David Stevens

Posts Tagged ‘book review’

A Small Town in Germany

In Uncategorized on May 25, 2018 at 5:43 pm

John le Carre’s 5th novel is 50 years old, but the world it describes is only yesterday, a modern world with the only discrepancies the make of cars, or whether everyone has a boilerman enter their home to start the morning. In their concerns and the way they live their lives, the folk described don’t seem much different from people today, except for the lack of references to smartphones, I suppose. And that sort of difference is equally true for novels written in 2005. The filing systems it turns on are not computerised, but then friends of mine who work in archives are still dealing with pre-digitalised material. Perhaps the UK is not as class-ridden, but I am sure there are still officers made to feel out of place because they wear the wrong shoes or have the wrong accent, as occurs in the novel.  Not that I was reading any novels in 1968, but I suspect that if I was, I would have felt a greater difference with the characters and setting of novels written in 1918.

The novel describes a world where the UK is desperate to enter the European common market, seeking German support against French opposition. It is interesting to read that in a world of Brexit, but as a main character points out towards the end, it is not the detail of the cause célèbre that matters, but just that there is one.

Wait! Brussels … the Market … all this. Next week it’s gold, the week after it’s the Warsaw pact. We’d join the bloody Salvation Army if it pleased the Americans. What does it matter about the names?

And the rejoinder:

Crises are academic. Scandals are not.

There is always something, and the something will change. However, it is human beings and lives that are damaged along the way, the causes and the victims of scandal who are ultimately disposable. All of our running around, all of the work of days, that a year or a decade or half a century later are reversed, by people who are also running around and who can proclaim that they are doing the right thing. What does any of it matter in the end?

Every night, as I go to sleep, I say to myself: another day achieved. Another day added to the unnatural life of a world on its deathbed. And if I never relax, if I never lift my eye, we may run on for another hundred years.

Well, we are half-way there. 50 years on from the crises and scandals of 1968, a year famous for many things, many events. And not that I want to bring the end of the world one second closer, but personally, I need to relax!


You had me at …

In Uncategorized on February 25, 2018 at 2:00 pm

Dear Ms Kiernan.

If you didn’t have me before, you had me at “…militants from the Earth- Yuggoth Cooperative”. Insert extremely large smiley face here.

An electronic version of the original Black Helicopters has been lost somewhere in my PC for a few years, and I haven’t read it. However, I was very pleased this week to read “Agents of Dreamland”, from the same universe (which I deeply and sincerely hope is not my universe – yes, my – you, your all on your own, start practicing “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn”), from which this time shifting perspective quote is taken. Between this and most of the works of Jeff VanderMeer, I have certainly had my evil mushroom fix. And between blood pressure and worrying about our future dark ancient elder overlords, I have had to give up on further extraction work on my PC. However, I am told by the Book Depository that the extended version of “Black Helicopters” will arrive in my letter box in 2 months or so.

Such wonderful sentences

In Uncategorized on February 23, 2018 at 3:49 pm

‘Michael took both her hands in his own, leaning close. “Such eyes. How did they fit such enormous eyes into your beautiful face? They had to boil your skull to make it flexible to expand the sockets for those beautiful eyes.”‘

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody from Denmark.”

“Denmark is misunderstood. I’m not sure I understand it myself.”

“I don’t know what that means.”

“… I made out the words, but not their meaning:

He’s my panda

from Uganda

he’s my teddy bear

they say things about him

but I don’t care

Idi Amin

I’m your fan

” – I read it several times. The rhyme scheme interested me.”

“Reality is not a fact.”

“You just tickle them in their terrorism bone, and they ejaculate all kinds of money.”

“Where’s the doctor?”

“The doctor is sick.”

I am really enjoying The Laughing Monsters by Denis Johnson. I suspect a horrible end awaits everyone (perhaps because a horrible end awaits everyone), but in the meantime, the writing is wonderful.

A wonderful bucket in the face

In Uncategorized on November 29, 2017 at 11:35 am

Too often I just settle, but now I wanted more. I find it easy to commit, I’m prepared to put in the hard yards once the initial blush has worn off, but it occurred to me, why am I doing this even when there was no fist blush. Back in university days, a friend studying accounting used to rattle on about sunk costs, and not throwing good after bad, and his words returned to me.

I thought I was doing everything right – both broadening my horizons, and returning to old favourites, but my heart just was not in it. Perhaps I was searching too often online, and I needed to get out into the real world.

Rave reviews, prize winners – nothing was doing it for me. A few pages in and I would shrug my shoulders – surely, there has to be more to it than just this. I even began to doubt myself. The problem can’t be – me ? Can it?

Then, dear reader, I found it. “The North Water”, by Ian McGuire. From the first line, “Behold the man,” as we meet Drax. Immediately into the physicality of “the complex air,” and we perceive him: snorting, crotch adjusting, finger sucking. Ever alert to his appetites, antenna adjusted to determine which need should be attended. “… the fucking, the killing, the shitting, the eating. They could come in any order at all. No one is prior to or superior to the rest.”

Great writing, great story, superb characters, I am loving this so far. Perhaps after all, I was just searching for … The One.


In Uncategorized on August 19, 2016 at 11:37 pm

David Stevens transforms the countryside into a terrifying ecological nightmare in “Crop Rotation“, a story that makes disgust its bread and butter.

Why, thank you very much! I can’t ask for much more than that: terrifying, nightmare, and disgust, all in one sentence. Insert smiley face here. I am happy to see that Haralambi Markov’s review of At the Edge is up on Tor.com.

The Maggot People

In Uncategorized on April 12, 2015 at 7:27 pm

Imagine if Dan Brown had the gumption to really whack us with a truly bizarre confection of a conspiracy about the Catholic Church, instead of that wimpy pile he served up. If you are going to show us an imaginary dark world hidden by a conspiracy of the ages, have a real red hot go at it, really show us something. And imagine if he had even a little of the writing style of an Anthony Burgess. Or if Richard Dawkins stopped mincing his words and got down to brass tacks about what it would be like if we really really really were gene and meme driven machines – no mucking about, I’m talking about the whole clock work driven thing, the brass gears turning while we lurch about humming old advertising jingles, show us Dickie. And if Sam Harris painted us a picture of what a lack of free will really was, us watching in horror from inside our shells while everything happens all around us, spectators with no role to play. Christopher Hitchens, if he – well he’s dead – OR IS HE? I mean guys, tell us what you really think. Be audacious, for goodness sake, audacity is everything, give it to us big and blown up. If you are going to go for it, then go for it. Go bizarre. Use your imagination. Don’t let us die wondering. Show us a world freezing at the big reveal. Have a set. And write decently.

I’m not clever enough to write book reviews, but this is what I have to say about The Maggot People by Henning Koch. Audacious, bizarre, scary, well written. Great title! I’m packing my bags to return home after a year working in Europe. 80% of my books are staying here, but this one is coming with me.

No Lions please, we’re British

In Uncategorized on November 2, 2013 at 9:10 am

You have to (yes, it is compulsory) love a book that includes the following: a section on the reintroduction of vanished species to Britain; in that section, a table naming species with an estimated date of extinction in Britain; a rating of their suitability for reintroduction; a heading, “Reintroduction efforts so far”; an entry simply stating “Lion”; and the comment “The clamour for the lion’s reintroduction to Britain has, so far, been muted”. Just lovely.
I have thoroughly enjoyed, and been terribly upset by, George Monbiot’s “Feral”. I cannot do it justice. A great quality of the book is its hopefulness, coupled with an awareness of the possible. It can be strident, but it is in no way unrealistic. He is fair in admitting his prejudices, and in the time and thought he gives to views that disagree with his own. His description of Alan Watson Featherstone, and his growing admiration for him, is delightful:

I have developed a number of prejudices, which until now appeared to be rational: against people who believe in the significance of coincidences; against people who maintain that plants grow better if you love them; against people who live at the Findhorn Foundation…; against men with ponytails. Alan belongs to all of these categories, yet he resembles none of the stereotypes I have, perhaps unfairly, constructed around such traits.

His is one of the most engaging minds I have come across.

The lion is of course native to Britain*, only having become extinct about 11,000 years ago. Australia’s recent history of extinction is distressing, and the distinct nature of Australia’s fauna means that it is not possible to reintroduce most animals. In some cases, a remnant population has been discovered on an island, or where an extinction is local, it has been possible to repopulate from another part of the country. However, in terms of restoring an ecosystem to health, a replacement has to be found. I think the first time I came across this was in a suggestion in “The Future Eaters” by Tim Flannery that Komodo dragons could be introduced to replace now extinct local reptilian megafauna. More recently, there have even been suggestions that elephants could be introduced into the Northern Territory, in part to help deal with introduced African grass species. Of course, that is part of the problem, the number of introduced species introduced within the last century or so into a set of unique ecosystems.
The crazy extent of this is set out in “Feral Future” by Tim Low, “the untold story of Australia’s exotic invaders”. Leaving aside questions of livestock that commenced arriving with the First Fleet, Australians well know and rue the introduction of the rabbit and the fox. More recently, we are seeing the countryside ruined by the cane toad (deliberately introduced in 1932, and that introduction seen as an act of genius). What is fascinating is the 19th century Acclimatisation Societies, organisations of learned men (I am not aware of any female participation) determined to spread the world’s animals and plants between all nations. In 1862, the Governor of Victoria sought to have monkeys released into the native forests. “They wanted South American alpacas in our mountain chains, Himalayan pheasants in Gippsland, ostriches and antelope in the outback…” Fortunately they failed in many of their endeavours, but we live today with their successes. I met Tim Low a number of years ago when he spoke at a conference I arranged. If I had power, he would have money and be in charge of something big and important, but I do not. I recommend both of his books, but make sure you read them in the right order. He felt that “Feral Future” ended on a bit of a low note, and wanted to be encouraging, so followed it up with “The New Nature”. Unfortunately, I was entranced by the second book and so sought out the first, and ended up with the downer he sought to avoid.

*well, lion bones have been found in the Netherlands, which is close

“Feral” by George Monbiot
“Feral Future” by Tim Low
“The New Nature” by Tim Low
“The Future Eaters” by Tim Flannery

Read them all!

Book Review: Sad Jingo by Ron Dionne

In Uncategorized on June 1, 2013 at 9:28 am

(Having mentioned Ron Dionne in my first post, here is a review of his novel SAD JINGO I previously posted elsewhere)

We know why the children who read Harry Potter identify with the main wizard.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was magic in the world?  And if there was, of course I would be one of the magicians.  Even if I couldn’t be Harry (though secretly, why wouldn’t I be?  why shouldn’t I be?) I wouldn’t be a muggle.  Once upon a time, I could watch zombie films and apocalypses until the mutant cows came home (1).  Omega Man, Mad Max 2, The Terminator, Afternoon Tea of the Dead, and always, I’d be identifying with those swift survivors, the ones who scurry just ahead of the blood thirsty hordes.

But what is the truth?  Almost to a one, even if there was a secret world, the millions of children reading HP would have no access to it.  They would be ordinary.  Just like they are now.  At best, at the very best, they would be the failures of Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, who took their one shot and flunked out of the secret exam, and even had the fact that they tried wiped from their minds.(2)

Without even a whiff of the fantastic (3), Ron Dionne has in “Sad Jingo” written a novel about magic.  The magic of the real world, of the fantasies in our head.  The longings that leave us all muggles, staring in through windows at the other worlds of which we can never be a part.

Jingo is sad.  Something is broken, and does not allow him to put together the pieces that let us get through the day.  He makes magical guesses and throws disparate parts together, in a sort of lottery of hope that they’ll stick and he can make his way in the world.  Like all lotteries, the winner is someone else on TV holding an oversized cheque, which Jingo does not get to see at all, spending the night in the Tombs instead.  Others around him, like Chinee Chester, with his music and different girl every night, seem to win all the time.

Different though he is, not all of his everyday longings are so far from ours.  Trying not to stare at the nubile, breathtaking Nina.  All the things he cannot have.  The thing he wants the most though, is to play jazz.  And here, Jingo is like the daydreamer in all of us.  Jingo does not want to learn music.  He does not want to practice music.  He does not want to be able to read music.  “I gotta feel it, not read it.  For it to sound good.”  Jingo wants to be magic.  He just wants to play music, and not just that,  he wants to play like Thelonious Monk.  He wants the gods to fill him, only in this way, and but for a little while.  Is that so unreasonable?

Of course it is.   His cousin Harold knows what is going on.  Its “like you know something the world doesn’t and it requires special action.” It has to be special, nothing so mundane as practising more or learning to read music.  That’s too obvious, or not obvious enough in the cracked window through which Jingo views the world. “I like playing piano” he writes to Dianna.  “But I am not good because I have no one to play for.”  Of course.

Surrounding Jingo are those who want to live off the magic.  Some like Harold refuse to compromise, but know their place – “I’m a behind-the-scenes kind of guy”.  Others, the agent Rasmussen, and Howard’s business partners, may have been touched by the magic once, but now, more or less bitter, have nowhere else to go.  This is the only way they know to make a living.  And then there is Joy Chant, ageing singer, an actual artiste, who speaks the truth:  “Even those of us that get somewhere, Jingo, we hurt inside wishing we could get somewhere further”.  There is always another inner circle – “Wish I could belt one out like Tina Turner or Aretha now and then.  Or could improvise like Betty Carter”.  The magic is always just out of reach, for everyone.

Dianna terrifies me.  Her brokenness is not at the level of functionality.  Unlike Jingo, she knows what is going on, but she is scary in her desperation.  I am sure that I am not the only person blogging here who has half a novel or two tucked away somewhere.  That is how I came across Ron’s blog in the first place, where he makes insightful comments on the ultra-marathon of the persistent unpublished, and the new publishing paradigm.  Dianne’s making a fair living, good enough that she just can’t throw it away to risk everything on her dreams.  Then success, on a massive scale.  Again, Ron shows us those making their living from hovering close to the magic, the agents, promoters, and Mikkelsen, the bizarre 600 pound interviewer for Vanity Fair.  But the scary bit:

“scurrying about full of dreams and plots and characters and dialogue and settings, piecing them together, stopping when inspiration struck to write something down in her little notebooks, feeling charmed, feeling that one day she would make it, making it being having something officially hers on paper bound in bookstores where people could pay for it and take it home and read it … How certain she’d been that it would happen one day.  How long she’d felt that certainty.  And then how the certainty had fallen away.  And how in its place had grown the certainty of years of drudgery…”.

AHHH!!  Too close to the bone, Ron.  What, other people have little notebooks too?

Ron Dionne has shown me a world of New York jazz clubs that I will never know, and a world of literary success that I’d at least like to have a sticky beak at (I don’t need to win a big lottery prize, a little one will do).  This is a successful book about failure, about the consequences of dreaming.  His characters follow their dreams, and sometimes, someone else’s.  In many cases, they shouldn’t have.  I look forward to “Sad Jingo’s” successor.

Its cheap!  Buy it, download it, and read it for yourself.

Sad Jingo by Ron Dionne

(1) “corpses gathering outside a farmhouse, moaning and tripping over their feet, wearing the tattered uniforms of their forgotten lives: he’d loved such films when he was a boy, not understanding how true they really were.  What were the living dead, Wolgast thought, but a metaphor for the misbegotten march of middle age?”  The Passage by Justin Cronin, p 174 *sob*

(2)  These days, I don’t even identify with the survivor who is killed off early in the film.  I identify with the bleached skulls crushed so easily beneath the metallic feet of the stripped back T-100s, or with the anonymous basketball court dead of Contagion.

(3) I leave to one side the “Black Robes” magic of using words to put a world inside someone else’s head.