A shelf of books? More or less.

Well. As you, vigilant reader, might have noticed, I’ve been a bit quiet on the old typing-words-into-your-eyes front. There’s a raft of reasons – brain fog, surgery, winter, malicious elves stealing my motivation – but here’s a load of joy (potentially?) for you! I’ve been reading a bit since the last post and am going to attempt to cover the books I’ve gone through since then. (TWENTY-THREE?!)

What getting to this point has felt like, though I am not this ripped. Shocking, I know.

I won’t be offended if you need some kind of a break/fortifying drink through this thing. I probably will, too.

Bad Blood: An Illustrated Guide to Psycho Cinema by Christian Fuchs
My rating: three stars

I’ve had this on my shelf for years but have only just come to finish it. And honestly, I’m not entirely sure why I bothered. There’s a lot of information on both murderers and movies, but I feel that books like this have really lost their place since the Internet came of age. I mean, anything you want to know about outré movies or the darker shades of bloodlust of which we’re capable are only a couple of clicks away these days. Hell, you can go and watch almost any of the films named in here on Effed Up Movies should you so desire, no curious ordering or plain packaging required.

The work starts with an introduction from Jörg Buttgereit, director of Nekromantik, a film which is exactly as the name suggests it is. From there, Fuchs works through themed sections covering real-life crims and their cinematic portrayals (hello, Ma Barker!) before checking in on screen-birthed psychos, murderous couples, mythic killers, slashers, copycats and the like. The copy is oddly phrased – a result of the book’s translation, I suspect – and there’s a lot of references to the yellow press which is almost cute given, well, the state of the media.

It’s funny – as I’ve become an old jerk, I’m a little less interested in supremely gory horror films. When I was a teenager I’d watch the most heinous shit imaginable, but these days I’m not particularly interested in straight gore. Realistically, I’m probably more of a thriller/eerie guy these days, though I’m not at all opposed to watching a terrible ’80s slasher film. Perhaps the difference is that in the light of hi-def video, older horror feels fake and slightly removed, whereas a bunch of modern takes on horrific violence seem more confronting or inescapable due to their verisimilitude.

Bad Blood is the sort of book that wants to say something about violence in cinema but it just ends up feeling like a dick-measuring contest with a guy who’s sat through more grim films than you have. I felt curiously empty after reading this, though I’d probably chalk that up to the banality of author rather than the banality of evil. It receives three stars for the depth of recommendations it offers, but I probably could’ve nabbed that from some jerk’s Letterboxd list-o-lunatics.

Tales of Times Square: Expanded Edition by Josh Friedman
My rating: three stars

This is the expanded version of Josh Friedman’s collection of writings on Times Square in its pre-Disney days. It covers 1978–1984, and some of the text within has appeared elsewhere – Screw, notably.

What the book offers is a warts-and-all portrait of an area where almost anything goes. The people mentioned in the book – pimps, pornographers, dancers, promoters, hustlers, cops, fetish shoe salesmen, junkies, and drunks – all existed. The book features only one cobbled-together character, and the portraiture on display is eye-wateringly vivid. (And lurid.)

Friedman’s choice of subject puts me in mind of peak-alcoholism Tom Waits tracks: there’s losers and no-hopers, but they’re always afforded a quiet dignity by the writer – a dignity that the world at large wouldn’t think to extend. It’s a little bit like gonzo sociology: you’re embedded in the continual twilight of vice-adjacent areas, scoping out the key players while you try to get whatever the fuck that is off your shoe. There’s a real sense of possibility within this book, even with the knowledge that the area was destined for sanitisation, for the pricing-out of its actual inhabitants, all in the name of a family-friendly mouse.

There’s such a great sense of place in Tales of Times Square that occasional braggadocio (or boring prose) are easily excused: it’s one of those books you can shelve in the section dedicated for “reminiscences you can smell”.

Watch this and you’ve pretty much nailed the book.

Drive-by Shootings: Photography by a New York Taxi Driver by David Bradford
My rating: four stars

This was an extremely quick read, but it provided an exceptional amount of food for thought. It’s a few hundred pages of photographs snapped from behind the wheel of one of New York’s ubiquitous yellow cabs – the place photographer and (now former) cabbie David Bradford spent a lot of time.

Shooting fast with consumer-grade equipment (literally a point-and-shoot film camera), Bradford (who chose the taxi life to escape a gig at Saks) captures the Big Apple from unexpected angles. All the photographs in this collection – which sold 50,000 copies within a few months of its release – are in black and white, and they’re pregnant with drama, especially when there’s shitty weather involved, and the photographer’s subjects become more interested with getting the fuck out of the elements rather than with how they appear.

The composition of the photographs varies between meticulous and haphazard, a function of the fact that the snaps are generally the product of happenstance. But there’s a vibrancy to them, tinged with a quiet sadness, that communicates the spirit of the metropolis at a very particular point in time. It’s difficult to resist.

I can hear that meter ticking over.

On Broadway by Damon Runyon
My rating: four stars

So, this is about guys and dolls, see? Dames and the fellers that pick up ice for ’em, do time for ’em, and sometimes end up taking the big sleep for ’em.

Yeah, that’s enough of that. You get the picture. This copy of Runyon’s work replaces one I was gifted in the UK which subsequently went walkabout. (I wish I knew where, because I’d prefer not to have one that’s a tie-in with a forgotten Walter Matthau flick.) It collects a couple of Runyon’s books – More than Somewhat and Furthermore – and puts them together in one delightful tribute to the Big Apple at its dodgiest. Nathan Detroit appears.

Runyon, a newspaper guy and short story writer, was a prodigious producer of stories about the various figures populating the Broadway stretch during Prohibition. Every gangster trope you can think of, every palooka and dame that springs unbidden to mind when you think of New York? It’s in here. The stories often seem slight, but will deliver a neat sting in their conclusion, enough to elicit some kind of wry grin.

I was surprised at the way the stories are supremely polished: enough so that they appear both archaic and modern. The problems facing the characters Runyon describes might differ a little in their accoutrements, but their meat remains applicable to life today: swindlers and the swindled, lovers and the unloved. I take notes as I read (mostly), and on the pages of scrawl about this collection I spy the phrase “GOVERNMENT, DEBT & SHOES”.

Still seems pretty applicable to me.

(I can’t really do these justice. If you’ve never read any, they’re much better than you’re imagining. Give ’em a go.)

Better than this, too. C’mon Frankie, get the lead out.

Poor Cow by Nell Dunn
My rating: three stars

I am ashamed to say that I only knew of this work thanks to the use Steven Soderbergh made of a clip from the filmed adaptation in his film The Limey. It’s used to illustrate a younger version of Wilson, an ex-con (played by Terence Stamp). I’d never seen the adaptation in full (and still haven’t), but when the novel showed up at a local book swap, I figured I’d give it a whirl.

Fuck me, it’s grim. (Probably not a surprise, given the adaptation was directed by Ken Loach.)

The novel tells the story of Joy, a 22-year-old who who lives in Ruislip and has a kid by a crim, Tom. Privation (and the banging-up of her baby daddy) forces her to move in with a relative to save money, and in the process turn her life to 1960s-offending shit.

There’s first-person sections that provide a poorly-spelled window into Joy’s life: a continual search for something novel, something more than what she has. She begins a destined-to-fail relationship with one of Tom’s associates, Dave, which hits a snag when Dave, too, is sent to prison for more than a decade. Bereft of blokes and money, she takes up sex work, leavening her feelings of trepidation towards the business by making herself imagine it’s her lover in action.

Bad times ensue, especially when Tom is released from prison.

The book felt very dated. I can imagine it was particularly shocking when released, but it doesn’t pack the same kind of punch any more. I was intrigued, though, by how successfully Dunn conveys that 20something desire of wondering if this is your life, of looking for something without yourself that will make you feel more at home within yourself. It felt very much like an elucidation of a Pulp song, if that makes sense.

(Though let’s face it, I’ll probably just listen to His & Hers again rather than revisit this particularly grimy kitchen sink.)

Stamp makes being a scumbag look good, doesn’t he?

Ex-Libris by Simon Groth
My rating: four stars

With Ex-Libris, Simon Groth has written a book in a half a billion. (Well, in 479,001,600, if we’re being precise.) The novel is something that particularly pleases me: a bit of silliness and an experiment in the best Oulipo style!

The trick here is that each copy of the book (including ebook versions) is different. Each copy has a serial number, and will not be the same as any other, as each is made by shuffling the twelve chapters which make up the work. Each copy tells the same story on a per-chapter level, but the overall story will be different depending on which copy you have.

The story – or my iteration of it, at lease – tells the story of a cadre of “free readers”, acting against a data-driven society. Everything in this world is geared towards instant gratification, with every moment, every thought tracked by algorithms designed to provide instant satisfaction. Fiction and self-expression aren’t allowed, so the free readers act to recreate libraries of print, to rescue books from their banned status and ensure their knowledge lives on.

The story fits together pretty well, which is remarkable when you consider the way it came to be. (I suppose that having that kind of constriction in mind when writing ensures that more attention is given to the way parts fit together.) The story – while not entirely novel – certainly drove forward with enough impetus to ensure I read this in short order. I was interested in finding out more about the backgrounds of the group of text-fixated terrorists, and while everything wasn’t answered, I did enjoy the answers I found.

Shame you’ll never read the same book I did, though. (I mean, unless you borrow it.)

Silent Hill: The Terror Engine by Bernard Perron
My rating: two stars

Look, I love the Silent Hill franchise in almost all its forms. I guess I’m not really a fan of the pachinko machine version that seems to be – alas – the series’ last gasp, but almost everything else I’m on board for.

I remember playing through the games as they were released (well, mostly), and being freaked out and provoked, especially with the guilt-driven second game of the series, which remains a firm favourite even if I’ve never actually attained the shiba-inu ending.

This book styles itself as an academic examination of the first three games in the series. The writing style certainly was suffused with a stuffiness often attributed to that sector, but it also seemed to lack the sort of rigour or insight that I’d expect from such a text. There’s comparison of Silent Hill to Resident Evil and some musing on the way the series acts as a Japanese take on American horror tropes, as well as rumination on the way the mechanics of the games influence the emotions of the player. But I didn’t feel that the book was anything other than cobbled together. It’s telling that most of the positive reviews of the book on community sites come from people lauding the games rather than Perron’s examination of them.

There’s undoubtedly a great book to be written about this game series, but this ain’t it.

Girt, True Girt, and Girt Nation by David Hunt
My rating: four stars each

Like a lot of people my age (I think) my knowledge of Australian history is pretty grim. I can excuse some of it by spending half my high school life in New Zealand (where, curiously, I didn’t pick up all that much about NZ history, either), but I think it’s fairly common for apprehension of our history to be a the result of being fed weirdly pro-pioneer PR during our youth.

I’m in the process of rectifying this – something that began years ago with Hughes’s The Fatal Shore and more specific books like Birmingham’s Leviathan – and though I know there’s a lot more I need to get through (particularly where First Nations history and historians are concerned), I figured this brace of books would be a reasonable place to get an overview.

The three titles in the Girt series cover the history of Australia from earliest European incursions up until Federation. They’re a broad, mostly left-leaning take on the history of the country, and the mood is kept fairly light, using criticism of historians such as the execrable Keith Windschuttle to highlight the fuckwittery inherent in tried-and-true histories.

The writing style is pretty light. The Clive James approach is on hand here – keep it funny and salt the uncomfortable truths throughout. Hunt occasionally comes across as a bit self-satisfied, and some of the lines land with all the elegance of a snapped-ankle gymnast, but overall these are quick, easy reads that communicate the importance of the need to question histories, to gather alternate viewpoints.

I gained a little more depth of knowledge on some subjects from these books (a solidification of my opinion on the self-promotion of Macquarie, and a heretofore-unknown respect for the unbelievable root-rattery of particular forefathers) but more importantly it once more highlighted the gaps in my own knowledge, and suggested areas where I can improve.

Now to find someone who’s not Keith Windschuttle to tell me about ’em.

JAL 76–88 by Greg Girard
My rating: five stars

Photographer Greg Girard spent more than a decade on the streets of Japan. Working mostly at night, or in low-light conditions, he snapped photographs of a nation on the cusp of the bubble that would propel it to economic heights.

This collection of photographs is an excellent summary of Girard’s style, while also offering a surprisingly low-rise portrait of Tokyo (amongst other cities) that’s a world away from the high-tech sheen one associates with Japan today. The grubbiness of cities, coupled with the eeriness of late night/early morning captures a feeling of uncanny quiet that I really like.

There’s a sense of pregnant possibility – of stories untold – in the works in JAL 76-88 that draws me in. True, I’m a sucker for both the subject and the execution, but the two combine in Girard’s work to be somehow more than the sum of their parts.

Eltonsbrody by Edgar Mittelholzer
My rating: five stars

The author of this novel died in a properly Wagnerian style by setting himself aflame in Surrey. It was a long way from Guyana, the (now) country of his birth, but it was a suitably strange and grandiose act that befitted the author of this, a deeply strange little story of island life and Gothic horror.

Another novel discovered through Valancourt Books‘ careful curation of oddities, Eltonsbrody is set around the ‘Scotland district’ on the coast of Barbados. Woodsley, a young artist, has arrived to the area and discovered that the only accommodation available is at the titular house, a construction belonging to Mrs Scaife, a widow. During his stay, there’s weirdly sexual staff, mysterious locked doors, inbred locals, secretive histories, an acknowledgement of “the Mark”, and plenty of disturbing mental states. What exactly is going on upstairs? And who does the head of the house think she’s talking to?

Weird shit ensues. Weird shit.

I don’t want to spoil the story because it’s a brief, surprisingly chilling take on Gothic horror. It’s the sort of thing that builds in tension and distress through its short length, reaching a point of release that’s akin to tales found in Poe. I definitely need to seek out more Mittelholzer, if this is any indication of his skill.

White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings by Iain Sinclair
My rating: four stars

I’m not going to lie, Iain Sinclair is someone who (for the most part) I like the idea of rather than the execution. He’s the writer who I first tried to read after learning about the idea of psychogeography, back in my days on nerdy bulletin boards. I’ve a shelf of his works – and he’s written a lot – about place and history and the tug-of-war between the two, and I feel as if I want to like his work a lot more than I do.

Generally speaking, I feel either as if there’s something I’m not getting – or that there’s nothing to get, unless you’re local of the places about which he writes – after I read his stuff.

Thankfully, this feeling diminished with this revisiting of White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings, a tripartite investigation of place, the vicissitudes of the secondhand book trade, and the murders of Jack the Ripper.

It’s difficult to describe the prose. It’s playful and generous, but also gnomic and unwilling to release its secrets easily. There’s a feeling that there’s always a piece of knowledge that’s just outside your grasp, that (if you had it) would unlock the whole meaning of the work. I imagine it’s lazy to describe Sinclair as a more poetic Peter Ackroyd on speed, but that kind of fits: there’s a frenetic pace and an unwillingness to explain what’s going on, despite the fact that both authors have a deep interest in exactly the same thing: the occult power of place, its effect on our lives, and our lives’ effect on it.

The text slips between modern and historical periods with ease, creating intensely detailed worlds. Sinclair turns up as a character himself, as do real and imagined figures from history. The whole thing has an air of ritual, which is likely a the entire point.

Have I mentioned that it’s confusing?

I suppose your patience with this book will be governed by how much you enjoy experimental literature, or, if not experimental, perhaps works that take a while to unfold their meaning. I’m into that kind of stuff, so I like it, but I think the difference between my first reading and this one, decades later, is that I’ve learned that sometimes it’s OK for meaning to remain in the shadows, unobserved – and that reading can be enjoyable even if that’s the case.

Of course he’s a poet.

Lud Heat & Suicide Bridge by Iain Sinclair
My rating: three stars

Ah, right, turns out I should’ve read this one before the preceding work. The books form a duology, but there’s not much that you’ll be missing out on if you read them in the same order as I did.

What I did find was that Lud Heat & Suicide Bridge didn’t perform quite as well on the reread as White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings did. It addresses the same nexus of myth and the mundane, but a lot less successfully.

I found this book to be a lot looser, and to be not as compelling as I would have liked. Structurally, it’s a bit of a Frankenstein, cobbled together from poems and essays – but I felt it never really gathered the focus necessary to really deliver a knockout blow. Instead, I found myself rolling my eyes pretty regularly, and wondering how many more pages I had to go. I seem to have marked it down from my original review, years ago:

I really enjoy Sinclair for his moments of clarity. These works, in particular have some brilliantly evocative passages with repeated touchstones – Hawksmoor, Brakhage films – but then it flips into full-on psychogeographical glossolalia.

Reading these works is like reading something in another language when you only have a Berlitz phrase book. It’s designed for lifelong Londoners. I know enough to see the big picture, but like the guitarist duelling in Deliverance, I’m lost.

Hmm. Could I be less pretentious now, and I’m just seeing through this? I don’t know. I do know that when the stars align, Sinclair’s turn of phrase is absolutely magical: it’s just that they’re bound together so loosely that there’s not a lot of sense to be found within.

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
My rating: four stars

When I was living in London I once took an OUP copy of Boccaccio’s beast with me on a trip home to Australia in the hope that I’d read it in the hours I’d be spending in transit. Instead, it sat in the front pocket of my bag, a literate lump that I just couldn’t dive into. No matter how many times I gave it a go, my eyes glazed over, though whether that was from the tiny type or the translation I couldn’t rightfully say.

Thankfully, 2022’s attempt to get through the book (albeit a different, much newer translation) gained a bit more traction. I suppose it’s not as fitting to be reading a story of plague-dodging tale-telling group activities this year as it would’ve been in the first year of the pandemic, but it still felt eerily appropriate.

Essentially, a bunch of seven women and three men (all nobles) flee Florence with their staff (essential, obvs) to a villa outside Florence in order to ensure they’re not struck down by the Black Death. In order to keep spirits up, each member of the group that isn’t a servant has to tell a story each night. The stories are to address a theme given by the “queen” of the day, a role that rotates through the cast of nobles as they spend two weeks avoiding disease. (Yes, I know that only makes ten, but they’re a fairly devout group so not every day features storytelling.)

This larger frame allows Boccaccio to provide a bunch of smaller stories on topics pushing the primacy of intelligence over coarseness and stupidity, while still reserving the right to tweak the noses of both aristocrats and the church. I was surprised at how short the bulk of the stories are – anecdotes, really – and at how earthy they are.

(For something that has so much truck with courtly love, there’s a lot of random banging going on in these stories.)

The same sorts of ideas begin to recur as the gathering reaches the end of its time, and it’s interesting to grasp these authorial viewpoints as the text proceeds. Wayne Rebhorn’s translation is pretty easygoing, striking a balance between the formal structure of the source poem, and modern vernacular. Hence, there’ll be arses and guys to be found through the text, but it doesn’t feel as if a great liberty has been taken with the text – it all feels of a piece, and there’s the distinct spirit of a guiding author to be felt through the interludes.

Honestly, I had expected this to be a lot stuffier than it was. Instead, it’s about life: fucking, eating, avoiding being ripped off, and making priests look like dickheads. Pretty good, really.

Tokyo Hostess by Clare Campbell.
My rating: four stars

This was on offer at the community library shelves outside a supermarket. Despite the abysmal cover art – let’s face it, even by true crime standards it’s pretty grim – I figured I should give it a go.

Turns out that Claire Campbell is more restrained than I’d expected: her writing about the abduction, murder and cave burial of Lucie Blackman (as well as the earlier abduction and poisoning of Carita Ridgway) was sensitive and far from exploitative.

Both women were young visitors to Japan who had worked in Tokyo’s hostess clubs before catching the eye of their killer and rapist Joji Obara. There were moments where I expected coverage to take a turn for the lurid or excessive, but respect for the victims prevailed, and any orientalist takes on the culture and the case were sketched only as a reflection of how other reporters were tackling the story at the time.

Campbell speaks highly of the writing of Richard Lloyd Parry, who wrote the book on the case, and her version of events pretty much agrees with his. This is not as dense a work as Parry’s book, but it serves to illustrate the linked stories of abduction and death to those who don’t want to enter the black hole of morality that is Obara quite as fully. Tokyo Hostess is a good introduction to the differences between Japan, Australia and the UK, and provides an even-handed retelling of the stories of two women who never came home.

The People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry
My rating: five stars

I first read this ten years ago and was floored by how unrelentingly grim the work is. After reading Tokyo Hostess I figured it was worth pulling this out again in order to get the whole unvarnished story.

The author, Richard Lloyd Parry, was the Japan correspondent for the The Independent when Lucie Blackman was kidnapped and murdered. His sober reportage – lighter on the oho the mysterious East! pablum than other writers –  provides the basis for this considered work which details the eventual capture and trial of Joji Obara, an abuser on an enormous scale who made recordings of his encounters with drugged victims.

Parry takes great pains to explain Tokyo’s nightlife and the role hostess clubs – and women like Lucie – play in it without voyeurism. He’s attuned to the differences between UK and Japanese culture, and ensures that the reader has a grasp on why someone might have made the choices she did. Additionally, he spends time working out a thesis that Obara’s behaviour was the result of his family’s history and treatment. (Obara is of Korean descent, and the relationship between Korea and Japan is, well, see for yourself.)

The musings on Obara’s history are certainly interesting, and come from the amount of time Parry has spent following the case and its major players: he has been sued by the convicted man repeatedly, and there’s even been intimations that assassination by assorted nutjobs was on the cards if he didn’t watch his step. Nevertheless, I’m glad the author – who would go on to pick up a pair of Osama bin Laden’s undies – wasn’t cowed, as what resulted was a book that provides a valuable look into the horrors a man can create, and the mysteries of a culture that’s very different from one’s own.

The Anatomy of Melancholy by Robert Burton
My rating: three stars

At a former job, one of my co-workers kept a copy of The Anatomy of Melancholy on his desk. For the rep, I assume. (He also wore a deerstalker unironically.) It was the NYRB perfect-bound edition, and I can tell he never opened it because the spine remained uncracked: something difficult to manage with a 1400-page book.

I did have a copy of the NYRB edition, but when Penguin’s new edition was released, I figured a hardback might be a better option. The book is a wonderful edition – fulsomely annotated and very attractive (save the matt white cover which picks up stains distressingly readily) – but it is 1400 pages of minuscule type.

In seventeenth century argot.

With classical references you probably won’t get unless you’ve got your own Loeb collection.

It is, as the title indicates, a thorough examination of melancholia, which at the time was splenetic grimness rather than the depression or low mood we’d recognise today. Throughout the three major segments of the work, Burton dissects melancholy’s causes, cures, and different types. (Religious melancholy and love-melancholy, for the record.) It’s an incredible display of erudition – the quotations and references stitched together to bolster Burton’s theses are voluminous and run to philosophy, literature, medicine and more – and it’s something akin to being in the jump seat of a polymath’s brain.

(With a whole lot of information about purgatives, it seems.)

The book took me the better part of eight months to get through. At the beginning of the year I attempted to read some of the book every day, but that soon fell by the wayside because it’s a work which requires a lot of attention. I admit that I was a bit out of practice reading works from the period, but there’s also something inherently fatiguing about approaching this thing straight on: it is likely that this is the sort of work best consumed with the aid of a companion volume. The introduction to this edition suggests that dipping into the book, or using the index to find appropriate bits to nibble on, is a profitable way to tackle Burton’s baby.

If I were doing things again, I’d take that approach, because I felt pretty ground down by the end of the book. I’m glad I finally read the thing, as I’d had it on my list for decades, but I did feel a bit as one would after finishing an encyclopaedia or the phone book. I’m trying not to think of the time spent in terms of terrible pulp books I could’ve read as I suspect that would be some bile bastardry Burton would want to add to the next version of the thing.

He looks exactly as I’d imagined.

The Boy in the Earth by Fuminori Nakamura
My rating: three stars

As I’ve previously mentioned, I’ve laboured with readers’ block over the past few years. I know I’ve still read a respectable amount of books over this whole pandemic thing, but I still feel like it’s not enough, and that there’s always a kind of pall over my reading process.

I’ve recently become a bit jack of listening to podcasts, and so I’ve decided to knock them on the head for the moment and to use the time I’d spend listening to occult and dumb history talking heads to listen to audiobooks instead. Previously I felt that format wasn’t really for me, but I figure that if I’ve times where I can listen to a novel instead of reading it, then it’d be churlish to pass up. Besides, by having something read to me in full, there’s a chance I’ll experience the work in a way I might not during my own reading.

The first audiobook I’ve listened to in full is this one, Japanese grim-noir author Fuminori Nakamura’s Akutagawa Prize-winning novel about a pair of wastrels adrift in Tokyo. I found this one to be a bit of a surprise, as it wasn’t immediately the sort of crime novel I’d associated with the author. Instead, it’s a meditation on the role of predestination and trauma on the shaping of a life.

The book’s unnamed narrator is a taxi driver in Tokyo whose idea of fun is to pick a fight with a gang, purely for the stimulation of having done so. He falls into a relationship – of sorts – with a drunken former coworker, Sayuko, and the two proceed to plumb the depths of less-than-fulfilling lives with the help of suicidal ideation and a fuckload of alcohol.

Eventually, something has to give. Over the course of the novella we’re given plenty of explanation as to why these characters live as they do – but is there a hope they could change? And would they want to?

There’s a defiant darkness to this work, with chunks that hark back to Poe’s The Imp of the Perverse, and to the existentialist quandaries of Camus. It’s a shorter work, but that works in its favour: stretching the lightless void at its heart would risk either losing the grip on tone, or would alienate the reader. (I still have a thing against Christos Tsiolkas’ The Jesus Man for its darkness, which feels similar to that found within these pages – only that novel is much, much longer.)

I’ve a bunch of Nakamura’s other novels waiting to be read – I bought a brace of them when I was going through a distinctly noir period – and the uneasy enjoyment I experienced with this one certainly means I’ll push them a little further up the list.

Devil House by John Darnielle
My rating: four stars

John Darnielle, the driving force of literate nerds The Mountain Goats, is a loquacious and learned writer. Devil House is his third novel. I’ve enjoyed the previous two (though the second not quite as much) but have to say that this one is his best so far.

The story concerns a true-crime writer, Gage Chandler, who has moved to the site of an apparently Satanic murder in the small town of Milpitas, California. It’s part of the writer’s method of working: move into the place where Bad Things Happened (in this case, a decommissioned porno store) and gather a sense of the story through proximity. But that’s not the whole of the tale: the narrative jumps around quite a bit, moving from Gage’s point of view to that of victims, potential aggressors, and to the outlook of people described in previous books Chandler has written.

As devotees of TMG would expect, the eye for detail Darnielle displays is exceptional. The world is described in luminous detail. This is not a surprise, given that the towns around which the stories revolve – Milpitas and San Luis Obispo – are where the author grew up. There’s particular points of the work (a chapter detailing a bereaved mother’s thoughts on Chandler’s writing) that have an almost indecently personal note to them. Indeed, I felt great similarity between this work and The Sunset Tree, the Mountain Goats album where Darnielle explicitly addressed the abuses experienced in his childhood. There’s a controlled rawness to some of these passages that left me in bummed awe at the strength of the writing.

It seemed the end of the novel was afforded the same sort of consideration that the rest of the book (and its highly detailed worlds of crims and outcasts) was given, but it didn’t put me off things. The uncertain footing we end up on by the last third of the book makes the ending plausible, even if it’s not the ideal close to the mysteries within. Can’t always get what you want, I guess.

Ultimately, the book is both a lament for youth – something common in Darnielle’s other books – and a ruthless look at how the morality of an individual’s work can change them. Devil House is thorny: it seems like a bit of gruesome fun on the face of it, but there’s deeper veins within. I’m looking forward to revisiting it some time down the track.

If it kills me.

Manhunt by Gretchen Felker-Martin
My rating: two stars

This is a book that received a lot of attention for the fact that J.K. Rowling dies in it. The death is mentioned as an anecdote, something like two-thirds of the way through the book, and it really doesn’t have much bearing on the work, but it’s what certain elements decided they’d hang their criticism on.

It’s probably a good idea they didn’t read the rest of the book.

Manhunt is basically The Walking Dead or The Last of Us but with TERFs. It posits a future where a virus has wiped out men as we know them, or at least reduced them to baser instincts with barbed dicks. The only survivors are cis women, enby or trans. And the last of these spend their time collecting balls and organs from the rampaging man-beasts and attempting to avoid militaristically-minded radfem shock troops.

The work starts off pretty bracingly. It’s not quite as full-throated as splatterpunk, but it’s definitely keen to push down on the reader’s body-horror nerve. There’s blood, body fluids and field surgery. There’s musings about how the rich – and then everyone else – would survive the apocalypse. There’s violence, self-loathing ennui and fucking. (A lot of fucking.) But by about the halfway point, it starts to pall a little. I pushed through to the end, but found the work felt a bit like it was written for effect. I don’t get a lot of the GC criticisms of the text, but by the same token I do feel that parts of it exist in order to get a rise out of those people. It’s perhaps political satire, at some level, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was riding the edgelord wave more than it should.

The frustrating thing is that parts of the book are really well written. There’s some brilliant writing about the loneliness inherent in trans life, even within the heart of a supportive community. Felker-Martin’s portrayal of [some parts of] relationships, of the way humans deal with doubt, and of the problems of identity are, at times, considered and touching. But there’s a certain unevenness that just didn’t gel for me.

Having said that, I’m more than likely not the idea audience for this book. I’m a cisgender man, and I did feel that it wasn’t written for me. That’s fine, and I knew that was likely the case going in. I just wish I’d liked the reading experience more, because based on what I’d read before diving in, I thought I’d love it.

Back to Clive Barker, I suppose.

Robot by Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg
My rating: three stars

Turns out that dipping my toe in the waters of Polish sci-fi is a good thing, actually. Robot, a novel by the since-suicided Adam Wiśniewski-Snerg (a baller name, I admit) is a 1973 work, and the only one of the author’s books translated into English. It was translated in the 1990s, but only published in 2021.

I wonder if the delay in release was because of what a fucking strange trip the text offers? It opens in a sort of testing facility and assembly line, where BER-66 comes to consciousness. He is, apparently, a robot. Or is he? Dumped into a post-apocalyptic world underground, he’s tasked with the idea of finding out more about “the great secret”, as the omnipotent voice in his head calls it.

What happens next involves switching between identities and running afoul of bureaucratic fuckery the like of which even Gilliam or Kafka might suggest was a Bit Much. BER-66 tries to find his way around a labyrinth of military tunnels, and a supremely slow, super-heavy mirror world where doppelgängers are caught in the throes of physical anomaly.

There’s a lot more hard SF in Robot than I had expected, with sections that made me think of a more totalitarian Flatland. Einstein’s theorems, chemistry, cause-and-effect and philosophical enquiry into the nature of self, society and religion are all given plenty of space in this distinctly odd work. It certainly feels like a precursor to writers such as Neal Stephenson or Nick Harkaway, and it’s impossible to really convey how weird it feels to traverse the story.

I’m not entirely sure I understood what was going on by the end, but the audacity of the world (and its political ramifications) kept me going until the end, confusion notwithstanding.

Accurate.

How to Read a Book by Mortimer J. Adler and Charles van Doren
My rating: four stars

A shorter review here because, really, who wants to read a take about a book that wants to tell you how you should best read?

This work, dating from the 1940s (but revised in the 1970s), suggests that everything you know about reading is wrong. Or, rather, it’s right, but it’s only one part of the process of reading in order to glean maximum meaning from the books you’re passing your eyeballs over.

What follows is an explanation of assorted levels of reading, as well as a guide to reading different types of work (fiction versus philosophy or science, say), a recommended reading list and a series of comprehension exercises to see how well you’ve absorbed the book’s lessons.

While I disagree virulently with some of the authors’ assertions – I am not going to start writing in my fucking books! – I did take copious notes as I read, and can’t help but admit that my university years would have been much eased had I availed myself of the techniques within. It’s a handy work if you’re interested in reading for meaning, and finally confirmed for me that, yes, I’ve been doing it wrong for forty-something years.

Fuck’s sake.

There it is! You’ve made it through a bunch of books, and the effort of reading the reviews probably means you can say that you have read them now. As a reward, have a photo of Alfie, our newest rescue boy, who has only just stopped hiding in the bedroom and has made it out to the living room and the stacks of books on the dining table. He is Very Good, and for making it through this, so are you.

He has the smallest meow for the largest cat. It’s brilliant.

What’s up next? I’m still ploughing through a history of the first World War and I’m about to embark on a chonk of a Francis Bacon biography and a reread of House of Leaves so I’m undoubtedly making it overly difficult for myself. Hopefully, the next reviews won’t be too far away, though.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, so please jump over to my profile on TheStoryGraph for all your bookish needs. It’s cool and not run by Amazon, so there’s that.

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