Tuesday 24 October 2023

Wolf Land - Jonathan Janz (2015)


Rating: Admirable

I've been fascinated by werewolves since childhood. Despite watching most of the modern-day werewolf movies made since the 1980s I've never read any werewolf horror, in fact Wolf Land is the first horror novel I've read since I was a teenager in the 1980s. Horror is not really my thing, but in the spirit of branching out I grabbed a copy of Wolf Land when it was discarded by my library. I have to say that I was pleasantly surprised, as Wolf Land is a well written decent into gruesome and gory werewolf mayhem. The novel is nicely set up with the introduction of the principle protagonists who are on their way to a bonfire party prior to a ten-year school reunion. We meet Duane (nicknamed Short-Pump), Savannah, Glen, Mike and the loser of the group, Weezer. They all have their issues, regrets and angsts, mostly around relationships, but for Mike, the big-time baseball player who went off to the big leagues and failed, there's bigger regrets, but that all pales into insignificance when a weird guy turns up to the bonfire and transforms into a werewolf, an impressive one at that. The ensuing carnage is entertaining and ticks all of the werewolf thrill requirements.

Janz handles the balance between character development and horror action well, by the time of the first attacks you feel like you know enough about the characters to care about them before they either die or become horribly injured. The actual horror elements are intense, detailed and gory, but there is enough well played out psychological exploration of the characters in the aftermath of the initial attack to make things more interesting. Some of them, of course, are destined to become werewolves themselves and the way this plays out differently among the group of friends is engaging and satisfying. There are some intense transformation and attack scenes that would satisfy any werewolf fans and the werewolves themselves are massive creatures. Also the usual theme of werewolf origin is handled without too much cliche and enough variation to create something new. However I'm marking the novel down a bit for two reasons, firstly one of the female characters, Joyce, is a librarian, but is a bit of a cliche, she's inhibited, a bit plain and does her research, hmmm. The second is that when things really get going in the latter third of the novel the carnage is unrelenting, getting more and more extreme. No doubt horror fans love and demand this level of gory action, but after a while it becomes a bit cartoonish and loses some of its impact, there's only so many times you can cringe at another eye being gouged or scenes of slaughter with intestines and heads everywhere. Still, Wolf Land was a fun ride and great holiday reading.

Monday 23 October 2023

The Hand-Reared Boy - Brian Aldiss (1970)


Rating: Excellent

The Hand-Reared Boy was given to me by a close friend with the words - 'This is filthy, you must read it!' It is, indeed, filthy, but also a fascinating examination of what it was like to be young and sexually experimenting in the 1930's. It is also written in a readable, yet never trite style, which I'm sure helped the novel to be retrospectively nominated for the Lost Booker Prize for 1970 in 2010, although it was not short-listed. The novel follows Horatio Stubbs from childhood and into his late teens, chronicling his sexual experiences with, wait for it, himself, his brother and sister, the family maid, girls of his own age and a little older, boys of his own age and then an older woman at his boarding school just before the outbreak of WWII. It is an unrelenting cavalcade of sex, I'm not even sure that everything I just referenced is an exhaustive account. There's plenty of masturbation, both solitary and mutual (hence the novel's title), but then as Horatio gets a bit older and meets Sister Virginia Traven, who works at the boarding school he attends, he is initiated into the adult games of sexual pleasure, and then to its eventual darker aspects.

Aldiss, a very naughty boy?

The Hand-Reared Boy is certainly no Helliconia Trilogy and would come as a surprise to fans of Aldiss's fine science fiction. There's not much information to be found online, in fact there isn't even a Wikipedia entry for the novel. Apparently it is based on Aldiss's own childhood experiences, which somewhat goes against his appearance as a fairly strait-laced looking English gentleman. The novel is the first part of a trilogy, based on his experiences in the army during WWII, A Soldier Erect emerged in 1972, followed by A Rude Awakening in 1978. Despite the sexual nature of The Hand-Reared Boy, it should be taken as a serious account of growing up and exploring burgeoning desires. My only real worry is regarding the part of the novel set in Horatio's public boarding school, during which the boys basically experimented on each other sexually in the most caviler way. Was it really like that I wonder? Were English public school boys really at it most nights in each other's beds? If so there would have been a lot of visits to the nurse for RSI injuries!   

Saturday 7 October 2023

Success - Martin Amis (1978)


Rating: Excellent

As every literature lover should know, Martin Amis passed away in May of this year. It came as very bad news indeed, as Amis certainly was one of the best and most interesting writers in the English language of the last fifty years or so. Success was his third novel and is stylistically in the same vein as his first two novels, The Rachel Papers (1973) and Dead Babies (1975). Amis once described Dead Babies as a 'young persons' novel and initially Success reads as though it could fit that description as well, however it ultimately manifests as representing something more; it does not seem to be trying as hard to impress and its grotesqueries are dialled down marginally. There are some typical Amis tropes here however, men named Keith, class snobbery, grotesque sex and lots of drinking; the tone is satirical, witty and biting, featuring dozens of brilliant sentences that pop off the page, but there's also more emotional connection and character depth. Brothers Terence Service and Gregory Riding share a flat in London. They have an interesting history, as Terence was adopted by Gregory's eccentric father when he read about Terence's tragic background. Terence's adopted family are wealthy, as in old-school wealth and Gregory certainly acts the part, with the interaction between the two allowing for some satirical skewering of class conscious England. 

Success has a clever structure, covering a whole year from January to December. Each month is divided into a chapter and within each chapter there are two sections, one each from the perspective of Terence and Gregory. Gregory boasts about his successful life, his money, his cushy job, his good looks, his sex life, you name it, he's the man. Gregory comes across as insecure, a mess, poorly dressed, a loser with the ladies and only just holding on after his traumatic and weird upbringing. Amis completely nails each character, although neither of them come across as the finest of humanity, you can't help but get drawn in to their world view and the little hints they both give about what is really going on. All, of course, is not what it seems, and as the novel progresses the reality of the situation becomes clearer and the notion of success begins to shift. During the course of the novel we are also introduced to the brothers' sister, Ursula, and through their interactions with her we begin to get a real idea of just how on the nose everything is. Success is such an enjoyable novel and although the perception is that Amis's work would go on to mature in terms of thematic heft and writing quality, there's nothing wrong with his early work based on the evidence of his first three novels. Now, onto Other People (1981), a book The Guardian's John Self refers to as Amis's 'first good one,' but surely that was The Rachel Papers, a book I love and want to read again, such was its irresistible qualities.

Wednesday 4 October 2023

Old God's Time - Sebastian Barry (2023)


Rating: Admirable

There's two ways to look at Sebastian Barry's novel, Old God's Time. The first is a reaction that goes something like this: okay, so this seems like a typical Irish novel, allusive, subjective, but above all, bleak, unrelentingly bleak; however, with some humour emerging through the murk of suffering. Tom Kettle, a retired Irish policeman, is attempting to settle into a quiet old age, when two young policemen knock on his door asking him for help with a cold case about a murdered priest. By this early stage we've witnessed Kettle resist suicidal urges (in fact, one of the humorous parts) and rummage through his memories and thought processes. It's all very depressing, the weather is grey, rainy, overcast. The prose style is claustrophobic, written in close third person, which gives the reader an intimate view of proceedings via Kettle's often hazy and impressionistic point of view. And still, it's depressing, dark and grim. You ask yourself, why am I reading this? Do I really need to read something this grim? This novel is rough medicine, it's no way to feel good, this novel. I wanted to give it up, but somehow I kept on going, I don't like to give up on books. Old God's Time did not beat me, although it made me depressed for the duration.

The second way of looking at Old God's Time, meaning 'a period beyond memory,' is that it is a typical Irish novel, deeply profound, bleak, yes, but also humorous, and above all extremely well written. Barry's prose is a masterclass of both emotional depth and insight. The close third person prose style allows an intimate perspective of a broken man who has, nonetheless, endured. Although Kettle is certainly an unreliable narrator, the cold case that the young policemen come to Kettle about is a brilliant way of exploring his past, with his wife and two children living with trauma associated with institutional abuse. Ireland's dark past is laid open for tough examination and Barry presents the facts in tragic detail, giving the reader profound insight into the terrible abuses meted out by Catholic priests. Old God's Time is a quality novel and is important, as the world needs to know what went on at the hands of priests who had the trust of the community and, supposedly, acted on behalf of God. Now, where do I sit regarding Old God's Time? I fall somewhere inbetween. I didn't have the energy to read such a serious and bleak novel and it didn't draw me in like excellent novels often do. Despite my initial misgivings, objectively it really is an excellent novel, but I've marked it down to admirable. The novel really is much better than that, but it's just a matter of subjectivity really. Recommended for book clubs due to the style of the writing and the seriousness of the themes; my book club members loved it and the discussion was very satisfying.