Saturday, 23 September 2017

Book #44

Hings by Chris McQueer

Peter’s earned his night off, and there’s not a bloody chance he’s covering Shelley’s shift. He just needs to find some pals for the perfect cover story. Deek is going to be at the forefront of the outsider art movement and do Banksy proud. Davie loves tattoos and his latest is going to be a masterpiece. Tam is one of the most creative minds in the galaxy (apparently), but creating parallel universes can cause problems. Everybody on Earth wakes up with their knees on backwards.
He caught folks’ imagination on Medium with his stories, had rooms howling with laughter on the spoken word circuit, and now it’s time to put Chris McQueer on the page. Are you ready?

What a fucking ride this was.

This collection of McQueer’s short stories is completely and utterly brilliant. Glaswegian working class norms, social custom, and patter rips right through the pages, and I was presented with characters the likes of whom I could bump into no bother on a stroll up Larky main gaff.

In some of the stories, McQueer explores the mindset of the working-class, their needs and desires, their family. All of this felt familiar and relevant, and I was almost comfortable with seeing Sammy get a samurai sword for his Christmas, because that’s just where am fae. In others, we are dropped right into the macabre, surreal, and downright random. We’re given aliens, budgies with arms, knees bending the wrong way, and hell mend yi if it’s a korma yir after.

Written using a great deal of colloquialism (which I know some of you plums can’t handle), but with some excellent prose weaved into it, McQueer really nailed this for me. His stories have been compared to Welsh, but this was totally different; a stark and realistic jaunt over to the West coast using this type of narrative is something I didn’t know I was looking for. 

I’ve read so many books now that it’s rare any make me laugh or cry these days. I read this over the course of a few days, with a red coupon from laughing too much each time.

A massive congratulations for a total stormer of a debut novel; now I’m looking for a full biography on Big Angie.

Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Book #43

The Figure in the Carpet by Henry James

The story of an unsolved literary mystery that explores what James referred to as "troubled artistic consciousness" 

I enjoyed this, but I’m not too sure why; it was no Turn of the Screw.

Our protagonist is a keen book reviewer for a popular periodical. After reviewing the work of a pretty famous author, he is lucky enough to meet him at a social gathering. The author hints to our protagonist that no critic has ever successfully hit upon the one thing he has peppered throughout his novels. This maddens the protagonist, and we join him on a journey to uncover the meaning behind all of the novels.

There’s a lot to be said here about author intention. To this day, authors still subtly refer to their meaning, and their intent, in words. Does it really matter? If one enjoys a novel, what are the consequences of deriving a meaning no where near that of the author? Is author intention relevant in every book, or are they just trying to encourage us to read (or reread) their work? Do we subconsciously look for meaning in works of literature? Does finding meaning give us pride? Accomplishment? Who the hell knows.

Although not as compelling as his other works, it’s (ironically) fun to try and deduce what James is getting at with this one. I was only glad I remembered whose pages I was reading from before the finale came like a kick in the gut.

Sunday, 17 September 2017

Book #42

As I Lay Dying by Willian Faulkner

Faulkner's harrowing account of the Bundren family's odyssey across the Mississippi countryside to bury Addie, their wife and mother. Told in turns by each of the family members—including Addie herself—the novel ranges in mood from dark comedy to the deepest pathos.

I’ve never read Faulkner before now, and I’m really kicking myself about it, because As I Lay Dying is a complete masterpiece.

Faulkner employs multiple voice narrative to help us get under the skin of each of the Bundrens, and various other characters. An open mind is essential, however, as this is no stream of consciousness walk in the park; nor is it in any way linear, with the characters moving from past to present, to what ifs, to maybes. One character would explain what was going on, only for the next to go back and explain it again on their own terms, and from their own perspective. Their narratives confused the life out of me until I settled into their utterly weird voices, and only then was I truly able to enjoy what they were telling me. 

There are various instances in the plot where everyone knew exactly what was going on, expect me, the humble reader. Initially, I felt idiotic, as though I’d missed something, but after this happened a few times, I realised Faulkner likes to throw us into the delirium before offering his explanations for it. This lends a real sense of pandemonium and bewilderment to the reader, and ties in nicely to the character narratives.

The Bundrens could be the very people who inspired the phrase “dysfunctional family”. Each of them isolated from each other both physically and emotionally, the only thing connecting them is the rotting corpse in the back of the wagon. They respond differently to their mother’s death, some with physical or emotional distractions, some with physical or emotion reactions. The variance in each of them is gorgeous, as is seeing them attempt to achieve their purpose with no form of honest communication or understanding of one another.

In summary, this novel could be explained away as a comedy. Reading it, however, is anything but; Faulkner’s atmospheric melancholy and sense of hopelessness bleeds through the pages, and inadvertently shows us the turmoils of poverty in the Deep South. It was wonderful.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

Book #41

Fat Jimmy and the Blind Ballerina by Eddie Owens

This is the story of one young man’s desire for comedy fame: a tale of ambition and humiliation on the way to the top.
Fat Jimmy is a cynical, young comedian and writer, who desperately wants to make it to the big time. He wants it all and he wants it now.
Fat Jimmy loves women; he loves booze and he loves comedy. He is sweary and controversial, but always funny and always memorable.

A huge thank you to Eddie Owens for asking me to review this; it was right up my street.

Fat Jimmy is a stand-up comedian looking to break into showbusiness. He’s a crude arsehole of a man, with no shame, no filter, and no self-deprecation. If I met Fat Jimmy somewhere, he would be a victim of my famous death stare, but Owens allowed me to like him.

Jimmy’s journey through the labyrinth of showbiz is fuelled solely by his grit and determination. He stays true to his morals, never sucking up anyone’s arse, and making sure to bring people down a peg or two when they’re due it. He’s relentless, mortifying, hellbent on success, and so flawed. And a flawed character, as we know, is a great character.

My favourite parts of the novel were the small snapshots of Jimmy’s childhood, and the stories of his family. How his mum and dad met, the differing characters of his brothers and sisters, the fights they go into were all so real. I loved it.

There were a lot of sub-plots here, and I must admit I enjoyed these more than the main story. Many of these weren’t resolved entirely to my satisfaction, and I would’ve liked more than I got. But maybe that’s just real life.

I really enjoyed the metaphor of the blind ballerina - someone who makes it despite the obstacles life has thrown at her - but I would have liked this to be a bit more rounded. The ballerina was only referred to fleetingly, a few times, and I felt this could have been crafted into something bigger. For such a clever and impressive analogy to have so little exposure disappointed me.

A great wee story on fighting for your dreams, and being the person you really are. Even if the person you really are is a big-mouthed sycophant. 

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Book #40

Arms From the Sea by Rich Shapero

Lyle is a young man who hates his life in the State of Salt, a cultural and literal desert. He vandalizes a State icon, then swallows a poison pill that transports him not to death, but to a liminal realm—blue, watery, and wholly alien.
He’s rescued and shepherded by henchmen of the Polyp, god of the oceanic world they call “heaven.” A series of encounters unfolds between Lyle and the monstrous, seductive god, who gradually reveals his grandeur and mysterious purpose.
Lyle is horrified at first but soon finds himself falling for the Polyp, and the potent and bizarre creative potential he represents.

I have no idea what I’ve just read; it was like smoking a load of bad grass.

This is a standard dystopian future story where the protagonist is a paragon rebel caught up in a fight to overthrow the malicious government. Although this is usually an excellent formula for excitement and adventure, Shapero manages to miss the bullseye entirely by jumbling his prose and baffling his readers.

The plot is infernally foggy, with a tiring quantity of confusing imagery thrown in. It’s difficult to keep track of what’s going on - and what’s going on isn’t at all compelling, or even significant. The narrative slops along for a few pages at a time until something somewhat evocative happens, only for nothing to ever become fully realised. 

Lyle the protagonist is dull, with no real substance between his ears, making him incredibly difficult to connect with. His motivations and backstory are told, rather than shown, rendering any potential emotional connection null and void. 

There are various scenes where Lyle, after being whisked off to the water kingdom, has encounters with the Polyp, or water god. Many of these felt really creepy and sexual, as the god felt him up constantly with his tentacles, and whispered questionable things to Lyle. Think Robin Thicke with fins.

An utterly baffling story whose plot I am at a loss to describe; I’m only glad it’s over.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Book #39

The Reckoning by Edith Wharton

Two moving stories of love, loss, desire and divorce, from one of the great chroniclers of nineteenth-century New York life. 

I much preferred the first story, Mrs. Manstey’s View to the second, the collections namesake. Mrs Manstey is a lonely widow, who takes her only pleasure from the view of New York from her window. Wharton describes this view in it’s truly beautiful, albeit small, form, and familiarises us with Mrs Manstey’s pure love of it. When the view is threatened to be taken away from her, we see our poor widow take drastic action in her desperation and loss. It’s a very clever commentary on how the smallest thing in someone’s life can really be the most important.

The Reckoning itself is a quite amusing tale of how one’s own rules and ethics can become enemies with your needs and desires. The moral quandary the protagonist finds herself in is as delicious as it is heartbreaking, and truly underlines the contrariness of the human psyche.

Both stories well ahead of their time, they’re an excellent introduction in Wharton’s work. Another glorious addition to the Little Black Classics range. 

Book #38

Bedroom Secrets of the Masterchefs by Irvine Welsh

At Edinburgh's Department of Environmental Health, hard-drinking, womanising officer Danny Skinner wants to uncover secrets: 'the bedroom secrets of the master chefs', secrets he believes might just help him understand his self-destructive impulses. But the arrival of the virginal, model-railway enthusiast Brian Kibby at the department provokes an uncharacteristic response in Skinner, and threatens to throw his mission off course. Consumed by loathing for his nemesis, Skinner enacts a curse, and when Kibby contracts a horrific and debilitating mystery virus, Skinner understands that their destinies are supernaturally bound, and he is faced with a terrible dilemma.

The male psyche is a complex thing. In the never-ending battle to become the alpha, men beat their chests in an attempt to not only establish dominance over their brothers, but to commit the most humiliating act possible - embarrass them in front of the burds. In this way, rivalries are created and nurtured, and Welsh shows us in Bedroom Secrets how poisonous this rivalry can truly be.

Danny Skinner is a pretty standard Welsh character, with flashes of Bruce Robertson and Sick Boy peeping through the cracks. Through booze benders, and his love of being a part-time football casual, we begin to understand his motivations. 

When mummy’s boy Brian Kibby arrives for his first day in Skinner’s work, something malicious takes root in Skinner’s mind - a hatred for which he can’t locate the source. Kibby is a hillwalker, a train-set collector, and a total geek. He struggles talking to women, his shyness holds him back in the office. There is nothing about Kibby for Skinner to feel threatened by, yet this unfathomable hatred takes root, and Skinner unknowingly casts a curse upon him which will link them inexplicably in the future.

Welsh uses these two men to show us the horrors of this type of hatred, the similarities between them which we hadn’t quite clicked on to initially, and explores the differences in family situations. One man has grown up a product of a single parent family, and the other in a much-coveted standard mum, dad, and kids outfit. But, do either of these upbringings have any sort of effect on their moral compass? Or are you just your da’s bairn?

None of the characters here have anything redeeming about them, and that is one of Welsh’s skills. Everyone here has their skin peeled back for us to see the maggots underneath, and I love it. 

I also particularly enjoyed Skinner’s jaunt to America, where I saw him become a better person. Is there something about living here amongst the grey, dreich, depressing buildings, the closed off, miserable people, and the complete lack of vitamin D, that drives us all to drink? Doesn’t take a genius.

Although I’ll admit there are far better Welsh novels, this is still a wee underrated gem. You’ve got your flawed characters, you’ve got a good bit of violence, and you’ve got the booze. Fucking party.