Author Reviews IV: Salman Rushdie

You can’t really review the novels of Salman Rushdie without acknowledging that one of them nearly got him killed. The Satanic Verses is the proverbial elephant in the room, so I might as well address it first. The controversy surrounding The Satanic Verses annoys me, because it focuses on whether or not the book is offensive without asking whether or not it’s good. In my opinion, it isn’t. I’d even place it 2nd to last in my Rushdie ranking. It certainly has some very promising elements, but their development is hampered by superfluous subplots. (I also hate the fact that most of the people who called for censorship against this book probably never even read it, but that’s neither here nor there.)

Now that we’ve got Rushdie’s most infamous book out of the way, the next in line is his masterpiece: Midnight’s Children. It’s no coincidence that this book was declared Booker of Bookers. It deserves it. It’s a rich multi-generational story that illuminates history, while its deft use of magical realism ensures that it’s not bogged down by dry facts. This novel is Rushide’s most significant. If you only get a chance to read one, this is it. But it still isn’t my favourite.

Haroun and the Sea of Stories is thought of as (and possibly dismissed as) a ‘children’s book’, but I think it’s just as rewarding of a read for adults as it is for children, maybe even more so. It’s a great introduction to Rushdie’s fanciful side. And, unlike most of his other work, it’s an easy read. Rushdie’s exceptionally long sentences (strung together, as they are, into long books) have a tendency to trip people up. I think many people get bogged down in Midnight’s Children and give up. I have one very intelligent friend who put down Satanic Verses within the first few pages because he simply found it too hard to follow.  But you can dodge these pitfalls by starting with Haroun. And most importantly, it’s fun!

The next four books on my list stand on fairly even footing, but my favourite among them is The Enchantress of Florence. Published more than 25 years after Midnight’s Children, this novel is just as sophisticated, but far more approachable. You get the sense that Rushdie finally learned how to make his writing more digestible without dumbing it down. Turn the clock back more than ten years and you’ll find that, while The Moor’s Last Sigh is just as strong as Enchantress, those verbal kinks haven’t been ironed out yet, so the story is more of a slog. Between these two, you get Shalimar the Clown. In it, you can see Rushdie moving towards the smoother quality of Enchantress, but maybe losing some of the richness in the process. One thing that this cluster of books suffers from, which is most evident in Shame, is making the reader feeling like they’ve been left out of an inside joke. Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t read a fictionalised history of Pakistan without being puzzled by exactly who each character is mean to be lampooning. Of course, the internet can decode just about any historical factoid in disguise, but the process takes something away from the experience. Fortunately, Shame benefits from one of my favourite Rushdie tricks. In the same way that Midnight’s Children takes a strong sense of smell and makes it impossibly strong, Shame takes an embarrassed blush and turns that heat into something scorching. This device of transforming the ordinary into the extraordinary is a real pleasure to read.

Despite being a sort of sequel to Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Luka and the Fire of Life just isn’t as enjoyable. It’s still a light read and I particularly liked the portrayal of Prometheus, but there’s something missing. Maybe, it’s just not as magical.

Similarly, Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights is a novel with something missing. Like Satanic Verses, it has some fantastic elements that are a real joy to explore, but most of the story feels like it’s struggling to gain momentum and, to whatever extent there is a build, it doesn’t really go anywhere. Also, Rushdie’s fixation on the jinns’ sexual appetites is absurdly distracting. We get it. They love sex. You don’t have to draw attention to it over and over!

Fury is the only one of Rushdie’s books that I might call an out and out failure. When he writes about Mumbai, Kashmir, or even Spain, it feels believable, but when he turns to New York City, he seems completely out of his depth. The whole ‘Little Brain’ subplot is especially ridiculous. I wouldn’t recommend this book to anyone.

I do have a blindspot when it comes to Rushdie, because not only have I yet to read his first (Grimus) or last (The Golden House) novels, I’ve also unfortunately missed one in the middle: The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Still, from what I’ve managed to read, I’d say start with Haroun, don’t miss Midnight’s Children, and if you enjoy them both, branch out to Enchantress, Shame, Moor’s Last Sigh, and Shalimar. The others are missable.

Next time, I think I’ll take on another master of magical realism: Haruki Murakami. And, don’t worry. I’ve read every single one of his novels.

Midnight’s Children
Haroun and the Sea of Stories
The Enchantress of Florence
Shame
The Moor’s Last Sigh
Shalimar the Clown
Luka and the Fire of Life
Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights
The Satanic Verses
Fury

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Pi Day – 2019

I’m interrupting my author review series to make a special announcement: it’s that time again! That’s right, Pi Day has managed to sneak up on me so stealthily that I almost forgot to do my annual commemorative post. Fortunately, I caught it just in the nick of time. As usual, I’ve included a few of my most recent pi art experiments below so you can see what I’ve been working on for the last year. But my most important pi related update is that my debut full-length collection of poetry, Caught Light, features 5 original pieces of my pi art, including the cover! Pick up a copy today, if you haven’t already. And, happy Pi Day!!!

Author Reviews Part III: David Mitchell

I often find that an author’s ‘best’ book is not my favourite. It’s true of Vonnegut (as I already mentioned), it’s true of people like Steinbeck, Murakami, and Rushdie (more on those later) and it’s certainly true of David Mitchell.

Cloud Atlas is Mitchell’s masterpiece. It’s ambitious, far-reaching, and multi-layered. The plot, which stretches from distant past to speculative future, is convincingly communicated in a variety of different voices through a range of different mediums, including journals, letters, interviews, and more. All of this comes together to form a book that’s nothing if not impressive. I was certainly impressed. But there is something self-conscious about this impressiveness, almost to the point of being forced.

Cloud Atlas turns up in charity shops all of the time, and I think it’s because so many people think it’s too difficult. It flies in the face of short attention spans and instant gratification. After the first section of the book is (spoiler alert) interrupted mid-sentence, many people probably get frustrated and give up. After pushing through one or two more sections, only to discover that the first narrative thread still hasn’t been resumed and each subsequent thread has also been left in limbo, many more people probably give up. If they persist, they might decide that the pay off is worth it, but even that’s up for debate, because what unifies the parts into a whole is subtle and could be easily missed by some readers.

Cloud Atlas is a great book, and in some ways, Mitchell’s best, but I prefer number9dream. Why? Simply put: it’s more fun. It manages to be an easier read without sacrificing quality or depth. It’s not at all dumbed down, but there’s a clear-cut main character who’s plainly coming of age; you’re right there with him, along for the ride. And what a crazy ride it is.

If you’re looking for something that stylistically bridges the gap between these two books, try The Bone Clocks. It has a lot of the same structural traits as Cloud Atlas, but with more of the readability of number9dream. It seems a little less lofty than Cloud Atlas and a little more personable. The characters are more immediate and the action is more compelling.

After you’ve enjoyed Bone Clocks, you might as well carry on and read Slade House. It’s not exactly a sequel, but the two should definitely be consumed together and in order. Slade House isn’t anywhere near as ambitious as Bone Clocks, but on some level, it gives you more of what you want. You’ll just have to take my word for it; you’ll understand if you read them both.

I hesitate to call Ghostwritten a novel. It’s really more of a short story cycle and the thread that ties it all together is even less clear/more tenuous than in Cloud Atlas. It’s truly great at times and stunning as an authorial debut, but you can tell that Mitchell hasn’t got his bearings yet.

When taken as a whole, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet is more mature than Ghostwritten, but its best bits aren’t necessarily as interesting as Ghostwritten’s best bits. It’s narrative is even more straightforward than number9dream’s, but it’s nowhere near as fun. The historical background is interesting, but the side plots are distracting at times and the love story is unsatisfying. Despite all of that, it’s still a good book, but it doesn’t live up to my top 3.

Black Swan Green is my least favourite Mitchell book. That doesn’t mean that it’s a bad book, it’s just a little too ‘Boy Meets World’. It’s also missing a little something, namely Mitchell’s obsession with reincarnation/transmigration/soul-eating immortals etc.

In summary, don’t miss number9dream. Tackle Cloud Atlas if you have literary stamina. If you have slightly less literary stamina, binge read Bone Clocks and Slade House back to back. Try Ghostwritten if you’ve got the time, but don’t stress if you never get around to it. And give the last two a miss altogether. Next time, I’ll run through the ever-controversial Salman Rushdie.

number9dream

Cloud Atlas

The Bone Clocks

Slade House

Ghostwritten

The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet

Black Swan Green

 

Author Reviews Part II: Kurt Vonnegut

When you read the works of certain authors, their style and voice are so familiar and comforting, it’s like having a conversation with an old friend. For me, this is probably most true of Kurt Vonnegut. I definitely enjoy some of his novels more than others, but I’d gladly sit down with even my least favourite of them just to re-visit that conversation. Vonnegut’s novels can very loosely divided up into sci-fi and non-sci-fi (though he was never 100% comfortable with the sci-fi label). Generally, I prefer the former over the latter. For example, I’d rather read Slapstick than Hocus Pocus and prefer I The Sirens of Titan to Jailbird. But there are, of course, exceptions to every rule. That’s why my top 5 Vonnegut novels include Mother Night, Bluebeard, and God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (none of which fit under the sci-fi umbrella), as well as Cat’s Cradle and Slaughterhouse-Five (both sci-fi classics).

It’s not easy to order these novels from most to least favourite, so I think it’s worth taking a moment to say a little something about each of them. First, Slaughterhouse-Five is easily Vonnegut’s most well-known work and, for that reason, it could be mistaken for his best. It’s certainly close, considering its masterful employment of non-linear narrative and brilliantly oblique treatment of WWII. But I’m not 100% convinced. Mother Night deals with the war in a much more direct way, but still manages to be extremely powerful, possibly even more powerful than Slaughterhouse-Five (as far as war books go). If you broaden the context, I suspect that Cat’s Cradle is an all-round stronger novel than either of them, though I find it hard to explain why. It’s exploration of the fictional Bokononism religion is simultaneously comical and thought provoking. The thoughts that it provoked in me are still churning around in my head to this very day. Similarly, I think that Bluebeard is a solid novel no matter how you look at it, but I know that I’m favourably biased towards it because I’m an artist, just like the protagonist. I also hold God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater in high esteem because it portrays one of the most successful unorthodox Christ figures I’ve ever encountered.

Moving on to the ‘very-good-but-not-the-best’ portion of my list, I can’t help but notice that it’s uniformly sci-fi. I like all of these books and would particularly recommend Sirens of Titan, Slapstick, and Breakfast of Champions. Sirens is so good, I’m tempted to let it slip into the Top 5. Slapstick is strange, because Vonnegut himself always trash-talked it. I think he gave it a D minus or something like that, but he was way off and I’m eager to defend it. Breakfast of Champions is probably Vonnegut’s most experimental novel and, for that reason, it might not suit everyone’s tastes, but I’d certainly recommend giving it a try. It’s a wild ride, but if you hang on till the end, you could discover that it was worth it. Player Piano and Timequake are essentially bookends with one coming at the beginning of Vonnegut’s career and the other near the end. For that reason, neither is amazing. In the first, he’s still getting the hang of it and in the other, he’s losing his touch. As you could probably guess by now though, I still like them both.

The last 4 books on the list are also good in their own ways, but if you never get a chance to read them, you haven’t exactly done yourself a disservice. In summary: don’t miss the top 5, and if you’ve got time, read the top 8! World Book Day has come and gone, but I’ve got more reviews in mind, so I’ll keep this rolling until I get bored or run out of authors. Next up, David Mitchell (no, not the comedian).

Cat’s Cradle
Mother Night
Bluebeard
God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
Slaughterhouse-Five

The Sirens of Titan
Slapstick
Breakfast of Champions
Timequake
Player Piano

Hocus Pocus
Galápagos
Deadeye Dick
Jailbird

World Book Day

Generally, my posts here focus on my own poetry and art, but since it’s nearly World Book Day, I thought I’d try something a little different: reviews. But, I don’t just want to review books; I want to review authors. I’m not sure what constitutes being ‘well read’, but there are a handful of authors who I’ve read just about everything by. Therefore, I frequently find myself rating each of a given author’s works in relation to the rest of their bibliography. For what it’s worth, I thought I’d share a few of these personal rankings over the course of the next several days. I’ll start with the novels of Jack Kerouac.

I tend to place an author’s works on a qualitative spectrum with some at the top, some in the middle, and others at the bottom. Unfortunately with Kerouac, I find it necessary to employ more stark categories i.e. Definitely Worth Reading and Probably Not Worth Reading. In the first category, I put On The Road, The Dharma Bums, and Big Sur, with the possible addition of Desolation Angels. Taken together, they do well to encapsulate some of the tragic trajectory of Kerouac’s life, or at least his fictionalised version of it. What starts as a grand frenetic adventure of cross-country travel, jazz, friendship, experimentation, and spiritual investigation eventually sours as the party ends and the delirium tremens take hold. If you have a morbid fascination with that inevitable downturn, you could also read Satori In Paris, but I wouldn’t recommend it. In my opinion, there is no Satori (or enlightenment) in it at all. It only serves to illustrate the floundering decline of Kerouac’s literary prowess.

As with all of my reviews, this is firmly rooted in my own preferences. I think Kerouac’s wild journey of self-discover sets the backdrop for his most interesting work, while his attempts to describe his early years, including Doctor Sax, Maggie Cassidy, and Visions of Gerard, all fall short in comparison. But, even his other books about the ‘wild years’, like Tristessa, Visions of Cody, and Subterraneans, don’t do his talent justice.

There are, however, a few Kerouac novels that don’t fit neatly into either of the aforementioned categories. And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks is a sort of odd outlier, particularly as only half of it is by Kerouac. It’s not great (which Burroughs himself thought), nor is it awful, but it does provide an interesting insight into a particular piece of the New York years. Similarly, The Town and The City is interesting as a record of Kerouac’s developing style, but you can’t call it a great novel. The biggest anomaly must be Pic, because it seems to be Kerouac’s only attempt at fiction that’s well and truly separate from his own experience. Sadly, it seems like he wasn’t up to the task. The character’s voice isn’t fully convincing, but at least the plot is easier to follow than some of his more convoluted prose.

In the interest of full disclosure, there are a few minor Kerouac novels that I haven’t read yet and, therefore, cannot comment on. But, from what I’ve read, my rankings are as follows:

  • Must reads: On the Road, The Dharma Bums, Big Sur
  • Of some additional interest: Desolation Angels, The Subterraneans, And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, The Town and the City, Pic
  • Not worth the effort: Satori in Paris, Tristessa, Maggie Cassidy, Doctor Sax, Visions of Gerard, Visions of Cody

So, maybe there’s a little more of a spectrum than I thought. Next time, I think I’ll tackle Vonnegut.

Biggest News Ever…For Me

The definition of serendipity (according to the first result to pop up in Google) is “the occurrence and development of events by chance in a happy or beneficial way.” With that in mind, I’m extremely pleased to announce that Friends of Alice will be publishing my first full length collection of poetry, Caught Light. This simply wouldn’t have been possible without a healthy dose of serendipity. I met the folks from Friends of Alice the last time I attended Platform 1 at The Poetry Cafe. I read my work, they liked what they heard, and the rest is history. Sure, they publish poetry and this was a poetry event at The Poetry Cafe, but if either of us hadn’t attended that night, none of this would’ve been possible. Furthermore, they weren’t just looking for a collection of poems; they wanted a manuscript that included original artwork. And who just so happens to be an amateur visual artist? That’s right, ME! Caught Light features pieces of my pi art, both on its cover and within its pages. It’s all come together just in time for Pi Day (March 14th i.e. 3/14 by the American reckoning). I’m exceptionally thankful for this wonderful turn of luck and if you happen to pick up a copy of this new tome from Amazon, I’ll be thankful for that as well. Friends of Alice will also be promoting the book at The London Book Fair (12-14th March), so be sure to stop by their booth.

Caught Light
Caught Light

Two Stints at The Poetry Cafe

Two weeks ago, Dino Mahoney launched his debut poetry collection, Tutti Frutti, at The Poetry Cafe in London and the whole thing went swimmingly, if I do say so myself. The venue was packed out like I’ve never seen it before; there must’ve been over 60 people in a space that feels cosy with 30. Susan Evans was a brilliant host, colourful and exuberant with her fun dial turned up to eleven. She also performed some top notch poems, and all from memory! I’ve get a head like a sieve, so I’m always impressed by poets who can memorise their own work. But I digress. I had the distinguished honour of reading first, but the evening featured more than just poetry. Dino joined forces with ‘The Diamonds’ (including Steve Halliwell) to transform his poems into catchy songs, like Hong Kong Bar Hop. To add yet another layer to this onion of spectacle, Drunken Sailor Films were on hand to present music videos and other cinematic interpretations of Dino’s work; the whole thing was a multimedia extravaganza!

Last week, I made my way back up to The Poetry Cafe for another helping of Platform 1, the superb monthly event put on by Ernie Burns. I turned up early and, as I had a large helping of chicken katsu curry from the Waterloo Wasabi and nowhere to eat it, I chatted with Ernie while I helped him set up the chairs. It was a good thing I did as well, because a series of unforeseen circumstances had left him without a featured poet for the evening, and he generously offered me the privilege of taking on the role. Serendipity! Apart from myself, the evening also featured strong work from Michael Wyndham, Isabel Del Rio, Mickey Bee, and others.

Back in The Saddle

It’s a new year and, after a little holiday time off, I’m making my way back to the stage for a top notch poetry event in London. As I mentioned in my last post, the launch of Dino Mahoney’s debut poetry collection, Tutti Frutti, is this Thursday (31/1/19) at The Poetry Cafe, so please come out for this fabulous free evening if you can. I’ll be reading alongside Susan Evans and Dino will also be performing some of his poems with backing music by Steve Halliwell. The night runs from 7:30-9:30pm, don’t be late.

bookcover final -02.jpg

End of the Year Wrap Up

As the great revolving door of time simultaneously swings closed on one year and opens onto the next, I thought I’d take a minute to review what I’ve been up to and make a few announcements about what’s to come.

First, I’m delighted to be reading at the launch of Dino Mahoney’s debut poetry collection, Tutti Frutti. It’s happening on Thursday 31 January from 7:30-9:30pm at none other than London’s infamous Poetry Cafe. This is sure to be a wonderful evening, and Dino was kind enough to read at the launch of my chapbook back in 2017, so I’m looking forward to returning the favour. Why not come along? It’s free!

It’s also worth mentioning that Volume 39 of The Worcester Review, which features my poem Rorschach, is now available to purchase from their site. The Worcester Review is one of the relatively few literary journals who actually manage to offer their contributors a small payment for their work. These small payments mean a lot to authors like me, so I would really encourage people to purchase an issue and help make it possible for them to continue this rare and admirable practice. They just sent me two contributor’s copies as well; an early present just in time for Christmas. 🙂

In addition to The Worcester Review, I’ve appeared in two other publications this year: Where the River Rests: Poems from ‘Tide’s End’, and What the Elephant Said to the Peacock (scroll down to find it). Both of these opportunities arose out of my involvement with local open mic nights over the course of the last year. I’ve been attending the monthly Poetry Performance nights at The Adelaide in Teddington on and off since Oct 2017, so when they opened submissions for their Where the River Rests anthology, I was happy to contribute. In Jan of this year, I branched out to Guildford and tried 1,000 Monkeys, another great monthly event. In this case, the organisers were the brilliant minds behind Dempsey & Windle publishing, and when I heard about their annual Brian Dempsey Memorial Prize, I was keen to enter. Though I didn’t come away with the grand prize, simply being long-listed and appearing in the anthology were an honour.

In addition to reading at open mics, like Write Out Loud Woking, Paper Tiger Poetry, and Platform 1, I was invited to take part in some other events, like Poetry Cafe at the Hampton Hill Theatre (which was positively reviewed by Arts Richmond) and the final iteration of Elbow Room Live. Speaking of Elbow Room, I contributed a little piece to their blog about my experience of getting a chapbook published.

Last but not least, I tried an ask me anything on AMAfeed.com as part of their #AuthorsAMA week. Their site seems to say something about ‘Taking a break’ (whatever that means), but you can still read all of my questions and answers. Well, that’s it for my annual recap. Happy Holidays, everyone!

WR2018_FrontCover
Worcester Review Volume 39