Archive for June, 2013

June 18, 2013

The Ocean at the End of the Lane: Neil Gaiman

by Andre

Neil Gaiman THE OCEAN AT THE END OF THE LANEA charming, flame-haired US singer and her daughter were here in the Riverside Bookshop the other day asking about the new Neil Gaiman (the book finally arrived today). We hope they come back, although we suspect the kindly Mr Gaiman will send them a copy seeing as the book’s acknowledgements include a thank you to his famous friend for lending him a house to write it in. And as the singer’s daughter is Gaiman’s goddaughter, she probably deserves the £250 deluxe version.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not really for children though – in fact, it’s Gaiman’s first adult novel in eight years. Seeking solitude after a family funeral, the unnamed narrator wanders the Hempstock farm at the end of the country lane where he grew up. Sitting by the duck pond he remembers that once it was actually an ocean – and then he remembers everything. He’s transported back 40 years to an event that somehow unleashes an otherworldly, almost Lovecraftian evil into the Sussex countryside. The primal horror arrives in the form of a malevolent Mary Poppins, a housekeeper from another dimension who seems to know the boy’s every move. Fortunately, Lettie Hempstock and her family in the old farmhouse possess some ancient powers of their own. Lettie’s 11 but the boy thinks she may have been 11 for a very long time.

Gaiman has surpassed himself with limpid, elegiac prose that conveys the secret world of a seven-year-old. There’s beautiful writing about the pleasures of childhood such as tucking into oozing honeycomb doused in cream from a chipped saucer or losing yourself in books (‘Why didn’t adults want to read about Narnia, about secret islands and smugglers and dangerous fairies?’). It also touches on adult themes of art, loss and (unreliable) memory and, like Lettie’s duck pond, it’s deeper and darker than the slim volume might suggest. We may have forgotten what it’s like to be seven years old in a world of capricious grown-ups but Neil Gaiman has remembered for us in this melancholy and moving adult fairy tale. It may be the best book he’s written.

June 16, 2013

Generation Loss: Elizabeth Hand

by Andre

Elizabeth Hand GENERATION LOSSThis first book in an edgy new US crime series introduces us to burnt-out punk photographer Cass Neary. Cass is a mess but at least she hasn’t sold out: she’s hooking up with younger men (and sometimes women) in gnarly New York clubs, still listening to Patti Smith and refusing to ditch her ancient Konica for digital. We’re soon rooting for Cass – though we’re also a bit scared of this hard-drinking, tattooed kleptomaniac and her steel-tipped cowboy boots.

Granted a rare journalistic assignment to interview an influential, reclusive photographer, Cass takes a drug-fuelled drive to Maine where she finds a desolate coastal town dotted with posters of missing teenagers. After reaching the photographer’s isolated island (‘what you’d imagine a fairytale would look like if you fell into one’), the interview doesn’t go to plan; now she’s stuck there. So she drinks, hangs out with the more arty locals and picks up on dark hints about an abandoned commune. Cass can’t help stirring up old secrets, though as one character says it’s more that she makes things weird not worse.

This is a story where the crime is revealed, like death-fixated Cass’s creepy photos in the darkroom, slowly and with a sense of dread. Hand also follows Stephen King’s dictum that readers love the intricacies of work by rubbing our noses in the chemical smells and processes of pre-digital photography. Generation Loss is an eerily atmospheric crime novel with an unrepentant bad girl snarling acerbic one-liners between swigs of Jack Daniel’s. Yet Hand’s prose, preoccupied with creative power and its decline, gleams with a luminous beauty even as it’s pulling the reader to an explosive finale. A Sequel, Available Dark, is out on August and Hand’s next book will take Cass on a trip to London – a terrifying but thrilling prospect.

June 8, 2013

Patrick Leigh Fermor – An Adventure: Artemis Cooper

by Andre

Paperback now available

Artemis Cooper PATRICK LEIGH FERMOR - AN ADVENTURELike any worthwhile biographical subject, the travel writer Patrick Leigh Fermor was a bundle of contradictions. A garrulous, worldly adventurer who secluded himself in French monasteries; an urbane clubman who yearned for the Greek countryside; and a bon vivant and seducer who built his life around one loyal woman. The excitable young Paddy (as everyone called him) might well have been insufferable but his story is one of rare gifts for writing, heroism and comradeship revealed in tumultuous times. An 18-year-old with a chequered schooling, in 1933 he decided to forsake career plans and set off on a walk from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. Leigh Fermor wasn’t rich but there were always amiable aristocrats willing to open their doors to a venturesome young man.

He’s been blessed with another amiable aristocrat in Artemis Cooper – the Hon. Alice Clare Antonia Opportune Beevor, to use her full title – who’s written a sympathetic account spiced with the sort of racy details that prompted Somerset Maugham to upbraid Leigh Fermor for being “a middle-class gigolo for upper-class women”. Cooper diligently reveals the drama and romance that Leigh Fermor found on his life-changing walk, including details he left out of classic memoir A Time of Gifts, published 40 years later.

After witnessing the rise of the Nazis on that walk, Leigh Fermor’s own run-in with the Germans occurred a decade later on Crete, and Cooper captures the detail of the thrilling operation to kidnap a Nazi general, along with the strife of competing resistance movements, with admirable clarity. The later years are just as engrossing, particularly his friendship with Bruce Chatwin, and you have to applaud Leigh Fermor’s disdain for deadlines. His life was a very English adventure that makes for a remarkable biography.

June 6, 2013

The Long Earth: Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

by Andre

Paperback now available – sequel out June 20

Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter THE LONG EARTHTerry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter THE LONG WARFor all his staggering success, Terry Pratchett’s a writer who benefits from a partner in prose, if only to rein in his relentless mirth making. The Long Earth, a novel with ‘hard’ SF author Stephen Baxter about a chain of parallel Earths, is not as knockabout as Discworld and yet it has one of Pratchett’s most hilarious characters. Douglas Adams would have been proud to have created Lobsang, the artificial intelligence who claims to have been reincarnated from a Tibetan motorcyle repairman.

The multiverse premise is built around a pleasingly humdrum piece of technology, a potato-powered device called a Stepper, which enables anyone to take the leap into another uninhabited, skewed version of Earth and then keep going. It makes for a powerful, expansive science fiction novel, full of possibility, wonder and a certain amount of peril, which would suit young and adult readers alike. The co-writing between Pratchett and Baxter feels smooth as the authors adroitly handle quantum theory while focusing on individual families as they seek out new frontiers. The impact is also being felt on the original Earth – now known as Datum Earth – as people leave or step back into places they shouldn’t. No doubt certain newspapers would bemoan the effect on house prices.

While the authors enjoy creating these parallel worlds and exploring the consequences, they don’t forget to create an engaging hero. Joshua Valiente, a seasoned Stepper who was born on a parallel Earth, joins Lobsang on an exploratory mission in a high-tech airship as part of a colonising operation. If the ending to this inventive, witty novel feels a little rushed, the good news is that the sequel, The Long War, is out on June 20.

June 6, 2013

The Old Ways: Robert Macfarlane

by Andre

Paperback now available – £9.99

Robert Macfarlane THE OLD WAYSRobert Macfarlane HOLLOWAYNominated for the Samuel Johnson Prize, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot is lyrical nature writing that draws deep on literature, myth and memory. It’s a book for walkers or indeed anyone who’s felt their imagination stir as they put one foot in front of the other on an ancient path. Macfarlane is intensely curious about the places and people he encounters – and himself. If you can read it outdoors with a majestic landscape as your companion then all the better. It’s also a book that does a fine job of reviving interest in the early 20th century poet Edward Thomas, who was heavily influenced by the English countryside. His collected poems are also available at the Riverside.

For fans of Robert Macfarlane, there’s also the intriguing Holloway about the author’s exploration of a sunken path in south Dorset. It’s a slender, exquisite volume illustrated by Radiohead artist Stanley Donwood.