The Loney

By Andrew Michael Hurley

This was not a tale for a younger audience, despite two teen protagonists, as it features  some pretty dense examination of the psyche. It is a dark lump of contemporary folklore that draws into its weave a grimy stash of half conceived and half recalled thoughts of what might go on, in out-of-the-way backwaters. That’s not to say it wasn’t a good yarn; in fact, it was an absolute cracker.

Told primarily in flashback from the present day, the central story takes place during a pilgrimage from the narrator’s childhood as he and his silent (and apparently simple) brother, Hanny, explore the bleak and windswept reaches of the titular waterway, relating the shifting sands’ habit of taking the unwary to a watery grave as high tide sweeps across the stretch of land connecting the isolated manor house at the heart of the dark tale to the mainland.

Its told with a fair amount of backwards and forwarding between times at the start and at the end, and I did get a little lost to begin with the proliferation of names and ages – not a fault of the book I don’t think, more to do with my having fallen asleep over it a few times. Which brings me, tangentially, onto my reading schedule.

Without a commute, I find my reading is all done at home, mostly at bedtime these days, so I often only manage a page or two before my eyes
start to
to
before my eyes start to

This is a problem age has brought and one I find haunts me through the day as well if I do any daytime reading: I start nodding off whenever I read a proper book (latest example, this Saturday’s attempt at the introduction to Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners). I can write and can read any old crap (looking at you twitter; the guardian website) no problem, but as soon as I delve into anything of substance, without some other distraction, I can feel myself sliding inexorably into
sliding inexorably
in…ex… in exor

There was a pull quote from a reviewer on the cover of The Loney which made me roll my eyes; ‘I read it in one sleepless night’. That is was from the Telegraph made me roll my eyes even harder. But, a few nights ago, as I awoke at 2.21 (as is often the way) I  decided that instead of just lying there recalling my wrongs and missed opportunities, I would instead do some reading.

Of course I was knackered the next morning (I got the lunchboxes back to front and everything) but for ninety whole, uninterrupted minutes in the middle of the night, I read, and consumed a vast swathe from the dark and eery heart of this book.

What I liked especially about The Loney was that it didn’t feel it needed to spell everything out, creating an echoing disquiet in the unsaid and the implied. This is a book about faith and belief, contrasting the Catholicism of the visitors with the much darker beliefs of the natives. The pilgrims have an immense distrust of the locals, despite all they do (and they do a lot) . And while some of the ritual imagery could have been little more than hokey B-movie twaddle, it was infrequently used and the quality of the writing managed to invest it with a believable disquiet. Nasty things happened, but they weren’t lingered over.

Films rights for this have understandably sold as there is some remarkably powerful imagery and visual storytelling, with impressions of The Wicker Man, An American Werewolf in London and Rosemary’s Baby, as well as a snickeringly funny running gag: the boys’ mother is called ‘Mummer’ and it is she who clings tightest of all to orthodox religion that has brought them to this windswept outpost. Her greatest horror comes when the ‘Pace Eggers‘ appear to perform for the group at the invitation of their accompanying priest (an newcomer to the group of whom Mummer does not approve). There’s also a great piece of misdirection involving a rifle, which having appeared from a hidey hole beneath the floorboards in act 1, is then used to save someone from drowning (suggesting an inversion of the dramatic trope) but then, when you think its purpose has been served,  to do what it says on the tin after all. It’s a proper masterstroke and the kind of emblematic overlaying of theme and plot which deservedly wins prizes.

Perhaps this is what adult fiction has that YA/Children’s literature is unable to do: to imply rather than spell out. Maybe i’ve been reading so much fiction aimed at the younger audience, I’ve forgotten the allure of that which may pass unsaid: the absence that makes the heart grow fond.

On the shelf: 5
A long time ‘to read’ list entry, I took it down as part of a short series of contemporary urban folklore reads.

On loan 4.5
Shifts of timeframe and a confusion over priests, pilgrims and relations meant it took me a while to get into it, but the central pair and the brooding presences around them soon had me hooked.

On reflection 5
An easy one to recommend, and a set of allusions and omissions which continue to grow in size and power the more I consider them.

 

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Ragnarok

by A.S. Byatt

No, not the one with a Hemsworth, this is ‘The End of The Gods’, retold by the Booker  winning author and poet.

Hmm. I struggled with this, in part due to the lengthy quasi-religious opening half where not much happens but the earth is created, partly through an endless succession of clauses, subbed, perhaps, to pack in the pretty time consuming act of world-building, but partly, for style, I felt.

It is a retelling of the classic of Icelandic lore over the shoulder of a young girl, living through the war, who sees in the death of the gods a parallel to her own father’s death [SPOILER] only, when he returns from the war, she is gifted a hope for the future that the original text doesn’t contain.

I almost gave up on this, amidst the fashionable insistences that ‘life’s too short to read books you don’t love’. This is something I can kind of agree with, but this felt like it was an important book and so I persevered and in the end, I’m glad I did, if only for the essay at the end which clarified what I had hoped I would find in the fiction: an exploration of how Myths and stories are all for the retelling (something which fascinates me enough to write a book that investigates such a thing myself).

And, the book itself is a beautiful object. Hats off to (publisher) Canongate for investing in the typography and set; the attention to detail in the separately coloured chapter heads and the use of illustrations, which all give it the feeling of a classic, and although I didn’t enjoy in an obvious, immediate way, I will look to add a copy to my shelves for the purpose of rereading and to have: there is surely more here than I gleaned first time.

As an addendum, I read this over the weekend, by Daisy Johnson, describing allusions she wanted to make in Everything Under to Oedipus, which made me want to read it again.

Half Bad

By Sally Green

An enjoyable read, Half Bad is the first-person account of Nathan Byrn, a teenage witch, living in deprivation. Nathan is the son of a black witch father and a white witch mother who committed suicide (although my suspicion is this will eventually prove not to be the case and will instead be a heroic sacrifice, yawn.)  Nathan lives with his three half-siblings, being raised by their maternal grandmother  as his dad killed their father – and ate his heart – a fact his older sister isn’t likely to let him forget, blaming him for death of both her parents and strengthening his outsider creds.

His early years at school whizz by and before long, he’s fallen for the daughter of a powerful white witch family and things are about to get more complex. Where would we be without forbidden love, eh?

The book uses proclamations from the witch council to good effect, filling in back story and world-building, foreshadowing the spitefulness of the white majority as embodied the girl’s brothers, who torture and scarify Nathan for getting too close to their sister. It builds a portrait of school life which is believable, if extreme, as the Witch Council keeps a close eye on him, narrowing his options and driving him further from respectability and the possibility of a ‘normal’ life in their efforts to make him straight and narrow. He’s summoned to annual assessments and questioned repeatedly about his magic abilities and if he knows of his mysterious father’s whereabouts. He manages to keep them guessing, despite (or more perhaps because) he can’t read and just acts dum.

But the clock is ticking, as when he reaches 17, he’ll need to undergo a Gifting, to define and solidify his witching strengths. Is he capable of good, or is he just naturally bad?

The book uses vampire symbolism, making the Gifting a blood rite as every witch child must drink the blood of a parent to bring out their latent ability. But in the absence of his own parents, Nathan will be given some generic blood which he is convinced won’t bring out the real him, so he goes on the run in search of the mysterious Mercury, who is supposed to have some of  is father’s blood in a bottle.

The characterisation is strong, even as the pacing is a little uneven and some of the motivations seem a bit too much DO SOMETHING DON’T WORRY ABOUT WHY AT LEAST SOMETHING IS HAPPENING. Despite that, there is a fair amount of waiting about for outside influence, and I’m looking forward to the sequel – ‘Half Wild’.

On the shelf
A library loan, which BR1 said was great, although I didn’t rush to pick it up: 3

On Loan
Found myself looking forward to each read and wondering what was going to happen next: 4

On Return
A decent read which has fallen apart a bit on analysis. Would still recommend tho: 3

The Uninvited

A YA mystery thriller by Tim Wynne-Jones that was likeable, well written and engaging.

It concerns a triangle of characters whose histories are deeply (biologically) intertwined and features a convincing scenario in which to discuss forbidden lust. The most evocative passages happen on the water, where someone lurks under the overhanging trees… watching the girl with whom he has become obsessed…

But who is ‘he’? Is it the brother she does not know she has, or is he watching the creepy old guy who’s started hanging around?

There’s no big theme or deeper meaning here, really: it’s a mystery that solves itself within its own pages.

-and is also the first of an accidental series of reads based on water: after this, I’ve turned to Everything Under by Daisy Johnson (review to come) and glanced at Hidden Nature by Alys Fowler which opens with her account of rediscovering Birmingham via its canals. I look forward to reading more of that one soon.

Unscored.

 

 

 

 

Picnic At Hanging Rock

by Joan Lindsay

Where better to discuss sex and violence, than on a picnic with young ladies, on St Valentine’s day?

This was always a pictorial story in my mind, with the 1975 film and the recent BBC drama. I shall have to watch the film again, because I didn’t think the TV made a *great* job of tugging (snigger) the subtext, or relating the story’s visceral violence to its pulsating underbelly (oo-er).

This was a dense read which I struggled to care much about to begin with: I’d started reading before the series, wanting to see that after finishing the Joan Lindsay novel, but they ended up overlapping and, well… the TV is just easier, isn’t it?

Following the St Valentine’s day exchange of cards between the girls (in honour of the god of symbolic love, no less) and their subsequent disappearance, the story expands to include a wider cast while focussing for the most part on the male lead, who also found himself on the altar, on the day of the sacrifice: did he perform the act literally? Did he take what he wanted? Is he hero or villain?

The sexual imagery sort of popped into focus for me, around about p100, and it became a much more interesting book. It was suddenly the depiction of the crucible: the anvil on which the young women at the story’s centre were being judged, or called to account, or sacrificed as virgins.

There are five women in all. A teacher, three close friends and an outsider; a girl none of them have much time for. Fundamentally, though, she is a girl: she is not curious of the mystery of the ‘hanging’ ‘ROCK’ (Now… is this maybe just me? Maybe I have an unhealthy imagination, but that pendulous, HARD, transformative visual of the location… just makes me think of a penis? Is seems to fit with the unspoken unmentionability of the girls’ symbolic mounting of the great altar; they are legend-tripping there way into womanhood. Is that just me? Am I weird? Oh god… no, don’t tell me.) Anyway, the girl doesn’t go.

All this (sex) and violence makes a very moral novel. It is also about class and the ultimate triumph of good, when the [SPOILER ALERT] hero is shown to have performed acts of heroism for womankind, and his good influence spreads to his adopted manservant, whose parallel misfortune goes unknown, and who is, in the end, rewarded both financially  (with a big cheque) and spiritually, when he pays it forward, creating the ‘perfect life’ for a young couple.

For the prurient and bible-waving brother and sister meanwhile, there is an horrific death in the fire at their hotel, where they have just plotted their futures with blind, messianic zeal.

The book’s harshest judgement (and most descriptive violence) however, is reserved for the headmistress, whose futile manoeuvring to manage the crisis and clumsy attempts to keep the fee-paying parents in the dark, leads her inexorably back to the rock and her own moment on the altar.

Dense, impressive, subtle and yet blunt.

Penis out of five. Four. I said four.

 

ADDENDUM:

Ahead of writing this, I did a bit of Wikipedia-ing and discovered there was a final excised chapter, which sounds interesting, amplifying the supernatural sense which skirts the mysterious progress of the rock. I shan’t describe that as I haven’t read it yet, although NOW I KNOW WHAT REALLY HAPPENED.

 

 

Dr Jekyll & Mister Hyde

by Robert Louis Stevenson

A funny book. Not ‘ha-ha’ funny, as such (although it was a little quaint) but odd in that the idea, the concept at its core has outlived its source and been distorted too (certainly in my perception of it).

Events are viewed from the perspective of Mr Utterson, a lawyer and friend to Dr Jekyll, whose curiosity is piqued when he stumbles across, ‘the loathsome Edward Hyde’ one night on the street. A mutual friend of Utterson and Jekyll is later found dead, with Hyde placed at the scene. Events proceed as all the evidence and laboured explanations of the good Doctor’s butler point with an almost deafening clarity to the only possible answer: that the Doctor has been transformed. This however seems to be beyond the comprehension of Utterson. I don’t know; maybe it’s the benefit of living 130 years after the book’s publication, and it having become so synonymous with the idea at its core, but the signposts seem so clearly laid out, only a fool could not see them.

But here’s the funny thing. My perception of the titular leads was thus: the doctor as an ageing, slight man, whose physical primacy is behind him, and that the monster, Hyde, is a distended ogre; a beast of great presence and physical menace. The book however describes these attributes in reverse: Jekyll is a broad and physically impressive man, a fine specimen. His counterpart, however is small and wiry; a creature that cowers from the light and lurks in corners. It was this shift in moral equivalency, from then to now that took me aback: written today, surely that would be the arrangement? Isn’t that the wider perception? That the monster, the dark half, is an ungovernable rogue, whose ungovernability is described by his strength? That he cannot physically be stopped? Dunno. Tell me different.

The edition I read was paired with an even shorter tale, The Bottle Imp, which I liked much more.

Interesting. Three-and-a-dark-half out of 5.

 

Ready Player One

By Ernest Cline.

Here is my relationship with this book.

Beta Reader No2 saw a trailer for the movie, then spotted the book on a 2-for-3 deal at a supermarket and grabbed it. She read it quick and said it was ‘really good’.

I meanwhile, a man in my forties (and about whom the book is basically about/for) had read some high-falutin’ articles and analysis of the hub-bub regarding the movie (and its origin book, of which I confess I had not heard) and was expecting several white-male identity-crisis–sized holes in it.

Having now read it (but not yet seen the movie) I find the concerns voiced in the aforementioned high-falutin accounts were not wholly as billed. The one biggest hole (as in the XXL sitting on-his-ass-white-guy-one) was the retreating into the past to avoid the problems we have created in the real world.

To be honest, I thought that was exactly what the book was about: the analyst had spent so much time looking for evidence of his clever opinion to achieve the required word total/score set by his editor, that he sort of missed the wider view: the drive of the story in the real world demonstrated the problem at every turn (and elucidated it explicitly on a couple of occasions). Shown, not told, guy.

The depictions of racial and gender disparity were clunky and clenching so hard to be ‘different!’ And what an eye-roller the ‘big reveal’ was (yawn). The dialogue therein was …yeck. (It stiffens my resolve to add some diaspora lit to my reading list ahead of tackling book no2, tho, so… s’gud fam.)

Final boss: I enjoyed it. It’s a good yarn, well told. The last 30 pages felt a bit perfunctory, the pacing a bit uneven as we raced to the conclusion, but all in all:

HIGH SCORE TABLE

MHS…………………….5,000

RPO……………………..3,800

 

 

To Kill A Mockingbird

First on the list of, ‘classics I have likely lied and said I’d read before now’ is Harper Lee’s colossus.

I guess I can see why it’s considered a classic: the prose is lovely, the dialogue sings and Scout’s lack of understanding of the wider consequence of Atticus’ work is beautifully handled. But the distances between my now and her then, which was itself thirty years after the novel’s setting, rendered parts of it a little too distant to sing, which seems a harsh criticism (this may not be the reason, but I’m not sure why I didn’t flat out love it yet). I guess I wanted more: I wanted it to be thicker; for there to be more about Atticus’ (and possibly Jem’s) work. I wanted a third part, in which Scout, who had described her world so brilliantly in part one and seen it revealed as a tiny microcosm of the wider reality in the second part, discovers responsibility for someone else’s limited world.

What I wanted (spitballing here) was a real estate developer trying to buy the Radley place; to see how Scout, having burdened herself with the responsibility of caring for an increasingly frail Boo, navigated a path through that. How would she cope with his frailty and burgeoning need? How would a girl in her teens cope with a commitment she’d made several years before react to her father’s unwavering adherence to the law? Would it remain unwavering? How would they cope with the harsh realities of caring for someone (physically and legally) versus Scout’s desire to be free? Would Jem go to the war? Would Atticus be forced to deal with his grief?

The book’s parallels to the America of today have a shocking transparency: I mean it really doesn’t feel like anything has changed. The same racist privilege is as virulent and real on the page of then as it is in the news of now, its roots so tightly enmeshed in the foundations of the culture that it just won’t die.

Will the 45th president, Bob Ewell smirking at the jury if ever you saw one, meet a similarly ‘just’ fate? (Which, future-fascist-state-prosecutors, is not a call to assassinate the shit gibbon, just a hope that justice will prevail.)

I guess I just wanted more, dagnabbit.

 

TL;DR: four-and-a-half out of five-and-a-quarter.

#reedreadingred

Red Notice

 

Bill Browder, a bald, medium-height, first-world white-male and billionaire with a fondness for physical descriptions, gives an account of his two careers. In the first he is a rather prosaic moneymaker, while in the second he is transformed by the suffering of another, and stirred to do some good – and it is a sizeable good. The Magnitsky Act has become a primary tool in the crooks and bullies shakedown set.

If I was doing stars, I’d say four out of five.