culture at the moment. While previously viewed to be the preserve of anti-social spotty teenagers who are just a hair’s breadth away from shooting up their high-school, there seems to be a shift in this perception. While traditional media outlets still insist on marginalising video games, through allocating tiny sections of their publications to lip service reviews of video games, the rest of the culture seems to be catching on to the significance of this exciting and revolutionary young medium a little faster.

Evidence of this may be seen in Disney’s latest 3D animation Wreck-it Ralph, which moves away from the horrible concept of the video game script adapted for the big screen such as the Resident Evil series or the abomination that was the Streetfighter live action movie. Rather than bastardise an existing video game story Wreck-it Ralph serves up an original script using video games and their characters to create original premises. Crime novel writer Christopher Brookmyre’s latest novel and first foray in Sci-Fi, Bedlam continues and expands upon this trend.

Bedlam tells the story of scientist Ross Baker, an everyman type character who is working for an ethically dubious tech company named Neurosphere. Undervalued by his colleagues and facing difficulties in his relationship, Ross is dissatisfied with his lot in life. Upon volunteering as a guinea pig in order to help a colleague test a revolutionary new medical scanner, Ross finds himself transported to a strange world which he somehow finds familiar. On top of this he is inhabiting the body of a monstrous cyborg, and a war is raging all around him. A little investigation soon reveals that Ross is trapped inside Starfire, a first person shooter videogame he played obsessively in his teenage years.

The twist is that this time he is participating in the game as one of the villains, rather than as the square-jawed hero. Ross must learn what has happened to him and try to figure out a way back home as well as dealing with the existential questions his plight throws up. If Ross is fully conscious inside a video game what does this say about his previous presumptions about reality? With his certainties about the nature of reality shaken, Ross becomes fixated on a sophistic proposition he read many years ago in Philosophy Quarterly. The proposition forwarded by professor Nick Bostrom states one of the following must be true: “ One: The chances of a species at our current level of development can avoid going extinct before becoming technologically mature is negligibly small. Two: Almost no technologically mature civilisations are interested in running computer simulations of minds like ours. Three: You are almost certainly in a simulation.

Without giving too much away Brookmyre expands his concept to include the multiple video game universes which will be familiar to gamers. Brookmyre treats the subject of video games with the affectionate humour of a fan unafraid to point out the more absurd aspects of the medium. For instance, early on Ross is frustrated to find that he can’t simply pick up the more powerful weapons possessed by his opponents as it is not the correct stage of the game for him to possess such potent weaponry. Fun is also made of Non Player Characters, or NPC’s as they are called in gamer lingo, difficulty in negotiating doors. While not hilarious to the casual reader, any gamer will immediately recognise these familiar frustrations and smile. As a Skyrim fan I laughed aloud when an adventurer complained about an “arrow to the knee”.

Brookmyre also plays with notions of nationality and how they conflict with the generally default cheesy American accent of most video game protagonists played by English-speaking gamers. When speaking to video game characters that are space marines, the Scottish Ross must speak fluent macho ‘videogamese’, or as Brookmyre puts it, “he had to give it the right ring of authentically macho bollocks so that they would grasp the situation quickly. ‘The fight back starts here,’ Ross said, dropping his voice an octave… It sounded pretty good, and the looks on their faces suggested his tone had hit that sweet spot somewhere between Jesus and arrogant wanker that Americans seemed to respond to so well.”

Bedlam is written by an author who seems to have a genuine affection for the medium of video games. While pointing out some of the current flaws inherent in game-worlds, due to technical limitations, Brookmyre never looks down on or patronises the world of games and gamers. Instead he seems alert to the possibilities of a medium still in its infancy. Bedlam is, above all things fun to read. Brookmyre has a combative sense of humour which works well within his fish out of water premise. My only reservations would be whether a non-gamer would enjoy the novel as much as I did, given the amount of video game based in jokes present in the world Brookmyre has created. The novel is the first in a trilogy but is satisfactorily self-contained and avoids leaving story threads hanging.

There is also a tie-in video game published by Red Bedlam studios scheduled for release soon, the quality of which remains to be seen given the previous dire history of writer/video game maker cross overs. Perhaps this time we should have faith. Brookmyre has successfully created the world’s first video game tie-in novel which isn’t a steaming pile of crap so maybe Red Bedlam can rise to the challenge and create something a bit special. I have included a link to the Nick Bostrom proposition mentioned in the novel below if anyone is interested:

http://www.simulation-argument.com/simulation.html

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Silent House by Orhan Pamuk

Orhan Pamuk’s seventh novel to be published in the English-speaking world, Silent House, is in fact the author’s second novel, first published in Turkish in 1983. It is a wonder that this translation has taken so long to emerge in the English language given Mr.Pamuk’s immense popularity throughout the Anglophonic world. Not that I’m complaining, it’s just that I enjoy his work so consistently it makes me a little impatient for more. Perhaps some Turkish lessons are in order.

Set at the height of the tensions which came about as a result of the armed Left/Right conflicts of the 1970’s, and just prior to the military coup of 1980, Pamuk’s novel gives us an oblique view of these events from multiple perspectives featuring six narrators.

The novel opens from the perspective of Fatma, an aged widow living the life of a recluse. She is embittered by her life experiences which she obsessively recalls with self-masochistic relish. Fatma has been destroyed by an unsuitable marriage to an eccentric alcoholic Doctor, the premature demise of her son, and her own guilt. As her story progresses we learn more about her past and marriage to Dr.Selahattin, a man whose political activities result in him and his wife being exiled from Istanbul and forced to move to a house in the backwater of Gebze where she still  resides.

As we watch the marriage unfold we observe Selahattin’s increasing obsession with Western enlightenment thinking. His preoccupation takes physical form in an overly ambitious ‘encyclopaedia of everything’ which he spends his every free moment compulsively composing. It is his belief that when this hulking tome is published its contents will ‘awaken the East from its slumber’. Deprived of patients due to the fear he creates in the surrounding village with his strident atheism, Selahattin spends his days writing, drinking and ‘educating’ his wife who does not share his enthusiasm for ‘Western’ values. Forced to pawn all she owns in order to keep them afloat financially, Fatma is repaid for this with infidelity.

Approaching the end of her life in Gebze, a place which has undergone so much development Fatma no longer recognises it, she lies in her bed stewing over her past and awaiting a visit from her grandchildren, with only her servant, the dwarf named Recep, whom she both depends upon and despises, for company.

The put upon Recep, who is a result of Selahatin’s infidelity, is Fatma’s only real connection to the world and the source of much of her feelings of shame and guilt, the reasons for which are revealed over the course of the novel. Recep is a simple and kind man who suffers from an existential loneliness. He is uncomplaining and tolerates Fatma’s persistent abuse with resignation. He watches the lives of those around him and the mistakes they make without judgement, and is the unacknowledged backbone of his employer’s family. Unnoticed to Fatma and her dysfunctional grandchildren he labours away in the background without asking for or expecting thanks. He is kind to all including his violent nephew Hasan who has fallen in with right-wing nationalists.

Hasan is disenfranchised from mainstream society due to poverty and is embittered by this. Unable to settle into work or study he spends his days wandering the streets aimlessly in search of distraction and indulging in pathetic power fantasies. As he watches Gebze develop into a seaside resort he feels a mixture of attraction and repulsion. Embittered by what he feels to be his exclusion from society he creates a sense of empowerment by aligning himself with the extreme right. In doing so he is able to demonise the progress around him as immoral, using religion and tradition in a reactionary fashion to decry those he feels have excluded him. Pamuk’s portrayal of this angry young man is a highly perceptive study of the kind of disenfranchised outcast who through his own sense of injured self-aggrandisation, may be coerced into committing extreme actions by those who would seek to profit from it.

Fatma’s visiting grandchildren are Faruk, Metin and Nilgun. The portly and melancholic Faruk is wallowing in the failure of his marriage and perhaps more importantly his loss of faith in history. A depressive and drinker like his father and grandfather he mooches around various archives seeking inspiration for an undefined history book. His only confidante is his younger sister Netin, a student of left leaning ideologies, who indulges his melancholy nature whilst trying to gently prod him towards becoming an engaged historian again. Their brother Metin is a money obsessed would be social-climber, who wants to get to America at all costs. He covetously eyes his grandmother’s property which has become a valuable piece of real estate due to the development of Gebze

Featuring Pamuk’s usual themes; the intersection of East and West, romantic obsession, memory, regret, and cars,the story weaves together the strands of the characters lives, revealing their pasts and presents which will collide in one tragic moment.Occasionally the execution of the writing doesn’t quite match the ambition of the structure. It is hard to tell if this is the fault of Pamuk or the books translator Robert Finn. This is a minor complaint though and does not seriously mar enjoyment of the novel. I found Silent House to be an enjoyable, informative novel and an interesting insight into the progression of a writer.

The Song Of Achilles by Madeline Miller

ISBN: 978 1 4088 1603 5
The Song Of Achilles is a contemporary retelling of the myth of Achilles, by Madeline Miller. The novel covers the familiar ground of Achilles semi-divine origins, his friendship with Patroclus, his training with Chiron, and his role in the eventual siege of Troy. Those who are familiar with the myth may question the point of its retelling.

The answer may be found in the nature of myth. Originating in an era where literacy was a minority pursuit, oral retellings of a tale by story tellers were common place. While we may associate these tales with surviving versions which are familiar to us, such as the version which appears in Homer’s Iliad, these tales were broadly told by multiple tellers.

As such multiple versions of popular myths existed simultaneously, definitive versions being a later product of history. Mythical stories tend to feature archetypical characters and scenarios which provided a scaffold for story tellers to weave their craft around. This accounts for the durable structure of myth which can incorporate multiple minor alterations to its tapestry without losing the core of the story.

So how has Miller fared in retelling a tale told previously by giants such as Homer and Plato? Quite well I’m pleased to report. Instead of taking on these masters in their home territory, the epic, Miller has moved arenas to the very modern realm of the personal and individual. Characters found in preserved versions of the Achilles myth are presented in a more nuanced form derived from realist tradition with added contemporary concerns such as individual psychology and personal motivation not present in ancient versions.

This is particularly evident in the portrayal of the relationship between Patroclus and Achilles. In earlier versions of the myth we are assured of these men’s friendship and take it as a given without been told much about the reasons behind it. This has left the nature of their relationship open for interpretation according to the tastes and needs of the storyteller. Miller has chosen to portray it primarily as a romance and skilfully depicts the maturation of their relationship as it develops from childhood companions to adult lovers, which fully accounts for their devotion to each other.

Despite Achilles’ starring role in the title the tale is told from the perspective of Patroclus which helps to accentuate the human rather than divine aspects of the tale. We observe the deeds of the demi-god Achilles from a very specific human perspective. This alters the dynamic of the tale radically, instead of being passive observers of a hero and his deeds we feel concern about for Achilles’ wellbeing and fret for his safety along with Patroclus. I felt that for the author humanity is the real star of the show, its complexity and contradictions being of more interest to her than the two dimensional traits of godhood. There is evidence for this in the novels focus on Patroclus, and the fact that most of Achilles divine deeds and interactions take place off page whereas his more human moments are what drive the narrative.

The author’s realistic treatment extends to the more fantastical characters also. Chiron the centaur, instructor of Achilles and Patroclus, came alive for me in a way I haven’t often experienced with fantastical characters. The fact that he was a human torso attached to a horse seemed the most natural thing in the world. This rendering of the fantastic as natural had such an effect on me that when Scamander, a river god, suddenly emerged to block Achilles approach of Troy it seemed like an ordinary and logical thing to happen.

The only character to retain some of the remoteness of godhood is Achilles’ imposing mother, the sea nymph Thetis. Thetis enters and leaves the story as she pleases exuding a terrifying inhuman presence as she does so. Yet ultimately her concerns are for her son’s future, maternal instincts being common to both mortals and goddesses. Thetis is horrified at her sons coupling with Patroclus, feeling a mortal unworthy of her demi-god son she shows that status anxiety is not an exclusively human trait.

Humour features throughout the book as well. Two moments in particular stood out for me as particularly amusing, the first being Chiron’s sceptical appraisal of a lavish jacket designed for a horse and the second a comment made by Odysseus to Pyrrhus about historical memory and posterity. The humour serves the novel well and helps lighten the mood in a story concerned with conflict and fate.

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and was surprised by my reaction to it. I had initially approached it with some scepticism given that I knew the broad outline of the plot already and expected to this to temper my enjoyment of the novel. Yet despite initial hesitation I found the book impossible to put down and nothing less than compelling. So whether you are a seasoned scholar of ancient Greek myth, a greenhorn looking for a way into these stories, or just somebody looking for a decent read, pick up The Song Of Achilles, you won’t regret it.