Book reviews: six or so (no, it’s six)

Once more, I’ve slackened off a bit in my reviewing duties. So instead of reading one review this time ’round, you’re going to cram six of the buggers into your eyeballs.

Talk about value for money! But that’s not all! There’ll be surveyors, pandemics, pugilistic pain, shoals of teen suicides, bad TARDIS houses, Nazi-influenced ‘shrooms and, er, Simon Callow.

Never let it be said I don’t offer value for money! Let’s get on with it.

Mason & Dixon by Thomas Pynchon
My rating: four stars

As you would know, I’m a massive literature jerk. I used to think I should only read classics, which I tried to keep to until my brain melted from lack of downtime, so now I joyfully read whateverthefuck when the mood takes me, knowing full well that sometimes you have to be in the right frame of mind for the right book.

Apparently it’s taken me only about 25 years to get into the mood for this Pynchonian epic, which is odd because I – as the lit degree heritage I hold requires, it seems – really really dig Thomas Pynchon.

Back it up a bit: my lit degree was a little bit disappointing, both in output (my honours thesis added unceremoniously to Poe’s postmortem woes, I think) and experience. Most of the classes I had for the first two years were exercises in weeding out students who didn’t really want to do English by making them sit through classes held by terribly disinterested (or uninteresting) lecturers, in order to ensure those who got to actually – shock, horror – talk about books in third year really wanted to talk about them. One of the bright points in this ongoing dullness was an introduction to Pynchon through the slim yet mindblowing The Crying of Lot 49, which is kind of like a less-shit, much funnier version of whatever Robert Anton Wilson was trying on for size. It led to a third-year smash through Gravity’s Rainbow, a book I’m sure I didn’t understand properly but loved anyway, perhaps because (though not solely) it did the toilet-diving bit way before Trainspotting managed it.

That this is how the world’s most reclusive author appears on The Simpsons – yes, playing himself – is truly some King Shit.

With those two books under my belt, I was hooked. I decided Pynchon was Pretty Good Shit, and that I would consume as much as I could.

Anyway, back to the present. My consumption of the author had resulted in my buying a load of his books and reading very few of them. I reread GR and Lot 49, as well as Bleeding Edge and Inherent Vice (both of which I also liked, though not quite as much) but there were some big holes. This year saw me pick up the book with the ampersand – hello, potential tattoo of obviousness! – and surprise, surprise, I really enjoyed it.

“What we were doing out in that Country together was brave, scientifick beyond my understanding, and ultimately meaningless.”

The novel is story told by a reverend which describes – in 1700s argot – the boundary-line exploits of the titular (and real-life individuals) Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon. Being a Pynchon novel, it doesn’t just cover that – there’s plenty of terrible musical numbers (no, really), way too much information about measuring apparatuses, a bit more shagging than you’d expect, colonial sperm-gathering projects, astronomical infighting and references to Tammy Wynette songs as yet unwritten at the time of the action.

To say it’s a mishmash is to perhaps underestimate the tottering hoarder’s shack of information that’s shoehorned in here which is always at your elbow – yet somehow doesn’t overwhelm the story. Not quite. Just don’t move while you’re reading. One thing that is helpful reading this is the Pynchon Wiki entry on the book. It features spoiler-free annotations for each page of the work, which helps unpick some of the myriad references to stuff you and I likely don’t know because we’re not monomaniacal and secretive authors who spent more than two decades working on the thing.

It’s difficult to describe the book, but Pynchon’s beloved paranoia and suspicion of the state certainly is front-and-centre, as is the potential power of friendship to surpass conspiracy, government, and both at once. For all its research, this Mason & Dixon was a very human book: it’s about relationships, about trying to seek favour (and grace), about the weird travails that make up our lives – and about the roles we play in them. It reminded me a lot of John Barth’s The Sot-Weed Factor, and though that could just be the arcane speech, I think it’s also due to the studied silliness that flows through the thing.

Pynchon is certainly an acquired taste, and this is potentially the longer book of his that would be most digestible by neophytes. If you’ve never read him, give The Crying of Lot 49 a go before this one, but if you like something meaty, well researched, funny, and probably smarter than you (and me), then this is your cuppa tea.

The Stand by Stephen King
My rating: three stars

I remember borrowing a copy of this from the library when I was a kid. It was the uncut version, which had recently been released to great fanfare, or at least so I believed. (I mean, I was at that age – 12? – when I was more in love with the idea of an infallible, awesome author rather than critical investigation, unsurprisingly.) I have a memory of the plastic-coated hardback sitting just under the automatic shift of the car we had at the time and… not much more.

Long story short? I never could get into it, and it’s remained one of the King books I’ve never given a go, even as I’ve reread others of his on unashamed brain-defragging schlock benders.

I figured I should potentially give it a go as an audiobook, and maybe that would break the back of the thing. I did, and it did, though I’m not entirely convinced that the time spent with these people in my ears was necessarily time well spent. The reader – Grover Gardner – was absolutely fine. The story itself – Lord of the Rings, kinda, with Vegas as Mordor – was also fine.

So what gives? I guess fine is not really a ticket to a really good time, though, particularly when you’re dealing with 40-odd hours (or what, 1100 pages?) worth of content in desperate need of an edit. It’s weird to imagine that this was what followed The Shining. Where that book is tense and driven, this one is flabby and full of character sketches that don’t add a hell of a lot to the propulsion of the thing. Add to that the fact that some of the story beats are signalled like this:

…it’s just a bit tiresome.

Having lived through a pandemic (and before that, the rise of the zombie survivalist media behemoth that was and is The Walking Dead) I guess some of the things imagined by King appear pretty quaint. I’m glad I read it, but will never revisit: there’s too much other sugar-hit satisfying crud out there for me to read to bother wasting time with the guy’s lesser moments, y’know?

Grimmish by Michael Winkler
My rating: five stars

I wanted something a little shorter to read after a long audiobook and a long paperback, and Michael Winkler’s self-described exploded non-fiction novel about a real-life Italian boxer, Joe Grim, and his travels and travails around Australia in the 1900s, seemed perfect.

What is the thing we call pain? It is something that captures the attention of the sufferer, but otherwise has no meaning. It makes no sound, has no colour or smell, occupies no physical space. And yet at its most extreme, pain becomes the only thing of which the sufferer is aware, bigger for the victim in that instant than any object in the universe.

And boy howdy, it was.

Originally self-published, the novel was picked up by Puncher & Wattmann, then entered in literary awards and unceremoniously dumped out of them. No matter: this is the sort of book that deserves to remain in the minds of readers, and probably will by dint of it being something of a busted tooth: once experienced, it reminds you it’s there occasionally, even if you’ve not thought of it much lately.

Something in men, in every millimetre of the world map and every dot on the line of time, desperate to scramble up that hill of pain to see how high they can get.

The novel tells Joe’s story, true, but it’s more than that: there’s the framing device of the narrator drinking in detail from his sherry-loving uncle, and then that’s provided with a sidebar of musing about everything from the curious country of male brainstems to the worth(lessness?) of writing.

Why did I devote a life to the accumulation of words? Why didn’t I commit myself to debauched sex or limitless laughter or feeding stray dogs? Something useful?

The key focus of this book, though, is violence, and pain. The boxer of our attention is a punch-sponge: he prides himself on being able to take a hit, and it’s this pursuit of victory by wearing down an opponent through the mysterious skill of force absorption that is the point the text returns to. It’s suitably grim reading, though not in any kind of Norman Mailer way: Winkler’s text prods the excitement felt by men and fight aficionados for fisticuffs, for the dogged following of pain. There’s no shying away from the weird drives or the way sadism easily becomes masochism. We’re forced to look, and it’s not pretty.

A hook to the body and a sickening crack across Grim’s cheekbone and the smaller man concertinas again, pulls himself to hands and knees, and again regains his feet. Pandemonium in the terraced seating. The spectators seem to love this, as much as I hate it, and the smell of pipe tobacco is laced with excited sweat and the obscure male secretions produced at times of glittering violence.

It very much reminds me of Eugene S. Robinson’s book (and author-read audiobook!) Fight: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Ass-Kicking but Were Afraid You’d Get Your Ass Kicked for Asking, which, aside from having a baller title, is an excellent meditation about why we – men, in particular – pursue violence, either in a form sanctioned by the tissue of respectability known as rules or codes, or in any of the other less acceptable forms. Like Robinson’s book, Grimmish engages with the subject with the familiarity of a fan and the reserve of someone whose critical faculties haven’t yet been sucker-punched into sloth.

Oh, did I mention there’s a talking goat with a fine line in profanity?

There’s a talking goat with a fine line in profanity.

I hammered off as deep as I could into the fucking bush and never trusted a fucking human from that day to this. You are weird animals. Whether you fucken admit it or not. Just the hot dead pressure of existence and eternity.

He’s fucken great.

I was on a work trip when I read this, and I consumed the book while overlooking a casino in a city that wasn’t my own. It seemed fitting to be reading Grimmish with a temple dedicated to the odds (and the fleecing of punters) occasionally coming into view. Like the novel, the building opposite was built on the potential of triumph, the harrowing of pain and the stories people tell themselves to get through.

A concrete and glass reminder, then, of an imaginative tale about a real man and his self-ordained physical mortification. If I weren’t a lapsed Catholic, I’d probably have deep thoughts on that: as it is, I can only say that the novel was brilliant, and far more engrossing than the run-late wedding doof that took place on the casino roof a night or two before. Give it a go and find out for yourself.

Negative Space by B.R. Yeager
My rating: five stars

Happily, the run of five-star reads continued with Negative Space, which is a little bit like Stranger Things if that show involved a bunch of teenagers who inhabit a world that exhibits a magnetic pull on them to, er, commit suicide in apocalyptic, DMT-fuelled shoals.

All the world blurred, a vibrating hemorrhage, and it was fine because I could finally feel how little impact I’d ever have on the world. Losing that dread that one day you’ll somehow ruin everything, for yourself and everyone else. The realization that I could simply leave and the world wouldn’t miss me.

So yeah, it’s not exactly a cheery book. But it is incredibly moreish. It’s told in a similar way to some of George R.R. Martin’s work: each section is prefixed with its subject’s name, so reading is much like watching documentary cuts between subjects. The text is particularly direct: I felt connected to the characters, and their different takes on the same events left gaps for me to bridge. I felt pulled in.

I might be a specifically odd duck, but I was entranced by the small-town setting – very much shades of the wrong sides of the Twin Peaks tracks – and the weaving in of weird forum culture. The book breathes unhealthiness throughout its runtime: there’s something beneath the town (perhaps stemming from a local author’s attempt to measure the weight of a soul?) that reaches out and grips its inhabitants, a draw that’s not dissuaded in the least thanks to teenage appetites for WHORL, a gateway drug in perhaps the most literal sense of the word.

This is a world of absence: absence of faith, absence of meaning, and absence (ultimately) of self. It’s a grim ride, but it’s one that captures the despair of the teenage day – and of these times – more vividly than anything else I’ve read, I suspect.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski
My rating: three stars

This one’s a reread. It’s pretty strange to think that I remember when this came out and set the odd book world on fucking fire due to the author’s dedication to strangeness, and the book’s relentless drive to be different.

The story within is layered: it’s the tale of a house on Ash Tree Lane. A house that’s bigger on the inside than on the outside, kind of like a malevolent TARDIS. The story of this house was captured by an award-winning photographer in The Navidson Record, a collection of videos and photographs of events and explorations. This record, in turn, became the devotional centre of the world for a blind writer, Zampanò, whose scribblings become like crack for Johnny Truant, a tattoo artist (and fuckboi) who discovers sheaves of notes and tries to interpret them.

At his peril.

“It may be the wrong decision, but fuck it, it’s mine.”

So there’s a trio of authors – Truant, Zampanò and Navidson – who are digging into this house, trying to find out what the fuck is up with its penchant for self-renovation. That’s a pretty high-level take on the thing. There’s letters and photos and attachments and poems written about people in Europe. There’s incessant footnoting, which runs away with itself. There’s an attempt at academic writing – a lengthy attempt – and, overarching all, a horror story about a fucked-up house.

But the thing that blew minds on publication – the time I first read this, almost a quarter of a century ago – is the effort the Danielewski put into the novel’s construction. The document you hold in your hand as you read – and I can’t really imagine ever reading this as an ebook – is infected with the same contortions of logic and matter as the authors of the texts you’ll read. Designed by its author, the book uses colours and typefaces to indicate different authors, and then throws a spanner in the readability works by creating word art as a reflection of the spaces experienced by its explorers. It’s a riot of paranoia and sometimes deeply silly playfulness that certainly creates a singular world.

The problem with the book is that it’s a fairly front-loaded affair. I’d forgotten why I originally gave the work three stars, and was prepared to give it a higher rating this time around – but that feeling faded at about the halfway point. The novel begins with an interesting premise and is propulsive, flicking the reader from section to section to footnotes, looking for something that could be true (but probably isn’t, like the titles referenced in Poe or Lovecraft). It’s a big game! But then things just… keep going. The pastiche of poorly-written academic texts wears out its welcome, and goodwill towards the book flags as the text grinds on. Flipping through the book becomes a bit of a chore, though pushing on seems to be the only option because by the two-thirds mark, the reader has invested too much in the book to just chuck it.

The problem, I suppose, is that the best character in the book is the house, and while the novel is ostensibly about the house, there’s all these pesky fucking narrators to have to hear from. They detract from the weird liminal space found inside hallways, and that is what I want more of.

I still want to read more Danielewski works and see what he does that’s not like this. I get a sense that there’s a sort of Oulipo-influenced playfulness to his work, and it would be nice to see if it surmounts this thing, in all its Quark XPress-fuckery glory.

A Scent of New-Mown Hay by John Blackburn
My rating: three stars

Another day, another novel about pestilence bugging the globe. Sure, why not?

This was John Blackburn’s debut novel, and while some parts of it have not dated particularly well – it was released in 1958 – there’s enough here to ensure it will continue to be read, especially given its reprinting by Valancourt Books, champions of weird older books.

The novel is pulp or airport fiction catnip: it has mad scientists, Nazis, a race against time, a visit to what appears to be a German sex show, double-crosses, isolation and biological weapons with the ability to wipe out the world. And what is it that will reduce good old England – and thence, the rest of the world – to its knees?


Not just any mushroom, mind: specially engineered mushrooms that target women and turn them into some kind of fucked-up fungus, a shuffling body of spores and ick. It’s like The Last of Us but with post-war rationing. It’s grey, rainy, and you can smell it from here.

Luckily, Blackburn’s turn of phrase is compelling enough to ensure attention is kept. The book’s only a short one, which works in its favour: it’s a nasty little thing that doesn’t take long to get through, and it doesn’t overwork its premise. It’s about what-ho chaps trying to eliminate a piece of evil created in the ruins of WWII experimental labs, and seeks to assert the overwhelming rightness of things as envisioned by the war’s winners in the face of choices made by a dedicated believer in the Reich who has run out of fucks to give about the commonly accepted world order. Pulp gruesomeness, some kitchen-sink thumbnail sketches and moments of suspense or horror are salted throughout and it’s a delicious combination.

Perhaps could use some more garlic and butter, though.

A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
My rating: five stars

Dickens is one of those authors who I’ve only read a very little of. I am absolutely a believer that Great Expectations is a rip-snorter and an all-timer, but I seem to get a case of the sighs when I consider reading more of his work, which is curious. I suspect that stemmed, mostly, from the fact that my mum used to try to get me to read A Tale of Two Cities and I never really felt like it, and consequently have always felt guilty about having not read it – so much so that I tended to avoid other Dickens titles.

In an effort to rectify this, I decided to give an audiobook a go, feeling that the author’s work is one that could stand the transition: there’s a lot of exposition, a lot of colour, and fuck, it was published as a serial, so it should stand up to piecemeal consumption, right? Right.

I sometimes think Simon Callow is insufferable, and thought that I might not be able to put those thoughts aside while listening. Happily, I could. The man is also a noted Dickens biographer and expert – handy, given that performing as the author is a regular gig for him – and his job on this reading is superlative. His exuberance fits Dickens’ style, and his almost vaudevillian take on some of the characters is spot on.

I mean, just listen.

The story is one of Dickens’ rare historical fictions, focusing on the French Revolution and the effects the regime change wreaks. I had been worried about being bogged down, but the novel is fairly propulsive: there’s a lot of character detail, but the sense of overhanging doom is ever-present. Secret communiques, the corruption of power, and the inescapable path towards the guillotine are constant companions. I’ve seen it said that this is Dickens’ best-known work, and after finishing it, I believe it: it’s effortlessly descriptive, and the opening and closing sections (which you likely know even if you’ve not read the book) are still electric, all these years later.

I loved it. Mum was right.

Liberty, Equality, Fraternity, or Death!

What’s up next? Well, Carlos Fuentes’ Terra Nostra, for one, followed by a bunch of Corona/Samizdat books. It’s good that we’re entering the dodgy weather part of the year: I’m looking forward to diving into some beefy tomes in bed!

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph. If you’d like to buy me some books to review, there’s a wishlist over here.


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