Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow (1974) 270p.


It took me about fifty pages to realise why I was finding it difficult to get into Ragtime: there’s no dialogue. Which is not to say the characters don’t communicate with one another, bur rather that the entire book is summary, not scene. When there is dialogue it’s of the free-flowing, single-paragraph, no-quotation-marks sort of style, which absolutely drives me up the wall. It makes me feel as though the entire book takes place in a dream – underscored by the fact that none of the central characters have names, referred to simply as “Mother” or “Younger Brother.”

Which is a shame, because Doctorow writes quite beautifully in other ways, painting an evocative picture of New York in the very early years of the 20th century: the Lower East Side slums, the communist meetings, the power of the great industrialists. Probably not since Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay have I read a book which so joyfully celebrates the zeitgeist of another era without ignoring its moral failures, its racism, its poverty.

It’s not bad. It’s fine. I just wish Doctorow had written Ragtime as more of an actual, you know, narrative. One with characters and talking and other shamefully passe concepts.

The North Water by Ian McGuire (2016) 326 p.


A novel set on a whaling ship in the 19th century, especially one longlisted for the Booker Prize, will inevitably draw comparisons to Moby-Dick. You can forget about that; The North Water is completely different. Sure, it still focuses on the dark heart of man and ineffable temptation and all that, but this is more Jack London than Herman Melville. I was actually quite surprised, given all the broadsheet praise it got, how plot-driven and gripping it was – not that that’s a problem.

Patrick Sumner, a disgraced Army surgeon, signs aboard the Volunteer out of Hull, as does Henry Drax, a brutish and violent harpooner. There are various threads at play: a corrupt owner and skipper plotting insurance fraud, and Sumner’s valuable gold ring coveted by his unscrupulous shipmates. But the main story here is about Sumner and Drax, a principled man versus a monster, and the crimes and rivalry that play out between them.

This is one of the most compelling page-turners I’ve read in quite a while, which is a pleasant surprise when you’re going in expecting a Moby-Dick knock-off. It can sometimes be a little too neat; the conclusion in particular feels a bit perfectly Hollywood, with the story coming geographically full circle and the guilty being punished for their crimes, although this is tempered somewhat by a melancholy epilogue. I can see why it didn’t make the Booker shortlist; it’s a cut above most historical thrillers, but still lacks that certain something to make it truly great. But for its sense of adventure, its intricate gears of plot, of cause and effect, of going in entirely unexpected directions – I liked it a hell of a lot.

Beast by Paul Kingsnorth (2016) 168 p.


Paul Kingsnorth’s debut novel The Wake was a masterful account of a guerilla fighter during the Norman invasion of England; a story about a bitter and broken man who’s not as important or powerful as he thinks he is, written in an invented English “shadow tongue” to mimic the speech patterns of 11th century England. Following the novel’s success, Kingsnorth said he planned to write two more as a loose ‘England’ trilogy – a second novel set a thousand years later, in the present day, and a third novel set a thousand years after that, far in the future. These would obviously be very different books, but since The Wake was one of the best novels I read all year, I was looking forward to see what Kingsnorth did next.

Unfortunately Beast is a disappointment. The second novel of the trilogy, it’s set in the present day, but it could as easily have been set whenever. The narrator is living as a hermit on a rural moor, having walked away from his partner and infant child to go on a vision quest or something – Why I Gave Up Social Media, by Edward Buckmaster. (Given that Buccmaster of Holland in The Wake was an unreliable narrator and unsympathetic character, I don’t think Kingsnorth is necessarily supportive of this kind of neo-Luddism; on the other hand, given all his non-fiction I’ve read, it wouldn’t surprise me if he was.) Following an accident when his hut collapses on him, Buckmaster seems to be knocked into some kind of dream state or new reality – it’s all very disjointed-confused-narration-style, gradually degrading as the book goes on – in which the land is devoid of birdsong, the skies are eternally white, he cannot seem to leave the moor and he is being stalked by a strange, large creature.

Normally this kind of thing would be right up my alley, but the narration lost me. I loved The Wake’s shadow English, I loved the subtle clues that Buccmaster was dishonest, a liar, a psychopath. The narration of Beast, on the other hand, is the ramblings of a man slowly losing his mind. His plight is not particularly interesting given how unclear it is that it’s even really happening. Beast only runs for 168 pages, which was more than enough for my liking.

Having said that, perhaps in retrospect it will sit more comfortably as the bridging act in a trilogy. Kingsnorth is a talented writer, and given some of his published statements about environmentalism (he’s a self-professed “climate defeatist”) I still look forward to reading his depiction of England 1,000 years hence.

Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell (2013) 243 p.


A collection of short stories by Karen Russell, author of 2011’s Pulitzer-snubbed Swamplandia. For my taste her writing style is a bit too contemporary, overly-polished American MFA graduate – but she has a great imagination and these stories are very weird and very enjoyable. For me the standout was ‘The Barn At The End of Our Term,’ in which various presidents of the United States have been reincarnated as horses on a farm somewhere. What feels like a weird joke of a story is strangely sad and touching – are the presidents in Hell? Have they gone insane? Why has this happened to them, and how can they leave? I also quite liked ‘Proving Up,’ a dark and frightening Western fantasy. These are the kinds of stories I’d like to see more in modern American fiction, and I’ll definitely be checking out Swamplandia.

At Last by Edward St Aubyn (2012) 272 p.

at last.jpg

The fifth and final of Edward St Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose books, and I find I have little left to say about them. They’ve all been very good, and this one’s no exception, as Patrick and his family attend the funeral of his mother, finally giving him some kind of release on the abuse and neglect he suffered at the hands of both his parents. It’s once again a novel of introspection and internal monologues, as the point of view flits across Patrick, his ex-wife, his ex-lover, his father’s monstrous old friend Nicholas, et cetera.

Something that occurred to me during At Last is that the Patrick Melrose novels reflect real life in the sense that there are no definitive conclusions to anything – despite St Aubyn’s sense of cinematic drama exemplified by the swan at the end of Some Hope, or Patrick watching the sun go down at the the end of At Last. St Aubyn originally planned to finish the series with the third volume back in the early ’90s, only to go on and write two more entries, and he could just as easily write more down the line. Patrick is only in his forties, and is still depressed, nihilistic and tormented.

These are very good books and well worth reading. That sounds a little trite but, as I said, I’ve exhausted most of the good things to say about them during that previous four volumes. My only recommendation, having read them myself over the course of more than a year, is to pick them up in a single volume. I’ve seen these around, clocking in at a hefty but still manageable 600 or 700 pages. Reading them disjointedly, given the extended background characters and the vast leaps in Patrick’s life, makes keeping track of things a little more difficult. That’s all. Enjoy.

Sleepwalk and Other Stories by Adrian Tomine (1998) 102 p.


Fuck me dead, Adrian Tomine was a depressed young man. Sleepwalk is his first published collection, put out when he was just 24 and collecting material from his early black and white comics. It clocks in at just over 100 pages but it took me a couple weeks to get through it because virtually every story is has the bleakness and melancholy dialled up to 11. Break-ups, deaths, divorces and violent assaults punctuate a world in which the overriding theme is one of a complete failure to connect with other human beings; a pervasive sense of loneliness and depression in which all relationships are fleeting and the gulfs between individuals are ultimately unbridgeable.

Stand-outs (I can’t bring myself to call them “highlights”) include “Layover,” about a man who misses a flight and spends the day until the next one mooching about his hometown, feeling awkward about going back to his housemate or his girlfriend, wondering if anybody’s really going to miss him; “Supermarket,” about the forced interaction between a blind customer and a grocery clerk who shops for him; and “Drop,” a one-page comic about a man falling from a high road in Japan. (Interestingly, this was one where I thought I picked up a hidden layer of meaning; the narrator is describing the death of his father, who “accidentally” fell from the road; but since the father was alone at the time, how could the son know what happened? Is it perhaps an explanation he’s made up for himself to avoid the idea that his father committed suicide?)

It feels a bit unfair to criticise the stories here for being bleak, since Killing and Dying isn’t a barrel of fun either; but Killing and Dying manages a lighter touch, a sense of humour, a sense of hope, while Sleepwalk is full of the angst we all remember and love from our teens and early twenties. The constant use of a narratorial voiceover bothered me as well; Tomine hadn’t yet learned to let his art speak for itself. It’s a good collection, but clearly the work of a younger man.

The Mauritius Command by Patrick O’Brian (1977) 298 p.


HMS Surprise was the third book in the Aubrey-Maturin series and the first one that I felt really gave a hint as to why the series is so well-regarded. It was a solid novel, beautiful in many ways, greater than the sum of its parts; a novel which went beyond the naval adventure genre and could really be considered literature.

The Mauritius Command, then, is a bit of a step back. Jack Aubrey is now living in a cottage in Hampshire, happily married and the father of twin girls, but itching for service again. He is soon lucky enough to be given the temporary posting of Commodore, sent to Cape Town and given a small squadron of ships to command and orders to capture Reunion and Mauritius from the French. This is based on a real naval campaign, and from what I understand most of the action follows history quite closely: individual battles, landings, scuttlings, wrecks, etc.

You’ll forgive me if I say that I can imagine O’Brian having great fun with a detailed map, pushing little labelled ships around, like Reverend Lovejoy playing with his trains. As always, I concede that I have no right to complain about this, but these protracted naval battles are the thing I find least interesting about the Aubrey-Maturin series, and The Mauritius Command is the least interesting instalment since Master and Commander. It has its moments: Stephen’s zoological expeditions on the islands, discussions amongst the two protagonists about capital punishment, a particularly gruesome end to an unlikeable but ultimately sympathetic captain. But The Mauritus Command is mostly tacking and yawing and breeching and squadrons, etc ad infinitum. I didn’t dislike it, but I was ready for it to be over by the last fifty pages or so.

Warday by Whitley Streiber and James Kunetka (1984) 415 p.


I wouldn’t call it “wish fulfilment,” exactly, but I think the appeal of post-apocalyptic fiction is that it’s always a fascinating thought exercise: how would you survive? What would you do? Where would you go? Yet whenever people imagine an apocalyptic scenario – be it virus, climate change, zombies, whatever – they never fail to assume that they’d be amongst the survivors. I had a greater than normal interest in the post-apocalyptic genre when I was growing up, but nuclear fiction never engaged me. Some might say that’s because I was a child of the 1990s and 2000s, and the zeitgeist had moved on, but I don’t think so. I think it’s because even for the genre, nuclear war is just too bleak: the unknowable, invisible poisons of radiation, soot blotting out the sky, cities reduced to ash… no thanks. My teenage self wanted to be looting abandoned supermarkets and building a fortress against zombies up in the mountains – not slowly dying, vomiting and losing my hair, lying underneath a door propped up against a wall.

This is also why, I think, nuclear destruction has become more interesting to me as an adult. As you become older your perspective changes; you become more realistic, more cynical maybe. You have an appreciation of the horrors of the world as something other than a boy’s adventure fantasy.

Warday was written in 1984. It posits a fictional nuclear exchange in 1988, and is set five years later in 1993. The 34-minute war takes place on October 28, 1988 (interestingly just ten days after the death of Jeff Winston in that other 1980s potboiler I enjoyed recently, Ken Grimwood’s Replay). Five years later, Whitley Streiber and Jim Kunetka – writing as fictionalised versions of themselves – set off on a journey around a devastated United States to document how much life has changed. Warday is presented as a factual account of this fictional journey.

Part of the enjoyment (if that’s the right word) of reading a book like this is finding everything out for yourself, so I won’t go into too much detail. The critical thing about Warday is that it postulates a limited nuclear exchange. Only New York, Washington and San Antonio (a military target) are destroyed, along with a number of military installations in remote parts of the upper Midwest and Rocky Mountains, and several US Navy fleets at sea. Multiple weapons detonated in the stratosphere also cause a catastrophic EMP which fries most of North America’s electronics. (It’s implied that the US inflicts a similarly limited strike on the USSR in retaliation.) Of course part of this is simply expediency on the authors’ part: they couldn’t very well write about a journey across the US following a total nuclear war, because there wouldn’t be much left to write about or any characters to do the writing. But part of it is also to demonstrate precisely just how devastating even a handful of nuclear strikes would be. Even beyond the instant deaths of millions and then the slow radiation deaths of tens of millions, the American economy is completely crippled, it faces famine and is reliant on foreign aid from the UK and Japan, and the federal government has lost much of its power as various states become de facto independent. California enjoys a high standard of living but turns American refugees away from its border and is slowly becoming a police state; large parts of Texas have been annexed by Mexico; and the Midwestern bread basket states languish beneath radioactive dust storms blown down from Montana and the Dakotas.

The comparison that obviously comes to mind for a contemporary reader is World War Z (the decent Max Brooks book, not the dire Brad Pitt movie). Warday has a more personal touch, as Whitley and Jim travel around their devastated homeland and encounter problems which create their own personal stories, but the best parts of the book for me were the various fictional interviews. Two of the most interesting subjects are a Royal Navy submarine commander involved in hunting down the many “code-blind” nuclear subs who are still hiding out in the world’s oceans, unsure of what has happened to their governments, still posing a terrible threat; and the former US under-secretary of defence, who was aboard Air Force One in the critical moments leading up to the war, and survived its crash landing after the EMP.

Of course, this is effectively a hypothesised future, and there are many things about Warday I didn’t find plausible. Beyond the concept of a nuclear conflict under MAD ever being a “limited” war, I also couldn’t really swallow the idea of a secret pact between France, West Germany and the UK keeping Europe out of the war. I can buy people turning en masse to alternative medicines when real medical help is in short supply (especially under the new federal triage law preventing the waste of medical resources on radiation-inflicted patients with poor long-term survival prospects, something I did find disturbingly realistic), but the interview with a self-described “witch” is a bit daft. There’s an awkward interview with a black woman which sums up the fate of “the blacks” after the war. And I had to smile at the very American depiction of a British aid worker, who talks about how it would be simply unthinkable for the British not to help America because “one cannot fail to remember the American response during and after World War II.” In my experience the prevailing British opinion about the world wars is actually that America showed up selfishly late to both of them.

But these are all quibbles. No author’s vision of the future is going to chime precisely with what I might have imagined, and it’s also silly to say that this-or-that scenario is unrealistic; the Cold War and the MAD apparatus was insanely complex, with an immense number of variables and potential outcomes, and I’m sure that amongst the thousands and thousands of still-classified permutations the Pentagon modelled (and certainly still models), there were possible scenarios very similar what we see in Warday.

I think we forget too often, these days, that the world is still at risk from nuclear catastrophe. Probably people wilfully forgot all the time during the Cold War as well, since there’s nothing you can do about it and therefore no sense in worrying about it. But – speaking as a member of a younger generation – I think there’s a perception that as of 1990 the problem was solved. Reading up on the contemporary state of things after finishing Warday, I was actually surprised to find that both Russia and the US have massively, massively reduced their stockpiles since the 1980s; down to less than 10,000 each from dizzying heights of over 30,000 each, and of those, both countries are thought to have less than 2,000 each on active deployment at any given time. That seems reassuring until you consider what 4,000 nuclear warheads lancing down across the northern hemisphere would result in. As Streiber and Kunetka show us in painstaking detail, it would only take a few dozen – let alone several thousand! – to cause a one-day holocaust and irrevocably fuck up two major nations. Warday is very a much a product of its time, but it’s also a book that remains compelling and relevant thirty years later.

The Peripheral by William Gibson (2014) 485 p.


Gibson’s return to science fiction after a decade of writing modern-day techno-thrillers, The Peripheral is a time travel story taking place in two different eras of the future. The first of these is the near-future American South, where teenager Flynne Fisher scrapes together whatever odd jobs she can to support her ill mother and disturbed veteran brother; an evolved version of WalMart owns pretty much everything else, the Department of Homeland Security has become the predominant federal agency, and the American economy has collapsed to the point where dealing drugs is about the only profitable industry left. The second is a far-future London, sometime in the early 22nd century, where our protagonist is alcoholic PR man Wilf Netherington. Most of Wilf’s fellow Londoners live in gargantuan tower blocks, pervasive technology has finally become indistinguishable from magic, and an unspecified collection of gradual disasters has wiped out most of the human race except the very well-off.

It’s from Wilf’s future that the time travel is initiated: a mysterious foreign technology which allows a well-connected minority (in this case, Wilf’s tremendously rich friend Lev) to communicate data with certain points in the past. One of the odd jobs that Flynne does, circa 2035, is professionally playing video games (a thread which reminded me of Cory Doctorow’s short story “Anda’s Game”and which does of course already happen in real life); in this case, she’’ filling in for her brother, beta-testing a game where she controls a drone nudging paparazzi drones away from an enormous tower. While doing so she witnesses a particularly grisly murder, and is disturbed that somebody would put that in a game – but of course it’s not a game, and she was unwittingly performing security for associates of Lev in the future, and now – despite the gap of seventy years – she’s an inconvenient witness.

And so we’re off, on a timehopping thriller in classic Gibsonian fashion; a pulpy plot serving as a reassuring anchor in an unfamiliar world. (Or two unfamiliar worlds, in this case.) Gibson, as always, does not spoonfeed his readers; you’re dropped into his playground and left to figure it out as you go along. Many things escaped me; others I was only familiar with because of stuff I picked up working for the BBC in the UK, such as the character Lev being referred to as a second-generation klept who lives in an iceberg house in Notting Hill. The Peripheral is full of throw-away lines like this, and even if you don’t pick up what they mean you eventually begin to figure it out from context. I particularly liked a scene where characters in Flynne’s timeline are eating cronuts; I recall an interview in which Gibson described that as working for him both ways. Either the cronut has legs, and readers in the 2030s will see nothing unusual about it; or the cronut will be a brief fad, so readers in the 2030s will assume it was yet another of his own inventions.

Either of these worlds would have been enough for one novel, but it’s a pleasure to hop between them. Flynne’s is a familiar Gibsonian vision of unequal technologies – a place where people have high-tech phones but are using outdoor drop toilets, only this time it’s America that’s groaning with poverty. It’s a place where people are dirt poor, the government is corrupt and things are getting better, not worse, but also a place with a touching sense of community; when Flynne is threatened, her extended family and friends rally around her without question, her brother’s fellow vets patrolling her family’s acreage as an amateur militia. (It has a great sense of place, too; I particularly liked her brother’s Airstream caravan where she pulls gaming shifts, down by the overgrown subtropical creek.) The future London, too, is wonderfully drawn; familiar yet alien, a playground for the rich and wealthy, eerily deserted at ground level and maintained by robots and nanotechnology. We get a few tantalising glimpses of the ruined world beyond these urban citadels, the skies criss-crossed by airships and “mobys,” the Great Pacific Garbage Patch colonised by a bizarre “primitivist” religious society.

These fascinating worlds, and the high-stakes thriller that bounces back and forth between them, is such fun that it’s easy to overlook The Peripheral‘s many flaws. Gibson introduces far too many thinly-sketched extraneous character’s in Flynne’s timeline; the plot drags out before suddenly resolving itself in an egregious deus ex machina; and the ending is the most uncharacteristically saccharine thing I’ve read since the end of the Harry Potter series. The strength of The Peripheral‘s worldbuilding certainly exceeds that of its story. Nonetheless, it’s the best thing Gibson’s written in years, and I enjoyed it a lot.

The Possessors by John Christopher (1965) 222 p.


Well-written sci-fi potboilers by authors like John Christopher, John Wyndham or Stephen King are my literary comfort food. Sometimes you’ve had enough of multi-generational American family sagas or WWII-set Booker nominees. Sometimes you’re a bit overstuffed with beautiful prose that effortlessly reveals deep aspects of the human condition. Sometimes you just want to read an old paperback thriller about an isolated group of people facing an alien threat.

The Possessors is set in a British-run holiday chalet deep in the Swiss Alps, with an eclectic cast of characters (many with ~~Dark Pasts~~) gathered together for a few days of skiing. Naturally an avalanche cuts their valley off from the outside world, then one of the children appears to keel over dead, only for his body to vanish overnight, and then return, wandering in from the snow with a cold temperature and oddly flat and emotionless voice, etc. Before long his strange sickness appears to be spreading among the others, and those as yet unaffected realise they’re struggling against something alien and hostile. (I feel comfortable giving all of this away, since the prologue is told from the point of view of a dying parasitic alien race which releases spores through the galaxy, one of which lands on Earth.)

The Possessors naturally brings to mind the classic Carpenter movie The Thing, which of course came long after it, but was based on a short story by John Campbell from the 1930s. It also has touches of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. And really, to a modern reader, it’s not going to seem all that different from thousands upon thousands of stories where a monster or monsters prey upon an isolated group of people, picking them off one by one. But who cares? Christopher knows how to write a compelling, engaging thriller that sucks you in and makes you miss your stop on the tram.

There are some odd aspects to the book; I welcome Christopher’s attempts at rounding out the characterisation (never a sci-fi writer’s strongest point) by switching the viewpoints between various characters and introducing us to their personal lives when they’re not on holiday, but it dragged a bit when the the group was still dwelling on their own messy dramas even as the threat becomes truly dire and the novel approaches its climax. And I may be something of a problem drinker myself, but I was gobsmacked that even as the group dwindles to a handful of people and is at the point of nailing up the doors and windows, they still drink enough to kill a herd of elephants – and in fact Christopher details precisely what everyone is drinking all the time, which made me wonder if he wrote this while trying to stay on the wagon. I also thought the characterisation of the Swiss house staff as ignorant peasants (Swiss, really!) was amusingly British.

Despite that, and despite an ending that’s possibly a bit too neat and quick, I enjoyed The Possessors a lot. Does what it says on the tin. I wouldn’t recommend people go out of their way to find a copy, but if you chance across it at a library or second-hand bookstore, by all means pick it up.

Archive Calendar

October 2016
« Sep