Ketchup on Everything by Nathan Robinson. Book review.

ketchupIt’s dusk. A motor home pulls into the car park of a provincial diner somewhere in England. Inside are Elliot Tather and an urn containing his wife’s ashes. He is scouring the country for Evan, the son who went missing twenty years before.

 

In the course of the novella we hear about the day the boy disappeared, Elliot’s subsequent journey, and the events in the diner that night.

 

The heart of the story is the character of Elliot, a likeable chap who reminds me of every parent I’ve ever met. When he loses his son all the certainties in his life collapse; things he thought important fade to insignificance and the tracking down of his missing son becomes a life-long obsession.

 

This is not a novel for teenage gore-hounds. It deals with adult themes, and I don’t mean adult as a euphemism for sexual content. I mean that you’ll get more from this if you’re a parent and ever suffered that moment of panic when your child goes missing, or your child has had a serious illness. A parent will always feel the urge to do something, to sort it out, ride to the rescue, make everything better.

 

When your best efforts are ineffectual and irrelevant, you can doubt the whole point of your existence. If you can’t do that one simple thing, protect your child, you are worthless.

 

I don’t think any book I’ve ever read conveys this lonely helplessness better. Elliot’s horror is compounded by his responsibility to his wife, friends, relatives, and the need to show appreciation of their well meant efforts at consolation.

 

But Robinson tightens the emotional thumbscrews further. Often when reading a book with a tortured central character we think we would help ­if only we were there. We would offer support and ease the loneliness that so often afflicts great dramatic characters. In this case we know that we would be as useless as his well meaning friends, unless we could return his son to him. This reinforcement of Elliot’s isolation by forcing us to share his impotence is a masterstroke by Robinson, effectively amplifying his pain by resonating it with our own.

 

There is another distorted reflection of Elliot’s decimated family in the final scene in the diner, but I don’t want to even hint at what happens there, but I can tell you the story ends with hope, sadness and catharsis.

 

Ketchup on Everything is a short horror novel about the things that really scare adults in contemporary Britain, and one that will put you through the emotional wringer.

 

Highly recommended.

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The Moon King by Neil Williamson – book review

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So I’ve just read Neil Williamson’s debut novel, The Moon King. As quite often happens when I read great stuff I feel under-qualified to comment on it as he is (probably) cleverer than me and (definitely) a better writer than me. But that’s never stopped me before from spouting opinions so what the hell.

There is an island city ruled by immortal benevolent dictator The Lunane. When he founded the city he captured the moon and set it permanently above the city – a symbol of the city’s greatness and of his own power.

As a consequence, the moon is the dominant factor in the life of Glassholm (It’s essentially Glasgow and the Glassholmers are Glaswegians). At full moon, everybody is happy and Glassholm is one big party; as the moon wanes architecture crumbles, mechanical things fail and the mood of the populace sinks until at full dark all the lights go out and there is depression and violence.

This is how things have been for centuries, but suddenly things start to go awry: there is a murder at full; the luck monkeys deliver only bad luck; children made of water haunt the city, and the moon’s behaviour no longer correlates with the palace mathematicians’ calculations.

I won’t go into any more details of the story because I don’t want to spoil it for anyone intending to read the book. And everyone should read this book. It’s a rip-roaring adventure, a pacy crime thriller, an inventive alternate reality fantasy, and most of all a modern fable. The prose is sweet enough to be almost invisible and the characters all genuinely breathe.

All of that is enough to make it a worthwhile read, but where it gets really interesting, and where this reviewer starts to feel out of his depth, is in the subtext.

The city, in order to cope with the monthly cycle of decay and repair, is sturdy and solid, the people pragmatic and stoical, surviving the dark days with a mix of bleak humour and bloody-mindedness. They are exactly like Glaswegians, and perhaps because of that I kept feeling correlations, noticing the other ways it reflected the city that spawned me.

A major theme of the novel is the cyclical nature of life, though in The Moon King the only cycle that counts is the lunar one. His description of the full moon revels sound not much different from Sauchiehall street on a Saturday night: lots of loud drunk happy people, uninhibited and doing and saying things they’ll regret tomorrow. And the undercurrent of unease in this party atmosphere, the feeling that failing to join in might mark you as an outsider or a target, is portrayed perfectly in the novel. Glasgow on a Tuesday night is a very different place.

The cycle of decay and repair happens in Glasgow too, but over a year rather than a month. Our winters are harsh, but not so cold that the temperature stays below freezing for weeks at a time. Water seeps into cracks in walls or roads, freezes and widens them, again and again over the winter. Then the January storms come and roof tiles, trees and trampolines fly around causing more damage. With the spring sunshine come the workies repairing potholes and rebuilding architecture.

Another major theme is conservatism, linked with complacency and fear of change, even when the status quo is deeply flawed and a bit sinister. In a way it could be taken as a comment on the current Scottish independence debate, if he hadn’t told me he’d started writing it nine years ago.

And finally, perhaps its most blatantly fabulist theme is the danger of trying to interfere with nature. We might think we’re in charge but she will have her way in the end – even a thousand years of the illusion of control can crumble when nature retakes the reins.

Some of it is still spinning around in my head and I’ll quite possibly change my mind about everything I just wrote in the coming weeks.

Overall, this is a highly rewarding reading experience that works on as many levels as you want it to. He leaves a lot of the details vague, giving us room to fill in our own ideas, showing the reader some respect. Extra marks just for that Neil.

Starers, by Nathan Robinson – Book Review.

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I’ve read several of Nathan Robinson’s short stories, including his excellent collection Devil Let Me Go and I’ve generally enjoyed them, but Starers is the first substantial piece of his I’ve encountered.  And I was impressed.

 

He starts by introducing us to a normal family: a married couple, their teenage daughter and his drunken brother.  He doesn’t rush the first part of the book, but it doesn’t drag – we get involved and interested in the kind of problems that any family might encounter.  The relationships are handled sensitively and I got a feel very quickly for the family dynamic.

 

The first strange thing we see is an old man standing at a bus stop, then a neighbour standing naked in her garden just staring at the family’s house.  More people join the crowd and nobody does anything – they just stand there and stare.  And it’s the creepiest and most effective thing I’ve read this year.

 

The build of tension and the strain on the already fragile familial relationships are beautifully portrayed, and the implied, non-specific threat of the ever-growing horde of starers makes for a claustrophobic and volatile atmosphere, which inevitably escalates.

 

I’m reluctant to tell you more for fear of spoiling your enjoyment if you read it, but a crowd of people standing watching a house is only the appetizer – much more stuff happens as the story progresses.

 

This is self-published, and there are a few small slips in grammar or style, but nothing that will stop you having a great time with this book.  I hope that one day soon Mr. Robinson can land a proper publishing deal and get a professional editor to work with to give his work that final polish.  As it stands though, it’s a more satisfying and certainly a scarier book than several things I’ve received from mainstream publishing houses in the last few months.

Doctor Sleep review

ImageWe all know that bad things happen to children, not just in Stephen King books, and childhood trauma can have life-long psychological effects on the adults they become.  Danny Torrance was six during the events of The Shining, so it’s hardly surprising that he is as emotionally damaged as anyone who has survived violence or child abuse.  By the time this sequel really gets going he’s in his thirties, alcoholic, prone to violent fits of temper and tortured by guilt over the things he’s done in his life.

In this novel, three stories happen in parallel: Danny is coping with assorted supernatural unpleasantness and battling his own shortcomings; we follow a little girl with a very powerful shine, and there is a group of people who prolong their lives, vampire-like, by ingesting the steam that comes from shining children as they’re murdered.  Needless to say, the stories converge and mayhem ensues.  As is often the case with King, we can see most of main plot events coming 100 pages in advance, but I’m still not going to tell you much more here.  You should read it yourself.

Although the ghost of The Shining dominates the book, I was more reminded of other early King works.  A lot of the second half is about a disparate group who are thrown together to battle the evil, in a similar way as Salem’s Lot; and the super-powered little girl is reminiscent of the protagonist in Firestarter.  It might also seem that he’s revisited the writing style of that era too, though I think it would be truer to say that King’s prose hasn’t really changed much in the last forty years.

Stephen King is an easy target for literary snobs.  He over-writes, tells us things twice and foreshadows more than is good for him.  He likes to make sure we get everything and his subtext isn’t usually very deeply buried.  Critics tend to compare him to great prose stylists like Peter Straub or Ramsey Campbell, and say that King is clumsy and overpointed by comparison, but really they’re all missing the point.

Stephen King is a storyteller, one of the best.  I read this novel quickly and enjoyed every moment.  It’s evocative, character-based, and highly readable, partly because of the repetition and overwriting.

For comparison, read this and then pick up one of Ramsey Campbell’s classics – maybe The Hungry Moon – I’m sure you all have that.  Campbell’s dense prose requires your full attention.  If you let your mind wander or your eye glide over a paragraph you’ve probably missed something important because there are no surplus words.  Any literary scholar will tell you that Campbell is the superior craftsman, but I don’t think it’s the case that King is less skilful than his more respectable peers – he’s doing a different job, and he’s damn good at it.

I’ve come up with half a dozen analogies to help me understand this myself, and my favourite so far is the food one.  Reading Campbell is like going to a Michelin starred restaurant and ordering the plat du jour.  You know it’s going to be brilliant, even if it’s not to your taste, and the flavours and textures will be expertly combined, though some of the touches will be subtle.  It’s as good as food gets.

But we can’t live on such rich fare every day – sometimes you want a cheeseburger, or a fish supper, or mince and tatties like your granny did it.  Perhaps Chez Campbell isn’t the best place for those treats.  That’s when we walk round the corner to King’s Diner and enjoy the meal just as much.

Don’t dis’ the King