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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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