Me and Mr James

As of late last night, I have read all the prose fiction that Henry James wrote.

That’s 20 novels and 12 volumes of short – and not-so-short – stories. I didn’t include two unfinished novels, nor a collaborative novel he wrote with 11 other authors.

It’s taken me a little over two years to read through the work of a lifetime.

I’ve never done this with an author before, but I have a bit of history with James. I first read The Portrait of a Lady – more of which later – when I was 17. I can’t even remember why I read it – it wasn’t a set text, I don’t think.

Soon after finishing reading it my English teacher at the time asked if I fancied having a punt at the Cambridge entrance exam, on the understanding that neither of us thought I had a particularly good chance of getting in. I said I would, but didn’t take the exam at all seriously. I mean, I wasn’t going to get in. Why should I? I didn’t even tell my parents I was taking it.

The exam itself must have fallen on a day very soon after I read The Portrait of a Lady. So I looked for a question that would allow me to shoehorn a ton of references to the book that was freshest in my memory. I can’t even remember the question now, but I can remember a line that the 17-year-old me put in the essay:

The Portrait of a Lady is the finest novel ever written.

I know, I know.

A few weeks later, I was invited for an interview at Peterhouse, the college I’d applied for on the scientific basis that it was very old. I hadn’t even been to Cambridge at this point. I took the train from Kent, wandered into the town, found the college, stood gawping for a while, made my way up a stone staircase, and found a man in an academic gown sitting before a fire sipping tea, surrounded by books. Books and books and books and books.

I introduced myself, though writing that makes me sound a lot more self-assured than I actually was. The robed ancient said: ‘Ah! Mr Shepherd! It is a rare delight to meet someone who has read all the books ever written! And so young!’

I don’t remember how I got out of it. I must have done, because to my even greater surprise they offered me a place. The man in the gown with the tea and the books was a splendid fellow called Martin Golding, who would become my director of studies. And I genuinely think that he offered me a place because I showed an insane enthusiasm for a single book – and didn’t back down when I was pushed on it. I did believe at the time that I would never read a better book than The Portrait of a Lady.

And, so far, I never have.

Peterhouse. You get the idea.

I had read perhaps half-a-dozen other James novels before I embarked on this new journey, and maybe a dozen stories. Which seems a little odd to me now – given how much I’d enjoyed that one novel, why did I not devour the rest of them? I don’t have an easy answer, but I do have a theory. Life intruded, and life in my late teens and into my twenties involved activities not conducive to reading long books. If you know what I mean.

And I suppose this always slightly bothered me. Not enough to do anything about it, until recently. But enough to think I should perhaps fill in some of the blanks. I didn’t feel that about any other author – that need to be a completist. But I sort of did about James. But I never got down to it.

So it was with a sense of guilt, almost – sorry, Henry, for not spending more time with you sooner – that I set out to rectify things.

I nearly gave up near the beginning, I’ll be honest. Watch and Ward, the first novel, is a seriously weird and not very good little story, which James later disowned. If I tell you it’s about a man who adopts the daughter of a suicide, and then later marries her, you’ll get a sense of that icky weirdness. But I would also say there is something about that weirdness that captures what was to come.

Roderick Hudson, the second, was a good deal better, but still felt incredibly forced. It was the third novel, The American, that really got me going. Here, I thought, were all the things I loved about James: incomprehensible emotions and passions, luscious settings, and glittering sentences and paragraphs which masked deep, dark, dangerous chasms of feeling.

Also keeping me going were the stories, which I read in real time along with the novels. Again, some of the early ones are awash with stylistic noodling, but there are enough gems, and enough signs of serious artistic progress, to keep one enchanted. There’s one tale in particular from the early 1870s, ‘The Madonna of the Future’, which I absolutely loved.

And so I came to the period that is often thought of as James’s ‘peak’, the great middle years: this is the time of Washington Square, Daisy Miller, The Aspern Papers and, yes, The Portrait of a Lady. The sense of reading James through this period – say, the 1880s – is of a man at the absolute peak of his powers, full of confidence, successful, presumably delightful company, but always conscious of the dark side, the swirling undercurrents of fate.

James doesn’t do the working classes (apart from perhaps The Princess Casamassima, which seems to be a warning to steer well clear of the nobility), he doesn’t really even do work. His world is drawing rooms and parties and deer parks and Florentine palaces and English estates. But he emphatically does do economic and social anxiety, disloyalty and adultery, betrayal and despair. A nice frock doesn’t protect you from evil.

And money. Always money. It’s startling to find how much James worried about money even at this time of his greatest artistic success, although the relative failure of his sequence of three novels The Princess Casamassima, The Bostonians, and The Tragic Muse – and to be fair these can be pretty hard going – didn’t help. Money worries were so acute that, like a thriller writer getting the train to Hollywood in the 1930s, he started eyeing the theatre.

The result: disaster. In 1895, James’s play Guy Domville opened in London. At the curtain, he went out to take a bow, presumably hoping that this new medium would unlock the riches he craved, as well as providing a new channel for artistic experimentation. And they booed him. They actually booed him. He left the theatre white-faced, his dreams of being a playwright shattered.

Reading the novels and stories in order, the crisis is obvious, like a black seam in the fossil record telling of a cataclysm. For a period, his stories get seriously weird. This is the time of the major uncanny tales like ‘Turn of the Screw’ and ‘The Figure in the Carpet’. There is also the short, and exceedingly good, short novel The Spoils of Poynton, which feels like an experiment in style which did him the world of good. And also What Maisie Knew, a terrible story of divorce and abandonment told through the eyes of a young girl, through whom we see the old social order of the glittering parties fracturing and decaying (you can sort of read James through the lens of the social history of divorce, though it’s impossible to see quite what he thinks of it). What Maisie Knew is chilling and amazing and extraordinary.

And then there are two very, very odd books indeed. The Sacred Fount is about…. well, what is it about? An unnamed narrator goes to a weekend party and tries to unpick the relationships and secrets of his fellow guests entirely through their public behaviour, sharing his theories and thoughts with the guests as he goes. It feels like a very – dare I say it – modernist take on reality and fiction. To me, it even reads like a satire on the theatre. It’s very weird indeed.

But not quite as weird as The Other House, which James originally envisaged as a play, and features a twist so mad, so shocking, so downright enraging in its on-the-noseness that I wonder if he went a little bit mad writing it. It came out the year after Guy Domville. Maybe that’s all you need to know about it.

Henry James, photographed by Frederic Hilaire D’Arcis in 1913 (National Portrait Gallery)

During this time, James moved out of London to a (surprisingly big, given his money troubles) house in Rye. There’s an amazing picture of him some time after this which I have had, at intermittent times, as my desktop wallpaper. It reminds me very much of Graham Sutherland’s infamous portrait of Churchill, combining as it does bulldog determination with ageing rage and incipient, growing exhaustion. I love it.

Now we enter James’s final, some would say imperial, phase, the time of the great trilogy: The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl. It’s here more than anywhere that the stereotype of Henry James is located – where sentences and even paragraphs curl and extend and occasionally seem to fade away into nothingness, where you can read entire pages in a fugue-like state of incomprehension. Some people love this phase and these books best of all. I am not one of those people. I applaud and admire the attempt to do something genuinely new – and James was always, always, always an innovator – but occasionally I feel like people sometimes feel about jazz, that the artist is having more fun than the audience.

The novels end – apart from a few collaborations – with The Outcry, which, like The Other House, was originally conceived as a play but then adapted into a novel. In fact, by all accounts The Outcry is very faithful to the original play, and for me it’s delightful. A simple story, well told, and very, very different to the great trilogy that precedes it. Maybe he was exhausted. Maybe he was trying something new again. Maybe we would have seen another phase – one of shorter, more direct books, inspired or even goaded, perhaps, by HG Wells, whom James publicly admired (and isn’t that, in itself, interesting?) and who, in a satirical novel called Boon in 1915, described a Jamesian paragraph as a hippo trying to pick up a pea in a corner. James was intensely wounded.

Which brings me back to The Portrait of a Lady which, as a reminder, is The Greatest Novel Ever Written. I saved it till last in my readathon, the only thing I read out of sequence. It was my third reading of it, I think – I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel three times through unless I wrote it. I’ll read it again. And again. And, probably, again.

It’s a delight, this book. It makes you smile as you would at a beautiful painting or a lovely park; it even makes you laugh. And in Isabel Archer, it has a heroine who is intelligent, mysterious, infuriating, captivating and ultimately heroic (or is she?), whose inner life and motivations are both unknowable and transparent. It has two villains, Madame Merle and Gilbert Osmond, who are each worse than the other. There is no hunger or deprivation or even discomfort, but there is a bleak sadness at the heart of everything, because love and fate are beyond our control, and there is always evil in the world, even if it wears nice things and always knows the right thing to say.

As I said at the top, I have yet to read a finer novel, and the word ‘fine’ seems to capture so much of why I love it. It is very fine indeed, and like all the finest things – wine, poetry, food, houses – there is always more to it than you thought there was, and always more to discover.

The Power and the Story: “The Power” by Naomi Alderman

Naomi Alderman?s The Power has had momentum since it was published in 2016. It won the Baileys Women?s Prize For Fiction in 2017. It?s been acquired for television adaptation. And, most enticingly of all for impenitent liberals like me, it was one of Barack Obama?s best books of the year.

The premise is disarmingly simple: what would happen if women were to develop, almost overnight, the capacity to seriously injure others – and by others I mean, in the main, men? How would the world shift if the fundamental determinant of sexual relations – that a man is physically stronger than a woman – was turned on its head?

Out of that, Alderman develops a novel that is one part dystopian thriller and one part sly deliberation on gender politics. The book works perfectly well as a thriller. As a satire, it?s bravely magnificent, although it is occasionally really hard to read. It contains scenes which some readers will find distort their impressions of the whole book – one good friend of mine found herself disliking the book because of some of these scenes. I guess this post is a kind of argument with her, even though she doesn?t know I?m writing it.

You have to say this about The Power: man, it?s cold. I mean really, really cold. The logic of the inversion of gender power that she has invented leads Alderman to treat of sexual assault, and she follows that logic down into depths which some readers won?t want to descend – it is these scenes which my friend objected to. Those scenes are some of the most chilling things I?ve ever seen or read or heard (and I consumed The Power as an audiobook, more of which in a second). One particular episode in a refugee camp towards the end of the book is so extreme that it might lead you to push the whole book to one side, in some disgust.

But the political logic of what Alderman is doing in The Power demands that scene. Nothing she describes in it hasn?t happened the other way around. There are places in the world where it is probably happening right now. It happened in Europe within living memory. It will happen, and it will go on happening. That?s cold, woman. And it?s true.

I think these almost satirical aspects of the book are more powerful than the story itself. Just before I started scribbling these words, I read a fantastic profile of Jordan Peele in the New York Times, and it got me thinking about the resonances between The Power and Peele?s magnificent Get Out. Both are works wearing the trappings of popular entertainment that make potent remarks about political injustice. Peele uses horror movies as his framework, Alderman apocalyptic thrillers.

But because Peele?s story is so focussed on individuals, on a single sequence of events that could happen over a weekend, the narrative is more concentrated and, I think, more powerful. I?m talking here, as I always talk about these things on this blog, as a writer who?s trying to understand how other, better, writers do things. I think Get Out is a work of narrative genius because of its compression, and because of its humour.?The Power?is more sprawling, more epic in its scope – and I know (from bitter personal experience) how hard it is to maintain narrative tension on a broad canvas.

A quick word on the audiobook. The main narrator is Adjoa Andoh, with whom I?ve been a little bit in love for most of my adult life, and it?s a hell of a thing she pulls off here, because there are so many voices to encompass: an American politician and her daughter, a British gangster, a Nigerian journalist, a Moldovan maniac. I?ve only come round to audiobooks recently, and I?ve come to the realisation that the performance of them is as much to do with their success as the words being performed, and Andoh?s performance is prodigious.

And there?s another thing. Alderman very cleverly frames her story with fragments from a correspondence between a man and a woman of the future, discussing the events of the story from the ?other side? of the gender shift. This man and woman are historians and writers, and they are debating the book itself. The final exchange – the epilogue, I suppose – rounds off the book magnificently. The last line is an absolute dream and punches as hard as anything that goes before it.

Adjoa Andoh doesn?t read these sections. There are four other voices on the credits: Thomas Judd and Phil Nightingale are the two male voices, but there are two other female voices. One is Emma Fenney, and the other – the one who might be reading the words of the female historian and writer which close the book – is Naomi Alderman. You’ll have to read the book – or listen to the audio – to discover just how delicious that is.

 

Bloody Good Reads: Into the Fire, by Manda Scott

I first heard Manda Scott talk about her book?Into the Fire at a dinner in Windsor some three years ago. The premise that she described that night was two parts thrilling?to one part bonkers – it had to do with Joan of Arc – and I admit to wondering how anyone could spin a story out of the elements she was describing.

Three years down the line, and I have just finished the book Manda was describing. It’s still two parts thrilling?to one part bonkers. But in a very, very good way.?Into the Fire is also a blood-drenched, vivid, imaginative and exciting novel, the best word for which is probably ‘lusty’.

‘Lusty’ is a?laughably word to describe?to a dual-timeline narrative that tells the story of Joan of Arc through the eyes of an English spy, interweaved with a contemporary police procedural set in Orl?ans about a brilliant female detective investigating a series of fires. But ‘lusty’ is what it is, not least because this is a book just?dripping in lust. I have an unprovable belief that women are better at writing than sexual desire than men are, because women are better at writing about the sensations of the body, and the scenes in which one character fancies another in this book are heart-pumpingly phwoaarr.

The other thing I loved about the book is how it framed the historical?world inside the modern one. The dual-timeline narrative means we are constantly being tugged from the 15th to the 21st centuries.?One key aspect of this is loyalty, the perception of loyalty, and the way those things have shifted. In the confused mess of loyalties that was France in the Hundred Years War, alliances could?shift and change as frequently as the clouds above the Loire, but in the modern world our loyalties are more fixed. The evil of the modern world is the acquisition of power at any costs, against the constraints of loyalty; in the world of the 15th century, a character has to be tugged out of the everyday shifts in loyalties by a new kind of allegiance to something strong and powerful and almost otherworldly, in the form of the Maid of Orl?ans. The Maid is a symbol, of a new and powerful kind, and the other link?between the worlds of the past and present is our continuing need for symbols, and the way this need opens us up to manipulation.

But I’m overthinking this. Into the Fire is above all else massively entertaining. Its intellectual framework is solid, but Manda Scott wears her research lightly. This isn’t a book that lectures or strokes its chin.?It?has a unique and daring conceit at its heart, one that Manda has talked about publicly on more than one occasion but not one that I will mention here. But she lands it – oh my word, she lands it.

INTO-THE-FIRE-HB3

Bloody Good Reads: The Undertaker’s Daughter

About halfway through Kate Mayfield’s beautiful memoir?The Undertaker’s Daughter I asked myself: have I ever read a memoir before? I’ve read autobiographies, of course, and although there’s no ISO definition to delineate memoir from autobiography it would surely?have to?distinguish between the celebrity that makes us want to buy an autobiography from the?voice that makes us want to read a memoir. Reading this lovely book, I came to the conclusion that I have read memoirs, only they’ve been fictional ones.?To Kill a Mockingbird is a memoir. So is?Catch 22. So are several of Dickens’s novels. It’s just that, to a greater or lesser extent, their stories are made-up ones.

And it helped, in many ways, to think of?The Undertaker’s Daughter as a novel, because for this?experience of a genuine memoir I was in the decidedly odd position of?knowing the author. I met Kate on a trip to Hogarth’s House in Chiswick some years ago, and she is (I hope she won’t mind me saying) a very striking person to meet, particularly in that odd little residence by the side of the A4. She is always exquisitely turned out, she is always smiling, and she speaks with a soft Southern accent as warm as hot chocolate. And she has always been generous and kind to me. So take what I am about to say here as you will, but it is honestly meant.

Kate Mayfield grew up in a funeral home in Jubilee, Kentucky, and The Undertaker’s Daughter tells the tale of that growing up. It also, in its way, tells the tale of America’s civil rights movement, but those words are never used, because it is the experience of a white child becoming a white woman in a still-segregated community that is the tale here. Kate’s father, the undertaker, was a complicated man and also a fantastically hard-working and focussed one, and his alignment with one of the?grandes dames of Kentucky is one of the narratives that drives the book along. The stories are full of hairdressing and gowns and big cars and card games and gossip, and like a very good period novel,?The Undertaker’s Daughter drops us into 1960s Kentucky until we can smell the gardenias in the air and feel the hairspray on our faces.

But that isn’t what makes this book exceptional. What makes it exceptional are its secrets, which unfurl with terrible deliberation – Kate’s secrets, her father’s secrets, the secrets of any family but particularly a family such as this, one with access to the darkest moments in people’s lives, and one which lives in such an oddly heightened position in the community. This is where my experience of the book may differ from yours because, as I said, I?know Kate. So some of the revelations in this book hit me in a different way to how they would hit a stranger. I found myself admiring Kate’s bravery and her insistence on being truthful.

And more than anything, I admired the writing, which is exquisite. The pacing of the book (those unfolding secrets, again), but also the poetry of the words. And in between each chapter, Kate has inserted a little story, collectively called?In Memoriam, of a single death in Kentucky. Over the course of the book, the dead and the ones they left behind fill the pages, until Kentucky is paradoxically alive with these people and their stories. I still feel, weeks after finishing the book by the banks of the Loire, that I could step out of my front door and out onto the streets of Kentucky, and watch Frank Mayfield drive past in?his Henney-Packard ambulance, old lady Miss Agnes sitting in the seat beside him dressed entirely in red, and everyone looking up as they go?by.

Bloody Good Reads: The Country of Ice Cream Star

Sometimes, you swallow a book down whole, like a cold beer on a hot beach. It’s sharp and immediate and it goes straight to your brain, freezing it and stimulating it at the same time.

Other times, the book swallows you. You open it at the first page and then, some days or weeks later, you find yourself climbing back out of it again, wondering how you got on with other things – eating, working, sleeping, existing – while this book held your head in its mouth and wouldn’t let go.

The Country of Ice Cream Star is one of those?latter books. It’s big (such books tend to be big, which is why I like big books) and it’s brave and it’s fearless and it’s extraordinary. It’s set in a future of unspecified distance, where an unspecified outbreak of a half-named disease has wiped out all of white America, leaving only blacks and Hispanics – and?killing even them when they?approach the age of 20. The whites that are left are called ‘roos’ and are seemingly invaders who are impervious to the disease.

So far, so dystopian. We’ve seen this movie before. But yet, we haven’t. Because?this story is narrated by a 15-year-old girl who calls herself Ice Cream Star. She’s a?Sengle. We don’t know why her group are?called Sengles, or why she’s called Ice Cream Star. She isn’t going to tell us that. She is going to tell us what happens to her, though, and she’s going to use her own language to do it, a new kind of pidgin English which is part street slang and part something else, something fashioned by children who are having to govern themselves in the face of inbuilt and imminent obsolescence. They have no cultural markers, no books to read or songs to quote. They have only their own stories and their own voices.

And Ice Cream Star’s voice is so unique, so powerful, so poetic that the dystopian vision becomes secondary to her own incendiary genius. The journey she takes is long (600 pages long) and extraordinary and at times we flounder in the face of this strange dialect. At other times it takes us over, until Ice Cream Star’s voice is clear in our heads. As a feat of creative control and stamina, it’s nothing less than breathtaking. Holden Caulfield has a powerful voice, and his own hip vernacular, but Holden Caulfield is no Ice Cream Star. If you don’t finish the book more than a little in love with her, there’s something missing from your humanity.

I only know Sandra Newman, the woman who wrote this amazing book, via Twitter. But by God, she was touched by something miraculous when she wrote?The Country of Ice Cream Star. It’s the most extraordinary thing I’ve read since, I think,?Infinite Jest,?and that’s not a bad comparison in some ways. Both books can infuriate. Both books could knock down a horse if thrown at its head. And both books contain gigantic worlds and unforgettable poetry.

If you want a big book to swallow you up, and if you want to meet an extraordinary young woman whom you won’t ever forget, read?The Country of Ice Cream Star. Gratty for reading; these words is bone.

icecreamstar

Bloody Good Reads: The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick, Age 81

When I was in my twenties, I spent a considerable amount of time jumping up and down in fairly mindless fashion to the excitable rock-and-roll stylings of a beat combo with the tireless moniker Carter the Unstoppable Sex Machine (or, for the purposes of the BBC censor, Carter USM).

There was no other band quite like Carter. There were only two of them, for a start: a fellow in shorts and a baseball cap who played the guitar and was called Fruitbat, and another fellow called Jim-Bob who also played the guitar and sang.

They were backed by a fearsome wall of synths and drums,?and came along at the same time (at least, in my memory) as a bunch of other bands who seemed to make one want to jump up and down a lot in old baseball boots, with one’s hat?on backwards and cheap lager sloshing around in one’s?belly. They were huge, massive, relentless FUN.

What made them different to those other bands, though, was the content of their songs. E.M.F sang in abstract terms about someone being unbelievable, Jesus Jones had some hand-wavy hippy nonsense about how great it was to be alive right now. Carter (lyricist: Jim-Bob) sang about an altogether more down-to-earth bunch of?gypsies, travellers, thieves,?grebes, crusties and goths – a list which I have mercilessly stolen?from Carter’s own song, The Only Living Boy In New Cross.

Jim-Bob’s lyrics were filled with pop-culture references – The Only Living Boy In New Cross features, among others, David Frost,?Evita, Simon and Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix and the Rolling Stones. There were puns – the?Evita? reference is ‘fill another suitcase with another haul’, which in a song about life at the bottom end of the heap is fabulously on it – and there was a good deal of anger about the state of post-Thatcherite Britain and its dreary?selfishness. Perhaps their most famous song, Sheriff Fatman,?is an early one from 1989, which rails at slum landlords, including Rachman and, in Jim-Bob’s own deathless adaptation, ‘Nicholas van Whatsisface’.

Oh, and they headlined Glastonbury.

But I come here not to praise Carter USM, but to bury them. Their last ever gig will be this November (and I can’t go, chizz chizz chizz), and these days Jim-Bob is a solo recording artist. His last album,?What I Think About When I Think Of You, is fantastic and I commend it to you.

So Jim-Bob hasn’t gone. But he has begun to change, like Seth Brundle in?The Fly, into an altogether more disturbing creature: a novelist.

There have been two novels under Jim-Bob’s name already:?Storage Stories and?Driving Jarvis Ham. I commend them both to you. His third, though, is under a new name: J.B. Morrison. I don’t know why he changed it. Perhaps it’s considered more grown-up. But I’m delighted to say the novel,?The Extra Ordinary Life of Frank Derrick Age 81, is full of everything that I loved about Carter and everything I love about Jim-Bob, but without the wall of synths and the beer in the belly. It’s a charming story, beautifully told, about an 81-year-old man living on his own and the relationship he develops with the woman who comes to care for him for an hour a week.

frankderrickcover

I couldn’t help feeling some sadness reading this; my dad died in 2008, and he’d be touching on the same age as Frank Derrick by now. And Frank’s story does have its sad moments and its tiny tragedies. But Frank’s brain is as sharp as those old Carter lyrics – as sardonic and bitter but also as witty and affectionate. His hair is too long, and his best mate is an ex-punk called Smelly John. He loves films and had once planned to build a cinema in his shed. His wife Sheila died years ago, lost to dementia – and Jim-Bob/Morrison’s use of sea-swimming as a metaphor for the loss of Sheila’s mind is as fine and terrible a piece of writing as I’ve read this year.

The novel rescues the elderly for us, paints them as just older versions of ourselves, with the same anchors in shared popular culture and the same wish to be interested, involved, inspired. There are no easy answers in Frank’s life, and the novel doesn’t pretend there are. At one point, I thought the novel was going to settle for a bleakly obvious ending, and it does toy with us as if it might. But it doesn’t. It carries on – Frank carries on – with warmth and acceptance and, ultimately, love. It made me realise, actually, that love was what Carter were on?about, a lot of the time, too.

I put it down, and I phoned my Mum.

 

 

Bloody Goodreads: Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo

 

My good friend Jon introduced me to this book, via my wife – in as much as she swiped it off me when I first bought it, read the first 50 pages and discarded it, saying it wasn’t her thing at all.

This surprised me, because I think it’s a wonderful book – a very, deeply French Raymond Chandler, with jazz and pastis instead of big bands and hooch.

It’s set in Marseilles in the 90s (I think), a racial melting pot filled with resentment, racism and rancour. A local detective investigates the deaths of two of his oldest friends, 20 years apart, and finds himself elbow-deep in conspiracy, gangs and organised crime.

Izzo writes beautifully, and his main guy, Fabio Montale, is a fabulous creation, a recognisably tragic figure who loves women and honour and booze and food and is doomed to destroy himself with his appetite for life. Montale very much reminded me of James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux , and I can think of no higher praise than that.

There’s two more books in the series, and I’m definitely going to read them both.

 

Goodreads | Total Chaos by Jean-Claude Izzo ? Reviews, Discussion, Bookclubs, Lists.

Bloody Good Reads: The Gospel of Loki, by Joanne Harris

Look, I’m going to name-drop now. Deal with it.

I bought Joanne Harris’s latest book, The Gospel of Loki, at its launch. Joanne signed it for me (look, Joanne signed my book!). Joanne also gave me some blurb for my second book, and was one of the judges when I won Literary Death Match.

Yes, look at me, I am awesome. I know Joanne Harris, and I’m hugely grateful to her as a new author who’s received her prestigious support.

gospeloflokiSo take what comes next with as much salt as you want, but The Gospel of Loki is magnificent. Take the darkly rich Norse mythology of Odin and Asgard, and transmit it through the amoral, witty and restless voice of Loki, birthed in and birther of chaos. What you get is a series of Tales and Trickery, by the end of which you are at home with some of the weirdest and imaginative beings which ever sprang from human hearts trying to explain what was outside in the Dark.

The book it reminded me of most was Robert Graves’ The Greek Myths, not because of any essential similarity in the telling, but because in both a writer with a singular voice and attitude brings alive a world with such energy and assurance that you wonder how these myths were ever told without that voice. It took the endless Northern nights of telling and drinking to give birth to Loki; it took Joanne Harris to rescue the trickster from Marvel Comics and make him speak again. First class stuff.

Seeing through Theo Decker’s eyes

Imagine that you could live inside another person’s mind for a week or two. See the world through their eyes, experience their sensations, their fears and their ecstasies.

Imagine that the person whose head you were temporarily residing in was a person of exquisite and detailed responses to the world, whose mind combined erudite knowledge with a refined sense of beauty and craft, such that the world’s surfaces were livid and constantly interesting.

Imagine that this mind was also fractured somehow, traumatised, living with the experience of a horror so deep, just because the mind that experienced the horror is so capable of perception.

Imagine that the dreams and nightmares of this person became, over the weeks of living in their head, so much a part of you that some nights you weren’t sure if you were being kept awake by your own cares, or theirs.

Imagine that you could see the point at which this experience would end, that it was manifest in a thinning number of pages in your right hand, and then one night it just…. stopped.

Imagine that.
Fabritius-goldfinch

To try to make some meaning out of all this seems unbelievably quaint. Maybe I’ve only seen a pattern because I’ve been staring too long. But then again, to paraphrase Boris, maybe I see a pattern because it’s there.