December 2003
... click on the book images to look at the book...

  - Most of this month's books have extracts available to read online -

The books I have chosen may not all be what one normally associates with the term "fantasy writing".
But really they all make fantastical assertions in one way or another.

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SIMON RECOMMENDS:
"Ingenious Pain"
by Andrew Miller

Quite, quite beautiful and strange and sad. It's almost too close to reading it, for me to be able to write about it without my eyes welling up. There is great compassion and tenderness to found here, thrown into sharp relief by the hard painful reality of the world against which it is shown. That world is the 18th century, death and suffering is commonplace as horrific disease scythes through the rural population of England. Life is raw, suffering and brutal.

Into this is born James Dyer is a strange child, mute until he is seven years old, stranger still this boy cannot feel pain. This is the story of his life, we see through his eyes a rough existence of con-artists and the freak-show attractions, and on to working as a ships surgeon and provincial doctor. Freaks, medicine, exploitation are just some of the themes which Miller so artfully explores throughout the novel. His skill is such that at no point do you feel that you are being led or preached to, Miller achieves by creating believable characters that inspire in the reader a current of sympathy that would carry one through an average plot-line. The plot however is far from being average. It is extraordinary, at times surprising and at all times totally compelling.

As one might expect in a book of this title pain is a major theme. Through the metamorphosis of James Dyer, Miller asserts that it is pain which makes us complete; that by our common suffering our compassion and our ability to heal others in pain we define our humanity.

One thing that strikes me now is that the book is written mostly in the present tense, with at times other methods such as letters quoted to move the narrative along. Because we are so used as readers to stories told in the past tense, this is quite a brave thing to attempt. The writer constantly faces the danger of sounding like a student writer trying self-consciously to break the accepted mould. In this case it unquestionably works. To my mind this style imparts an unmistakably modern feel which is balanced by the historical setting and the use of the appropriate vernacular. To put it another way; the story has a very modern style and structure but is told in the language appropriate to the time in which it is set.

Highly and importantly moral, this book makes me feel like a better person since reading it.

Top rate.

SIMON RECOMMENDS:
"Atomised"
by Michel Houellebecq

translated from French by Frank Wynne

Thanks to my dear friend and onetime Duran Duran drummer Steve Alexander because this is great.

A speculative tale of one Michel Djerzinski a molecular biologist incapable of feeling love and his sexually dysfunctional brother Bruno who seems to be incapable of finding any. Houellebecq goes for the jugular as he turns his unflinching gaze on the post Judeo/Christian materialist culture that we have become and it's twisted morals. Humanity is the "vile, unhappy race" which "never quite abandoned a belief in love" Sounds pretty depressing doesn't it. Well yes, in truth it is but it's almost worth it for the scathing humour and sheer dirty mindedness, as it portrays society's confused, terrified slide into the toilet pan of history. Almost worth it because ultimately all one is left with is despair and a mild sense of relief at the idea of humanity's demise.

As with all translations I read this with an underlying suspicion that there must be some poetry and humour intended by the author that I would naturally be missing out on. However there are some beautifully eloquent and erudite passages such as:

"Michel trembled with indignation. But as he watched, the unshakeable conviction grew that, taken as a whole, nature was not only repulsive, it was a repulsive cesspit. All in all nature deserved to be wiped out in a holocaust - and man's mission on earth was probably to do just that."

If your mind is strong, in a healthily cynical manner, I thoroughly recommend this book - otherwise leave it well alone.



 

 

SIMON RECOMMENDS:
"American Gods"
by
Neil Gaiman

This is a much more traditional kind of fantasy novel, somewhat in the vein of Clive Barker. The debut novel by US based, English ex-pat Gaiman ("you're not from 'round here are you?") who is most celebrated for his graphic "Sandman" novels. It gives us ex-con "Shadow". I must say I do wish he had been called Pete or Buck or even Sean or Roland. It's the same disease that Martin Amis suffers from with characters like "nicola six" . I mean what kind of parents call their kids Shadow for heaven's sake.? Well actually maybe the old pre-christian nearly- forgotten gods brought over by ancient settlers in America, the vikings, the african slaves. Anyway Shadow's absent old man stands a very good chance of being something other than a randy haulier shagging his way through waitresses in truckstops across America. You see Shadow is troubled by incredible dreams, of bones and fires and half-man, half-buffalo (going round the outside, round......) and it's very exciting.

Ah, yes and there's also his cheating wife who dies in a car-crash while performing fellatio on Shadow's best mate, but she decides to come back from the grave because it's really Shadow that she loves, and she spends the rest of the story decomposing, maggots an all - nice!

Don't get me wrong, I really enjoyed reading "American Gods" in the same way as I enjoyed the Japanese "Ring" series of movies i.e. the fact that you sort of know what's coming doesn't lessen your enjoyment at all, when you finally get it.

Genuinely gripping, rollicking good stuff, really well written.


SIMON REVIEWS :
"The Da Vinci Code"
by Dan Brown


Now I don't really like doing negative articles on books simply because SR is supposed to be recommendations of things that I've enjoyed reading. However after spending $24.95 on the hardback copy of this book I feel entitled to a minor rant, it may be the only way I'll ever get any value from this book. No, that's not strictly true as I used the book to flatten a particularly large cockroach just the other day.

Robert Langdon, internationally renowned symbolist, object of attractive women's sighing fantasies and the book's protagonist has "a thicket" of hair, beginning to grey I might add. Why not a forest, or a lawn of hair, or how about a shrubbery? That's it; "Robert Langdon had a shrubbery of hair just turning grey at the temples." You see I can do it, I can write a million dollar best seller just like Dan Brown. You could too, all you have to do is think up the absolute worst pile of crap English that you can and you're halfway there. Unfortunately it is the lowest common denominator which tends to end up top of the best seller lists - sad. I mean it's even got a french redhead beauty with big tits, conveniently on hand for R.L.(flicking the drops of water knowingly from his shrubbery of hair as he stepped attractively from the shower) to fall in love with and consequently grope I guess.

To be fair the subject matter i.e. the real secret protected by the 'Prieure de Sion' is a fascinating one. However, apart from a few observations on hidden messages in European art "The Da Vinci Code" is lifted pretty much straight out of "The Holy Blood and The Holy Grail" what's worse is that our highly respected R.L.(with his shrubbery of hair waving sexily in the Paris breeze), even goes so far as to criticize said "THB&THG" for some kind of extreme hypothesis made by the authors, when in fact the same hypothesis proves to be the revelatory climax of Brown's fiction. My main problem with this is that this blatant commercial attempt to shift units off airport bookshelves, rides on but completely cheapens some very real and important past investigative journalism conducted in genuine good faith.

Complete bollocks, don't waste your money on it.