Desolation Island by Patrick O’Brian (1978) 270 p.


My friend Chris tree-changed out to the Victorian countryside a couple of years ago, his partner buying some acreage near Ballarat, and I visit them fairly often for a night or a weekend. I find it refreshing. Since I moved to Melbourne after university I’ve lived in a sequence of rathole sharehouses or my current rathole one-bedroom apartment, this of course being the first generation to have lower living standards than our parents: so, yes, it’s nice to go out to a roomy country house, a place where you can stretch out, drink red wine, sit by the fireplace. Chris was surprised when I mentioned how comfortable I felt out there; he only experiences that feeling when he and his partner go an hour up the road to stay at her parents’ farm. He proposed it was because the feeling stems from abrogating responsibility. When I’m at their place, they take care of everything; when he and his partner go to her parents’ place, her dad takes care of everything. You sink back into a semi-parental world; one which has some order and sense to it. I imagine this is also why, when my girlfriend drives home to Albury on some weekends, she still calls it “going home” despite having lived in Melbourne for seven years.

This is a close equivalent to how I feel, in literary terms, when working my way through the Aubrey-Maturin series. I can’t entirely explain why. Historical fiction has always been a comforting genre – certainly more so in the last few years, since climate change started spiralling out of control and the world started slouching back towards fascism – but the Aubrey-Maturin series most definitely has an ineffable sense of comfort. This seems entirely counter-intuitive for a series about bloody naval battles and the gruelling day-to-day life of the British Navy, yet here we are. I suppose it’s inherently romantic to read about a dashing sea captain who is best friends with a supremely intelligent naval surgeon/naturalist/spy. Possibly it’s because the lead characters are so immensely likeable, and a series of books is inherently a familiar and enjoyable thing to revisit; Philip Reeve compares the cabin of one of Jack Aubrey’s ships to Blandings Castle or 22B Baker Street.

But calling a series comfortable also suggests that it’s lightweight; an easy read. These books are anything but. The author O’Brian is most often compared to is Austen, and I’ve noted before that if I had to guess, I would have thought these books were actually written in the 19th century in which they’re set, rather than the 1970s and ’80s.

So, anyway: Desolation Island, book five of the series, and well slotted into a formula by now. Jack is home in England, spending his money on various idiotic investments, but Stephen’s espionage dealings have resulted in the necessity of transporting a captured female spy to the penal colony of New Holland (home sweet home). As Jack has also been ordered to head down to Sydney and sort out Bligh’s second unfortunate mutiny, the two missions are merged, and his new command the HMS Leopard finds itself with a consignment of convicts – and away we go!

There are two really tremendous setpieces in this book. The first is the Leopard’s flight through stormy Antarctic seas from a larger and more dangerous Dutch warship, the Waakzaamheid – a ship which, Jack is disturbed to realise, intends not to board and capture the Leopard but to sink her outright: effectively an act of mass murder, and unusual outside a fleet battle. But all is fair in love and war, and so the Leopard fires back in kind, and the two ships engage in a running chase, up and down enormous waves like a rollercoaster, the ships firing at each other from stern or bow respectively, since neither vessel can present its broadside to the waves; this necessitates the use of the captain’s cabin at the stern as a firing platform, and ends with half of it torn away and swamped with seawater, Jack injured and half-drowned and senseless, looking out the huge gap where his wall used to be at the point where he and his men have landed a lucky shot and brought down the Waakzaamheid’s foremast, sinking her:

The Leopard reached the crest. Green water blinded him. It cleared, and through the bloody haze running from his cloth he saw the vast breaking wave with the Waakzaamheid broadside on its curl, on her beam-ends, broached to. An enormous, momentary turmoil of black hull and white water, flying spars, rigging that streamed wild for a second, and then nothing at all but the great hill of green-grey with foam racing upon it.
“My God, oh my God,” he said. “Six hundred men.”

This battle (the first, apparently, that O’Brien invented outright rather than lifting from history, which is possibly also the reason it’s the first in the series that thrilled me rather than putting me to sleep with dreary exposition of naval tactics) is subsequently followed by a sequence, in calmer seas, where the Leopard is struck by an iceberg and slowly begins to founder. O’Brian brilliantly brings home the utter, dreadful horror of such an event: a thousand miles from even the edge of civilisation, at a time when the oceans hadn’t even been fully charted, an exhausted crew endlessly pumping water out of the ship all through the night while others desperately try to repair the damage and jettison what wasn’t already thrown overboard during the flight from the Dutchman – and all the while a good part of the crew insisting that the ship is doomed, that they should take to the open boats and make for South Africa, more than a thousand miles away, a strain of panic beginning to run through a divided ship.

Jack was awake, grey but alive, with Killick’s good breakfast dispelling the cold, when Grant came to him, reported the water over the top of the well and gaining fast, and the parting of the new fothering-sail at the dews. “So there we are, sir. We have done all we can by the ship. We cannot pass a new sail before she settles. Shall I provision the boats? I presume you will go in the launch.”
“I do not intend leaving the ship, Mr Grant.”
“She is sinking under us, sir.”
“I am not sure of that. We may save her yet – fother the leak – fashion a rudder with a spare topmast.”
“Sir, the hands have wrought hard, very hard, ever since the moment we struck. We cannot in honesty give them any more hope. And if I may speak plain, I doubt they would come to their duty, with the water deep in the orlop. I doubt they would still obey orders.”
“Would you still obey orders, Mr Grant?” asked Jack with a smile.
“I will obey orders, sir,” said Grant, deadly earnest. “No man shall ever accuse me of mutiny. All lawful orders. But, sir, is it lawful to order men to their death with no enemy at hand, no battle? I respect your decision to stay with your ship, but I beg you to consider those of another way of thinking. I believe the ship must founder. I believe the boats can reach the Cape.”

This is apparently based on a real event, the tale of the HMS Guardian, which struck an iceberg on Christmas Eve in 1789. Spoiler alert: the boats did not reach the Cape. This is the power of O’Brian’s prose: I read that Wikipedia article, I read the phrase “a wall of ice higher than the ship’s masts slid by along the side,” with a real sense of horror, but of course that was purely because I’d already read the whole gripping sequence of the foundering ship in Desolation Island. It may have been 200 years ago, but these were real people – real human beings – who died cold and lonely and frightening deaths in dark seas a thousand miles away from home.

What was that I was saying about a comfortable read? But it is – because it’s not just the exquisitely realised horror, it’s the beauty, too. The smaller moments, like when a blue whale surfaces alongside the ship to Stephen’s delight:

As the wind was biting through his fourth waistcoat and comforter, he was rewarded by what appeared to be the sea-bed rising to the surface right by the ship, a vast dark area that grew clearer and clearer until it assumed the form of a whale. But a whale of unspeakable dimensions: still it rose, unhurried, and as he stared, holding his breath, the sea rounded in a smooth boil – the surface parted – the creature’s streaming back appeared, dark blue-grey just flecked with white, stretching from the fore to the mizen-chains. The head rose higher still and expired a rushing jet of air that instantly condensed in a plume as tall as the foretop and floated over the Leopard’s bowsprit: and at the same moment Stephen himself breathed out. He believed he heard the hissing inspiration just before the head sank and the enormous bulk slid over in an easy, leisurely motion; a dorsal fin appeared, far back; a hint of the flukes themselves, and the sea closed softly over Leviathan; but his hurry of spirits was so great that he could not be sure.

We’ve all seen skeletons or life-size blue whale models on primary school trips to maritime museums. Big deal. But the beauty of O’Brian’s prose is that he can put you right there, in Stephen’s shoes, and make you realise what a spine-tingling, thrilling moment it would be, for a European, so far from home, so close to death, on a crippled ship in frigid foreign seas, to suddenly witness something like that emerge – as large as the ship – just there for a moment – and then, like a dream, gone. It takes you back to a time when there was still so much mystery and wonder in the world.

These, I think, are some of the reasons people adore these books. I wouldn’t say I adore them myself, just yet – I’m averaging one every eight months or so, and they can be heavy going sometimes – but I can understand why others do, and see how I would come to. There is something immensely pleasing about regularly visiting this world and these characters that O’Brian so meticulously crafted.


La Belle Sauvage by Philip Pullman (2017) 545 p.

belle sauvage

We waited twenty years for this?

Philip Pullman describes La Belle Sauvage, the first in a trilogy comprising what he calls The Book of Dust, as neither a “prequel” or a “sequel” to his Dark Materials trilogy – apparently the books will run before, during, and after that trilogy, chronologically speaking – and instead describes it as an “equal,” which is a clever turn of phrase and also a whopping fib. La Belle Sauvage is an unnecessary prequel if there ever was one.

The book takes place ten years before the events of Northern Lights, on the outskirts of Oxford, where innkeeper’s son Malcolm often does chores for the nuns of the priory across the river. One evening a group of important noblemen congregate at the inn and inquire as to whether the nuns have ever been known to take care of an infant – so soon the priory finds itself raising the baby Lyra, the protagonist of Northern Lights. The agents of the authoritarian Church (the least interesting part of the Dark Materials trilogy) are sniffing around for the baby, as is a mysterious man with a hyena for a daemon, and a great storm is building. In due course of events, Malcolm finds himself trying to bear Lyra to safety during a cataclysmic flood.

I’m one of the readers – who I suspect may be a majority – who adored Northern Lights, liked The Subtle Knife less so, and found by the The Amber Spyglass that the spark had sputtered out. While reading La Belle Sauvage it struck me that perhaps Pullman never fully grasped what made Northern Lights so compelling for so many young readers. It wasn’t the religious overtones (almost entirely absent from that book anyway); it certainly wasn’t Dust and fate and destiny and all that other philosophising that crumbles when you look too hard at it in daylight. It was the vibrant, creative and fascinating world that he introduced us to – a world a lot of readers have wanted to return to, but not if he merely treads the same ground. Consider how wildly inventive everything in Northern Lights was – the daemons, the bears, the Scandinavian witches, the clockwork beetles, the alethiometer. Every chapter seemed to have something new. But La Belle Sauvage contains nothing fantastic that isn’t a re-tread of the original trilogy or lazily lifted from English folklore.

La Belle Sauvage, most of all, is badly paced and understuffed. To compare: my hardback edition of Northern Lights is 403 pages long and contains Lyra’s world of Jordan College, her life and subsequent escape from Mrs Coulter in London, the world of the river-dwelling gyptians in the Fens, an Arctic expedition, the eerie polar research institute, the Scandinavian witch clans, the island of the armoured bears and Lord Asriel rupturing a gateway through the aurora into another world. My hardback edition of La Belle Sauvage is 545 pages long and contains… a priory on the riverbank, some amateur sleuthing, a big flood and a ridiculously persistent pursuer. (On a page-to-page level, the book is increasingly bogged down by Pullman’s inability to sort the wheat from the chaff when droning on about Malcolm’s physical actions while preparing his canoe, shifting his gear, packing his food, etc.) There are a handful of chapters towards the end dealing with the magically disruptive events of the flood, as Malcolm and his companions stumble across a few elements of English fairy mythology; but it’s too little, too late. Northern Lights was an epic in a single book, a grand story about a child’s first adventure out into the wider world; La Belle Sauvage, on the other hand, takes an awful lot of pages to tell us not very much.

I didn’t completely hate it, but I did find myself bored by it, much as I was bored by large parts of The Amber Spyglass. I’ll continue to read the rest of the trilogy as Pullman releases it, particularly because La Belle Sauvage strikes me as an egregious example of groundwork-laying, and perhaps the later books will improve. But by and large, I imagine a lot of fans are going to be very disappointed by this – and it certainly isn’t an “equal” to Northern Lights.

The Physician by Noah Gordon (1986) 686 p.


I have a very firm idea of what makes a good airplane book. It needs to be long. It can’t be too literary – there’s a time and a place for reading some beautifully written Midwestern family tragedy that won the Nobel Prize or whatever, but that time and place is not the middle of the night somewhere over the Pacific Ocean when your eyeballs feel like glue. So obviously it also needs to be good: compelling and readable, but not too fancy. The phrase “airport fiction” is usually tossed around as an insult, but I don’t see it that way. In the same way that people think writing children’s books is easy when it isn’t, authoring an undemanding yet engaging story which carefully treads the line between artful writing and accessibility is a very specific skill.

So: The Physician, a 600+ page whopper of a historical fiction novel which I’d never heard of until recently despite it being a bestseller – it turns out because, although it was written by an American and has an English protagonist, it was far more popular in continental Europe than in the Anglosphere. The Physician begins in London in the 11th century, when Rob J. Cole (a clanger of an Americanism, I know) is left orphaned after both his parents die. Gordon doesn’t shy away from the harshness of the time – Rob’s siblings are passed along by his father’s guild to various other families, separated from each other forever, and Rob himself, at less than ten years of age, is left as an apprentice to a barber-surgeon who roams around England selling snake oil to medieval rubes. Thus begins a picaresque coming-of-age story in which Rob is slowly inducted into the rudiments of medieval medicine, and – this isn’t really a spoiler, since it’s in the blurb – one day carries out a bold scheme to travel across Europe and study at the great, forbidden universities of Persia by disguising himself as a Jew.

I’m no historian, but I suspect a lot of details in this book are fudged or fabricated for fiction’s sake – and that’s fine. I could compare it to Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which takes place in more or less the same place and time period but does a far better job of making the 11th century seem like the grubby, barbaric and alien era it was; but I don’t think that’s a fair comparison. (And The Wake, in any case, is exactly the kind of experimental piece of literature I don’t want to read while I’m incubating jet lag in an unknown timezone.) The Physician falls short of being great literature, which airport fiction can in fact be capable of; my perennial example here would be Larry McMurtry’s Lonesome Dove. But that’s an above-and-beyond accomplishment, not a reasonable expectation. The Physician is entertaining and compelling and interesting and it never bored me. I enjoyed it a lot.

Interesting Times by Terry Pratchett (1994) 416 p.
Discworld #17 (Rincewind #5)


Unlike a few of the novels surrounding it, Interesting Times is a book I have pretty strong memories of. It’s a compelling story, one of the few in the later series set in a genuinely foreign part of the Discworld, in which Rincewind is sent to the Agatean Empire – an amalgam of various Asian tropes and the home of his former friend and travelling companion Twoflower from the very first two books in the series – and finds himself thrust into a bubbling revolution while his old friend Cohen the Barbarian leads a band of geriatric warriors on One Last Job for a great heist in the capital city.

Why do I remember this book so well? Hard to say. Possibly because at this point in the series it feels like such a throwback to the early novels. It features characters we haven’t seen since Book 5, Sourcery, and takes place far from the now-familiar realm of Ankh-Morpork. But therein lies the rub.

Other re-readers have pointed out how culturally insensitive and borderline racist this book is – not in any sort of crude or deliberate way, for the most part, but in the manner Pratchett presents smart Westerners who roll in and solve the problems of naive Orientals, who are mostly just a series of cliches. Certainly if this book had been published twenty years later Pratchett would have been raked over the coals on Twitter.

I can’t disagree with these viewpoints, but for whatever reason, it didn’t strike me as quite so bad. Possibly it’s because Soul Music was such a lousy book that anything looks good in comparison. Possibly it’s because, throughout this whole re-read, I’m finding that Pratchett’s moral universe and common-sense sort of commentary is not as refreshing and wise as it seemed when I was a teenager, and therefore his clangers don’t stand out as much as they perhaps do for other fans. That’s not to say I don’t still enjoy his writing; I do, very much so. But sometimes – not all the time, but certainly during parts of Interesting Times – it’s a bit more like listening to an old-timer at the pub or a grandfather talking about something at length. He’s entertaining, you love him, he’s a decent bloke and he makes good points – but “open minded” would not precisely be the first word to come to mind. He is an older man who has coalesced around a certain viewpoint of the world and isn’t going to change it, and he tends to return to the same points over and over again.

The general thrust of Pratchett’s political argument in Interesting Times, such as it is, is a fairly well-worn (and very middle-class English) attack on the champagne socialist kind of revolution, in which the masters are overthrown and the well-educated seditionists take their place and life for the surviving peasantry goes on more or less as before – if it doesn’t get worse. This is indisputably based on historical fact, especially in East Asia, and there is something to be said for barracking for the little guy. But it’s not a particularly fresh or compelling point, and this isn’t helped by transplanting it over a stew of Oriental cliches. Pratchett certainly tackles the issue far better on his home turf in the marvellous City Watch book Night Watch.

Nonetheless: I like Interesting Times. I found it fun. Certainly it’s better than the last few Rincewind novels were. Cohen’s horde of elderly barbarians have a great dynamic, especially with their adopted teacher Mr Saveloy, who is attempting to civilise them. There are some genuinely funny moments; I love the title of Twoflower’s book which reveals to Agateans the forbidden world outside their empire, and is thus banned as a seditionist tract: “What I Did On My Holidays;” I also love the concept of the five perpetually battling great families of the Empire, the Hongs, the Tangs, the Fangs, the Sungs, and the McSweeneys. (“Very old established family.”) The final setpiece, in which a terracotta army comes to life to battle the enemies of the empire, is a genuinely great visual scene.

So Interesting Times cops a lot of flak. But I don’t mind it. As I mentioned before, this is one of the last Discworld novels which takes place out in the broader, exotic Discworld – the only other, if I’m not mistaken, is The Last Continent, which takes place in pseudo-Australia and which I don’t recall anything about. Every other book retreats back into Ankh-Morpork or its surrounding English/European countryside; the Eastern European lands of Monstrous Regiment are about as far as Pratchett ever ventures again. Given the mixed results of Interesting Times, I’d say that’s a good thing. But it was nice for one last hurrah, even if it is a little ~*~Problematic~*~.

Next up we’re back in good old Ankh-Morpork, with Maskerade.

Re-reading Discworld index

I usually do a top ten books list, but you know what? I didn’t read many good books this year, and I’m not going to be goaded into writing stuff about books I’m lukewarm about by my own semi-OCD urge to make things nice and rounded. That’s why I quit reviewing every single book I read in the first place. Nope, five is fine. Here’s the best five books I read in 2017.

5. One More Year
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“I’m having a bad time in here…”

The Meg, Mogg and Owl collections came in at #1 on this list last year, and this volume brings more hilarious antics from a group of revolting, selfish, drug-addicted anthropomorphic animals. What sets it apart from the previous collections is the shocking ending. I won’t spoil it here, but anyone who’s read the other comics will be wondering exactly how much further Hanselmann could push the envelope. So to clarify: it’s not “shocking” in a gruesome or funny way, or even a dramatic non-comedy moment like the end of Megahex, in which Owl moves out of his toxic sharehouse and breathes a sigh of relief as he watches New Year’s fireworks through his taxi window. It’s more of a startlingly unexpected moment which suddenly casts the artist as an unreliable narrator and causes you to question everything you’ve seen of these characters over the previous books. And it’s perfect in its brevity. Hanselmann doesn’t linger, doesn’t make it a big thing. He just gives us a handful of quick panels and then the book is over and we’re left to digest what we just witnessed. Meg, Mogg and Owl is one of the funniest comics of all time, but it’s this sort of stuff which pushes it into being genuinely great art, and something everybody should check out.

4. Luna: New Moon and Luna: Wolf Moon
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“Fly me to the earth.”

Two books in an as-yet-incomplete trilogy, but I’m rolling them together because I read them almost back to back and they blended together in my mind. Aside from being the best prose stylist writing science fiction today, Ian McDonald is a marvellous sci-fi writer of a futurist bent, who carefully considers all aspects of times to come – the evolution not just of technology but of society, capitalism, geopolitics and human behaviour – and then tosses the reader straight into that world with no spoonfeeding.

This is also one of those books, like Philip Reeve’s Mortal Engines series, in which the author patiently constructs a fictional world and then gleefully rips it apart. The enveloping and confusing catastrophe/coup/war which spreads across the moon in the second half is one of the most exhilarating stretches of fiction I’ve read in a long time. I try to avoid describing fiction as “cinematic,” but I can’t deny these books had some unforgettably visual setpieces and climactic moments that made them an absolute ball to read, and I’m very much looking forward to the final chapter of the trilogy.

3. The Orphan Master’s Son
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“You’re a survivor who has nothing to live for.”

This is a contemporary Pulitzer Prize winning novel about North Korea, so naturally I went into it duly expecting a modern-day rehash of 1984 – which, sure, was an important book, but also a very drab and tedious one. I was pleased to find that The Orphan Master’s Son is nothing like that. Instead it’s a vibrant and exotic novel which almost reads like science fiction or fantasy, as it takes us by the hand and leads us into a wholly alien world. It helps that the protagonist’s life, as a North Korean intelligence agent, is an adventurous one – he travels to Japan, to international waters, to the United States – but Johnson’s skill is such that every moment of this book, even the stint in a concentration camp, feels alive with colour and movement. The beads of moisture on a bottle of Taedonggang beer on a summer day; the glint of moonlight on the black volcanic sands of a disputed island chain; the boat captain’s story about his days on a Soviet cannery ship and the gnashing beak and tentacles of a giant squid that once came down the chute. Every page of this book is a vision into another world. Every sentence is a pleasure to read.

2. Northern Lights
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“But suppose your daemon settles in a shape you don’t like?”
“Well, then, you’re discontented, en’t you? There’s plenty of folk as’d like to have a lion as a daemon and they end up with a poodle. And till they learn to be satisfied with what they are, they’re going to be fretful about it. Waste of feeling, that is.”

I hadn’t read this in fifteen years, but picked it up again because Philip Pullman has finally started publishing the long-awaited sequel trilogy, The Book of Dust. There’s a reason I’m listing just Northern Lights and not the original trilogy as a whole: it goes significantly downhill, particularly in the didactic and tedious third volume, The Amber Spyglass.

Northern Lights, though, is deservedly considered one of the best YA books ever written. I can remember exactly where I was when I first started reading it: on a family holiday down to a caravan park down in rainy Albany, on Western Australia’s south coast, when I would have been about thirteen or fourteen. It’s a great book in general, but it particularly succeeds as a YA novel because it checks all those boxes in a young boy or girl’s brain: the daemons, the armoured bears, the alethiometer, the wonderful society of the canal-boat “gyptians,” the witches of the frozen north, the great bridge between worlds, and a hundred other little things. Northern Lights hums along at a terrific pace, each scene feeding perfectly into the next, a fantastic new figment of Pullman’s imagination on every chapter, every single part of it tapping perfectly into the sense of adventure I was craving as a fourteen-year-old on a rainy day. It’s a shame the rest of the trilogy stutters and comes apart, but Northern Lights is a truly wonderful book.

1. Lonesome Dove series
He could remember the person he had been, but he could not become that person again. That person was back down the weeks, on the other side of the canyon of time. There was no rejoining him, and there never would be.

I first read Lonesome Dove in 2014, when I was riding a motorbike across America, and it ranked #5 in my books of the year. I read Dead Man’s Walk – written later, but chronologically the first in the series – in 2015, and looking back it seems that volume didn’t even rate a mention in my top 10 that year.

Which simply goes to show that some things take a while to digest. Some books you keep thinking about, keep turning over in your head, keep coming back to. And some things work better interlinked, standing in symphony with each other, than they do alone. I’ve read all four books in the series now, and I re-read Lonesome Dove again this year, and I’ll now happily argue that they’re among the greatest American novels of all time.

On the surface, the Lonesome Dove series is a Western saga revolving around the friendship between Texas Rangers Augustus McCrae and Woodrow Call, from their teenage years to their retirement. They’re perfect foils to each other: Call, the gruff stoic, who sees life as something to be endured for the sake of duty, and Gus, the chatterbox epicurean, who sees life as a jug of whiskey to be savoured and enjoyed. Around this axle spins an entire universe of Western characters: cowboys and Indians, priests and whores, governors and millionaires, paupers and peasants, Americans and Mexicans, good people and bad people and every stripe in between. This makes it sound like a popcorn film on paper (in fact it was adapted into a cult TV series, and McMurtry was irritated that so many people embraced it as a “Gone with the Wind of the West”) and it’s true that these books are immensely fun, easily readable, and greatly enjoyable – a point of contention if you’re one of those types who believes proper literature is meant to be difficult and inaccessible.

But the reason they’re great literature is because, before our eyes, hidden behind this airport fiction adventure, McMurtry is dismantling the myth of the West. It was a harsh time and a harsh place, merciless to natives and settlers alike, a godforsaken country where death was a constant possibility and most people were just trying to scrape out a half-decent life. Little did those rough and tumble cow-pokes dragging livestock between Texas and Montana – just another paycheque – realise that one day their own country would comandeer their lives and their legacy, transforming them into a homegrown version of the chivalrous medieval knight of France or Britain, wandering the land, protecting the weak and the innocent. Larry McMurtry wants nothing to do with that; wants nothing to do with almost any narrative convention at all, in fact.

My interpretation of these books is that they’re deeply nihilistic. There’s no getting around that. Everybody is going to die, there is no cosmic justice, and happiness and success are largely a matter of luck. Bad things happen and they cannot be undone. Good people die and bad people live. Time rolls on, life is full of regret, you can’t turn back the clock and you’re still inching closer to your own inevitable death with your dreams unfulfilled and your regrets gnawing at you every day.

Why then do we root for Inish Scull during his terrible torture at the hands of Ahumado? Why do we want Gus to save Lorena from Blue Duck? Why do we think it matters if Call acknowledges Newt as his son? Because nihilism is not the same thing as pessimism. Because there is meaning in life: the meaning that we choose to attribute to it. I suspect most people, McMurtry included, side with Gus more than Call. The meaning of life is simply for it to be enjoyed.

Streets of Laredo by Larry McMurtry (1993) 589 p.



(Critical spoiler warning for Dead Man’s Walk, Comanche Moon and Lonesome Dove)

Most books are about what happens. Larry McMurtry’s books are about what happens next.

Obviously that’s true of all books in a sense: the reader is compelled to keep turning the pages to find out what happens. But Larry McMurtry shows us the course of people’s lives, and the consequences of life’s many sorrows, beyond the expected narrative constraint. This is doubly true of Streets of Laredo, the fourth and final installment of the Lonesome Dove series: not just because it’s a low-key sequel to the greatest Western novel of all time – an examination of Woodrow Call’s twilight years after the death of his life partner – but also because of what happens to Call himself at the end of the novel.

After Lonesome Dove I went and read Dead Man’s Walk and Comanche Moon, which are chronologically the first two books in the series. They take place when Call and Gus are younger men, when the Texas frontier was truly wild, when Comanche still ruled the western plains. They lead beautifully into Lonesome Dove: a novel which is, at its heart, about memory and old age and the passage of time. The west is still wild, but only just.

Streets of Laredo takes us into the 1890s. The US census has declared the frontier officially gone, steam trains criss-cross Texas, and Captain Call is living out his old age as a bounty hunter. His reputation precedes him, but Call himself knows his glory days are long gone, the frontier tamed, his old companions mostly dead and buried. He is a grumpy old man after a lifetime spent as a grumpy young man.

I remember going into a gift shop in the American West somewhere and finding a whole section of wall plaques emblazoned with quotes from Lonesome Dove – the miniseries is a cult classic, although I’m not sure that’s the right word for something that was broadly popular. Gus is an endlessly quotable rake for all seasons, but Call also has a deep appeal to the masculine spirit of the American West and a common kind of American man. He’s a matter-of-fact stoic, a cowboy who gets things done and has little tolerance for incompetent people. (It occurred to me that incompetence is portrayed as the primary moral failing imaginable in the Western genre, much as it is in that modern TV western, The Walking Dead.) Call is a hard-working John Wayne cowboy in the classic mould. The fact is, of course, Call is also a miserable bastard. He always has been and always will be: a difficult man whom you’d trust with your life but wouldn’t invite to your dinner table. Yet he’s not unsympathetic; he’s a victim of his own nature as much as anybody else is. It’s a mark of McMurtry’s talent as a writer that trying to describe a character like Call can feel like trying to describe a real human. He does run to a groove, but still contains multitudes, still does unexpected things sometimes. There’s a moment at the start of the book where Call’s employer has a panic attack so Call kindly and gently guides him across the street to the hotel – not because kindness and gentleness are his instinctive responses, but simply because he knows they’re the most efficient way to draw someone down from panic, and Call values efficiency and common sense above all else.

I half-expected I might dislike this book because it lacks Gus, the other end of the axle that spins throughout the series, the two characters balancing each other perfectly while a whole Western universe revolves around them. Gus’ absence is certainly felt, but in many ways that only highlights the novel’s greater themes: Call is left to live on, a full fifteen years after the catastrophic Montana expedition, without his partner, often wondering what he might have done or said. That’s life. That’s death.

Streets of Laredo is, judged by itself as a novel – by its ensemble characters, by the shapes and forms of its plot – probably the weakest of the series. But as a conclusion to the Lonesome Dove series, to the saga of Gus and Call’s lives, and those of the people around them, it’s brilliant. The four books together make up one of those rare things: a story which is greater than the sum of its parts. A 3,000+ page Western epic which is, at surface level, about a friendship and partnership between two men, but which touches on a deeper level about so many more things – most notably, and most skillfully, about the nihilistic injustice of the world, about the way life doesn’t always fit to the patterns of the stories we tell ourselves, about how people cope (or don’t cope) when faced with the fact that their own narrative has gone astray. About what happens next.

Soul Music by Terry Pratchett (1994) 432 p.
Discworld #16 (Death #2)


I remembered very little of Soul Music from the first time I read it, and now – about a month after I reread it – I remember very little of it again. It’s not a memorable book. It is, easily, the weakest book in the Discworld’s teen years and probably one of the weakest overall.

Soul Music is a story of two halves, and they’re both variations on themes we’ve seen before. One of them is something from our real world taking spark as a brief fad on the Discworld – we saw this with film in Moving Pictures, and we see it now with rock music in Soul Music. As before, this is mostly an excuse for Pratchett to jam as many jokes and references in about the subject in question as possible. The second plot is the third story in the Death arc, and is about – you guessed it – Death going AWOL and experiencing the real world, resulting in somebody having to step up to take on his duty; in this case his granddaughter Susan Sto Helit, daughter of Mort and Ysabel from Mort.

The gem at the heart of this story is Death’s grief over his adopted daughter’s death, which occurs at the beginning of the novel as she and Mort go over a cliff in a runaway carriage. It’s never outright stated, it’s never even suggested by any of the other characters, but grief is clearly what Death is experiencing – a new and frightening concept for him, and one which jars against his duty to guide souls into the new world. He does this without question, only briefly entertaining the possibility that, yes, he could have done something to stop her death from happening, but Death nonetheless abandons his duty henceforth and spends the rest of the book trying to forget all about his daughter to end the pain of having lost her.

It’s easy to miss that this is his motivation – I don’t think I picked up on it when I read it as a teenager – not just because it’s the third time we’re going through the motions of Death Takes A Holiday, but also because it’s drowned out by what’s going on in the foreground of the novel, and I don’t mean that in a good way. We have a story about a magical pawn shop sidling into Ankh-Morpork from another dimension, an aspiring young musician finding himself in the possession of a magical guitar which begins to possess his soul, and a new kind of music launching itself onto the Discworld. Cue predictable jokes like the avaricious CMOT Dibbler becoming the first rock band’s manager.

All of the interesting stuff in Soul Music – Susan’s repressed childhood memories about visits to Death’s Domain, Albert’s carefully hoarded precious seconds of time in the hourglass hidden beneath his bed, a flashback to the showdown at the finale of Mort – is divorced from the main storyline, much as the touching fairytale at the heart of Reaper Man bears no resemblance to the oddball story about predatory shopping trolleys that felt like it made up more than half the bulk of that book. The dissonance isn’t quite as jarring, but at the same time the Death storyline doesn’t feel quite as good as that in Reaper Man. I’m not surprised I’d forgotten most of Soul Music’s plot – forgettable is the right word for it.

Next up is a return to Rincewind’s story arc in Interesting Times.

Rereading Discworld index

On the ride back across the gray plains, the young cowboy – he was just twenty – looked rather despondent. Goodnight ignored his despondence for a while, then got tired of it. What did a healthy sprout of twenty have to be despondent about?
“What’s made you look so peaked, J.D.?” Goodnight inquired.
“Why, it’s Captain Call, I guess,” the young cowboy said.
He was glad to talk about it, to get his dark feelings out. “What about Captain Call?” Goodnight asked.
“Why, wasn’t he a great Ranger?” the boy asked. “I’ve always heard he was the greatest Ranger of all.”
“Yes, he had exceptional determination,” Goodnight told him.
“Well, but now look… what’s he doing? Sharpening sickles in a dern barn!” J.D. exclaimed.
Goodnight was silent for a bit. He wished his young cowboys would keep their minds on the stock, and not be worrying so about things they couldn’t change.
“Woodrow Call had his time,” he said, finally. “It was a long time, too. Life’s but a knife edge, anyway. Sooner or later people slip and get cut.”
“Well, you ain’t slipped,” J.D. Brown said.
“How would you know, son?” Goodnight said.

– From “Streets of Laredo,” by Larry McMurtry


The Land of Laughs by Jonathan Carroll (1980) 241 p.


“I can’t remember when I’ve last been so blown away by a fantasy novel,” says the Stephen King blurb on the front cover – which I didn’t actually notice until I’d nearly finished the book, and which is ironic, given I spent most of this book thinking it felt like an early 1980s King novel if King had only had quarter of the talent. The Land of Laughs captures that same King-esque feeling of the homely nostalgic creepiness of early 1980s down-to-earth Americana – when the 1950s were closer to them than the the 1980s are to us, as strange as that sounds. But it doesn’t quite hit the mark. It actually felt a bit like a book written by an outsider trying to describe what America’s like – probably not fair, because although Carroll moved to Austria before ever writing this, he is actually a born and bred New Yorker.

There are other problems. The main character is an unlikeable wanker; I’m usually the first to scoff at people who complain about unlikeable main characters, and in fact I think it’s a sign of intellectual weakness, but the protagonist in The Land of Laughs is specifically a wisecracking cynic, and here’s the thing – if your asshole main character is in that vein, he also need to be self-deprecating. He needs to dish it out to himself as much as he does to others. But Thomas Abbey is a glass-jawed manchild. You can still get away with this if you’re writing a character like, say, David Lurie in Disgrace; but Carroll, like most of us, is no Coetzee, and unless you’re writing a Nobel-worthy work, then yes, your characters do at least have to be somewhat sympathetic. Thomas Abbey is nowhere near as charming or funny as Carroll thinks he is, and after fifty pages I was sick of him.

Which is the third problem: this book is glacially slow. It’s a fantasy – magical realism or urban fantasy or whatever you want to call it – in which Abbey travels to the hometown of his favourite author to write his biography, and slowly realises not everything in this picture-perfect town is quite right. Again, though, there’s a difference between teasing things out slowly (good!) and writing a book which is 80% straight generic fiction but then all the semi-interesting stuff kicks off in the final 70 pages. (Bad!)

Furthermore, the central conceit is much less interesting than it’s built up to be. No spoilers, but… this magical and talented writer used his mysterious talents to create this when he could have created literally anything? Yawn.

I was often irked while reading The Land of Laughs but I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a bad book – probably because I may have been irked but, while never engaged, was never too bored either. (And I will grant that the brilliant last few paragraphs very nearly redeemed the whole thing – and displayed a level of restraint I’m surprised Carroll was capable of, after taking us through Abbey’s entitled whingeing for 200+ pages.) I don’t recommend it, I was disappointed by it given the recommendations it has, and I’m not going to seek out any more of Carroll’s work, but… I don’t know, give it a chance if you think it sounds interesting. Clearly a lot of people liked it much more than I did.

American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis (1990) 384 p.

american psycho

This is a book which divides people into camps of “utterly degraded puerile trash” and “mind-bending satire.” I ended the book slightly more sympathetic to how I began it, but – to be clear from the outset – I still believe it’s revolting, misogynistic, overrated bullshit written by a dickhead.

Most people who hate American Psycho take issue with the violence. So do I; more on that in a moment. But those violent scenes don’t actually crop up until about 100 or 150 pages into the book, and I was bored with it after the first 20. Here’s a sample from an early chapter, in which our titular psycho Patrick Bateman is describing his morning skincare routine:

I rinse again, with Cepacol. I wash the facial massage off with a spearmint face scrub. The shower has a universal all-directional shower head that adjusts within a thirty-inch vertical range. It’s made from Australian gold-black brass and covered with a white enamel finish. In the shower I use first a water-activated gel cleanser, then a honey-almond body scrub, and on the face an exfoliating gel scrub. Vidal Sassoon shampoo is especially good at getting rid of the coating of dried perspiration, salts, oils, airborne pollutants and dirt that can weigh down hair and flatten it to the scalp which can make you look older. The conditioner is also good – silicone technology permits conditioning benefits without weighing down the hair which can also make you look older.

This goes on for six (six!) pages – we’re only about twenty pages in here – and it was at this point I started skim-reading American Psycho. I’ve never done that before; normally I’d abandon a book if I felt it wasn’t worth my time. But there’s a droning blandness to Ellis’ prose which makes it perfectly easy to skim your eyes across the page and still pick up the general vibe, which is: yuppies are shallow. Wall street suits are selfish shitheads. Modern American life is hollow. Stop the press!

(As an aside: lots of people, even today, call this book a satire of ‘80s greed. What the fuck? Why do we still consider the ‘80s to be the epitome of greed? Because in 2017 we have a narcissistic game show host for a president and nobody’s in a union anymore and the youth are being crushed on an intern treadmill and we’re cooking the planet to a crisp so the 1% can make a few extra million on their Caltex shares and the people responsible for crashing the financial system and ruining millions of lives are still sunbathing outside their mansions in the Bahamas. The Wall Street of American Psycho is quaint compared to the Gibsonian dystopia of 2017.)

Anyway: the murders. I don’t have a problem with violence in fiction but I do have a problem with an author who indulges in endless, baroque descriptions of ultra-gore. It’s like comparing a well-made slasher film to the torture porn genre (films like Hostel or Wolf Creek). Violence when used sparingly is interesting. When you have fifty plus pages of lurid descriptions of vile torture, you’re an immature writer trying to provoke a reaction for the sake of it – and also, in this case, because the rest of your novel is so trite and tedious.

And yes, it’s misogynistic. Bateman’s male victims get a couple of paragraphs. His female victims are treated to entire chapters describing increasingly gruesome tortures. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.

I mentioned at the start I was more sympathetic to the book by the end of it. That’s because the final fifty pages are actually somewhat interesting. Bateman’s acts through most of the book are those of a serial killer: secretive, hidden, selective. But near the end he goes on a spontaneous GTA-style shooting rampage through the streets, holes up in his office with a helicopter circling outside and a SWAT team about to storm the building, and then… nothing. He wakes up the next day and goes to work as normal. When he begins to really start unravelling – finding a bone inside a chocolate bar, becoming paranoid about a walking park bench that follows him several blocks – he returns to the apartment of his murdered co-worker Paul Owen, which he’s been using for murders and corpse storage, expecting to find the rotting bodies and scenes of carnage he left there… and instead finds it spick-and-span, ready to be sold, with a smiling real estate agent who mysteriously warns him “Don’t make any trouble.” When Bateman confesses to his lawyer that he murdered Owen, his lawyer is befuddled, insisting he had lunch with Owen in London just last week. So none of the violence in the book – or at least, not most of it – is really happening. Bateman is an unreliable narrator, and it’s all in his head. Since it’s all fiction anyway this does not let Ellis off the hook for sitting down at his desk and dreaming up loathsome torture methods for women. But it’s more interesting than the book would otherwise have been.

Does that mean American Psycho is ultimately an interesting book? No. One of my favourite short stories – and I say that despite having read it maybe once or twice – is John Cheever’s ‘The Swimmer.’ It’s about an affluent man in the affluent suburbs of Long Island, who decides on a whim at a pool party one afternoon to swim home across the pools of his neighbourhood. As he goes, he finds his neighbours becoming increasingly less tolerant of him, and he finds the weather turning; although it’s supposed to be summer, he’s cold and miserable and there are autumn leaves everywhere. When he arrives home he finds it boarded up and abandoned. It’s an enigmatic and engrossing tale.

‘The Swimmer’ is about 5,000 words long. American Psycho is nearly 400 pages, and manages to be alternately tedious and revolting. I could possibly tolerate the appalling, misogynistic violence if there was more of a point to it. But I expect a return on investment, and Ellis has nothing more to offer us than unengaging “satire” of the very low-hanging fruit of Wall Street sharks. It was banal in 1990 and it’s even more banal now. This book does not deserve its place in the canon.

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