Monthly Archives: July 2013

A Bright Moon for Fools – Jasper Gibson: A Review

A Bright Moon for Fools - Jasper GibsonMeet Harry Christmas – an impatient, curmudgeonly Englishman with a drinking problem and a huge chip on his shoulder. After stealing some money from his girlfriend and incurring the wrath of William Slade, her psychotic stepson, Harry flees to the Venezuela – the ancestral home of his dead wife. Slade would never follow him there, would he?

Of course he would – you need some kind of unreasonable antagonist in a story such as this and they don’t get much more unreasonable than William Slade. Slade is a predatory oddball with a knife fetish and a very loose understanding of what constitutes consensual sex. When he isn’t raping or torturing, he is obsessively focussed on a single goal – killing Harry Christmas.

This spells trouble but Harry Christmas is one of those unpredictable drunks who needs no help in wreaking a havoc all of his own creation. He’s not without faults but, as the book progressed, I couldn’t help feeling a warped respect for Harry Christmas. Every now and then, he rails against ‘The Rot’ – the umbrella term for all that is wrong with the modern world and in the assault, it’s easy to find yourself agreeing with him.

But then you remember that he’s a compulsive liar and a dishonest criminal with a dark core of bitterness. We slowly discover the source of his hatred and soon realize that Harry has plenty of reasons to scorn the fates. After all, how can anyone else dare to be happy in his presence when life has dealt him such a cruel hand?

The story itself is great fun – it’s a farcical chase around Venezuela that falls somewhere between No Country for Old Men and A Confederacy of Dunces, having all of the terror of the hunt with the comedy of a despicable protagonist.

It’s not all laughs though. There are a few moments in the book that are so shockingly horrific as to leave no space for humour. I suppose this is Jasper Gibson’s way of emphasising Slade’s threat. He is a destructive sadist and the author treats us to a few scenes of his perversion. These scenes are in alarming contrast with the rest of the story and it can take a while to readjust to the humour after such a jolt.

That said, it’s still a great read with a visually-striking cover and, at £14.99, it’s a reasonably-priced hardback. It is, so far, the only offering from independent publisher, Inside the Dog Press, which is great news for all of you with anti-corporate agendas.

Jasper Gibson is the co-founder of The Poke which is a great way to waste a bit of time that would be better spent reading all of those books you have stacked up. Check out their review of A Bright Moon for Fools below…

The Liars’ Gospel – Naomi Alderman: A Review

the liars gospel - naomi aldermanYesterday morning, I picked up Naomi Alderman’s The Liars’ Gospel just to see what it was like. I had no real intention of reading it until the end but that’s exactly what I ended up doing.

Now, don’t be put off when I tell you that this is a book about Jesus. The reaction is to summon in your mind the image of some pious reflection of the life and works of God’s only son. That’s exactly what The Liars’ Gospel isn’t.

True, Jesus, or Yehoshuah, does form the epicentre around which the story unfolds but this is really the tale of the Roman occupation of Jerusalem and its brutal and bloody consequences.

The book is separated into four parts, each one a ‘gospel’ of a particular character. First, we hear the story of Miryam – you’d probably know her better as Mary. Here, the grieving mother harbours Gidon of Yaffo, a fugitive from a nearby village where a rebellion (one of many) has broken out. This rebel, little more than a teenage boy, is a follower of her son and brings news of his resurrection. As much as her heart wants to believe it, this is something she cannot accept as true.

Gidon is hungry for stories of his saviour but Miryam has none to give. However, we are treated to the tale of a strange boy who, much to his father’s (his biological father, at least) disgust, will not take a wife or otherwise behave as a man of the time should. He asks endless questions and wastes his time marvelling at nature.

Later, we feel Miryam’s sense of rejection as the adult Yehoshuah chooses a new family – his followers – and will scarcely acknowledge the one into which he was born. Despite her best efforts, Miryam cannot convince her son to return to the relative safety of his hometown and, even before he is crucified, she resigns herself to his loss.

Next up, we hear the tale of Judas, known here as Iehuda of Qeriot. One of Yehoshuah’s first followers, Iehuda watches helplessly as his old friend becomes intoxicated by the myth that has grown up around him. He can see that Yehoshuah has, willingly or otherwise, been used as a convenient tool for rebellion – a figurehead for a movement dedicated to removing the Romans from Jerusalem. The godly cause in which Iehuda once believed has become a ridiculous folly and little more than another cult.

He tries to make Yehoshuah see reason but is met with the same cryptic questions that he has come to expect. Caught in a crisis of faith and fearful for his life, Iehuda does the only thing he can and thus cements his name in history as the great betrayer. He reluctantly accepts his reward, changes his identity and allows the lie of his suicide to spread.

The third part concerns Caiaphas, the High Priest of the great Temple of Jerusalem – a figure the bible would have us believe as heartless and cynically concerned with the Temple’s financial interests. In this version, Caiaphas is a victim of circumstance. He is under pressure from Pilate to provide money for an aqueduct.

Again and again he refuses, rightly stating that the gold in the Temple’s coffers has been donated by the people for the upkeep of the Temple alone. He finally crumbles and in a risky attempt to point the finger of blame at his cruel Roman master, inadvertently instigates a riot in which hundreds of civilians are killed.

For me, the fourth and final story was the most interesting. This is the story of Bar-Avo (Barabbas), the thief, the rebel and the murderer of Roman soldiers. We hear of his rise through the ranks of the rebellion through acts of defiance and, of course, great remorseless violence. Through his bravery, he becomes notorious as a freedom fighter. He only wants to rid his land of these Roman scum an keeps the favour of the people by action, not empty rhetoric and preaching.

His fight becomes a counterweight to that of Yehoshuah’s followers. Much like Yehoshuah, we see him travelling the land recruiting men, one at a time, to the cause. Following an act of betrayal, Bar-Avo finds himself in a cell with the man proclaimed to be King of the Jews – a man he finds puzzling and disturbing. In a great scene, he uses Pilate’s vanity against him and surreptitiously negotiates his freedom.

I found this book fascinating as a piece of historical fiction. Naomi Alderman has stripped away the supernatural elements of the man we know as Jesus and portrays him as merely a man. Sure, he seems to be a man with more than his fair share of mental illness but what man is without such faults?

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone but, having looked at some of the less-than-favourable reviews on Goodreads, it probably won’t go down too well with devout Christians. If you’re a Christian who expects their image of Christ the Lord to be reinforced by this book, I’d advise you to steer clear. If, on the other hand, you’ve got an open-mind and even a fleeting interest in Middle-Eastern history, you’ll probably be swept away.

The Crocodile – Maurizio Di Giovanni: A Review

the crocodile maurizio de giovanni“So what exactly do you do here at the San Gaetano police station?”

Lojacono decided to give the woman another chance and sat back down.

“I’m in the Crime Reporting Office. But that’s a front. I’m actually spending my days fighting a bloody poker duel with my computer. My weapon of choice is a five-card stud.”

New translated crime, that’s what you need – and I’m only too happy to oblige. I’ve just read The Crocodile (Il Metodo del Coccodrillo), a Neapolitan crime thriller from Maurizio Di Giovanni and it’s quite something.

Detective Inspector Giuseppe Lojocano is a Sicilian cop who finds himself in the purgatory that is the San Gaetano police station in the historic centre of Naples. Caught in a scandal back home, it is decided that it would be best for everyone if he disappeared for a while.

He sits at his desk all day and plays poker on the computer and he is under strict instruction to do nothing but serve his time and stay out of the way.

It should be an easy task but the long, idle hours only give him time to mull over his predicament and consider the shame he has brought upon himself, not to mention his wife and teenage daughter to whom he has become an embarrassment and a stronzo (look it up).

By some administrative fluke, he happens to be the only person on duty one night when the call comes through – there’s been a murder – a sixteen year old boy has been found in a courtyard with a bullet hole in his head.

Lojacono is the first at the scene which irritates his chief no end and he is ordered to return to his desk. Before he leaves, he makes sure to point out a piece of evidence – a pile of used tissues.

As is the habit of the local constabulary, the murder is brushed off as the work of the Camorra – an excuse that works very well until more murdered children are found. The crimes are identical – a single shot to the head at close range from a small calibre pistol and there is one more similarity – at every scene, the killer has left behind tissues soaked in tears.

The press learn of this curiosity and the murderer is soon dubbed The Crocodile – the beast who weeps before claiming his victims. His M.O. is obviously not that of your typical camorrista and soon, the efficacy of the police investigation is called into question. Although his superiors don’t want to listen, Lojacono is the only one with a different theory and he finds himself in a race against time to find the perpetrator before more children are killed.

As Andrea Camilleri did for Sicily and Michele Giuttari did for Florence, Maurizio Di Giovanni evokes the atmosphere of Naples. A Neapolitan himself, it’s perhaps strange that he has chosen an outsider for his protagonist. Lojacono is not only a stranger, but one who sees only the dark side of Naples. He omits the vibrancy and energy of the city and emphasises the ancient air of mistrust. The city mistrusts the sea, the sea mistrusts the city, the citizens mistrust the police and pretty much everyone walks around mistrustfully avoiding each other’s gaze. Everywhere there is anger and guarded hatred and the only joyous element Di Giovanni has thought to include is the quick-fire Neapolitan wit of the characters, caught in a constant battle of playful insults.

It’s a very dark read all-in-all but an enjoyable one and although it isn’t exactly filled with surprises, the strength of the characters keeps the pages turning. I’ve personally found in Lojocano a great creation and I’ll look forward to reading more.

Stoner – John Williams: a review

stoner - john williamsA couple of months ago, I opened a tote from our supplier and, mixed in with all of the familiar titles, was a Vintage classic I’d never seen before. Reading the title, my first assumption was that it was a biography of some feckless marijuana addict. After a quick glance at the blurb, I realised that it was an old American novel about the life of a college professor in the first half of the twentieth century.

“Oh.” I thought and promptly shelved it.

I forgot about it, categorising it in my head as a stuffy relic of little interest to anyone who isn’t a college professor.

Weeks passed until suddenly it exploded onto my Twitter feed. The reception was overwhelmingly positive and, for a good couple of weeks, I couldn’t check Twitter without seeing the hash-tag #weareallstonersnow accompanied by some evangelical recommendation. It seemed there was more to Stoner than I’d originally thought.

First published in 1965, John Williams’ Stoner charts the exploits and disappointments of William Stoner, farmer’s son and born-again literary enthusiast. When the opportunity arises to attend agricultural college, he reluctantly takes leave of his work on the land to learn better techniques for tending the soil turned and turned again by his forefathers.

It’s in the university that this green country-boy discovers literature and a new calling in life. At first, this world is elusive and almost impenetrable but he works hard, harder than his fellow students, to make up for a childhood without any literary influence outside of the Bible.

Soon, he meets Edith and unwittingly makes the biggest mistake of his life by falling in love and quickly marrying her.  Too late, he realises his folly but, ever the stoic, he accepts his lot and tries to make the most of a bad situation.

As the years wear on and wars come and go, William Stoner rises through the hierarchy of the college as a teacher eventually meeting adversity in the form of Hollis Lomax, Stoner’s colleague and nemesis.

Though his life is unremarkable, William Stoner can be included among the great literary heroes. He doesn’t fight in any war or solve any mysteries or rescue any damsels in distress but his triumph comes from his dogged forbearance of a less-than-kind life. He believes in the university as a sanctuary and continues to protect his principles even when his stubbornness proves detrimental to his career.

Though his life is riddled with failures, it’s Stoner’s minor victories that give us cause for celebration, not least because these are the successes we come to expect in our own mundane lives. After all, most of us will never be soldiers on a battlefield or historical figures of note. William Stoner is just a guy trying to do his job as best he can without inviting undue hassle. He isn’t a bust in a museum or the subject of a documentary – he’s one of us. With this fact in mind, it isn’t too bold to say that William Stoner may just be one of the most human protagonists you’re ever likely to encounter.

In conclusion, I’m delighted to admit that I was wrong in my prior assumptions about the book. It’s no stuffy relic but a forgotten treasure which deserves to be read by everyone and I look forward to the day when we can agree that we are all, indeed, Stoners now.