To The Lighthouse – Virginia Woolf, 1927

Micro-review. We’ve had Woolf’s classic on the shelves in a 60s Penguin edition for years, and finally the time was right to pick it up. I knew virtually nothing about it, only that it’s often talked about as a partner to Joyce’s Ulysses as one of the milestones of early-20th-century modernism. (It’s also a fraction of the length.) Given how much I enjoyed Ulysses, I was looking forward to this.

But I nearly put it down and didn’t pick it up again.

I was enjoying the read, Woolf uses language beautifully of course, but I hit the half-way point and I just wasn’t *grabbed* by it. It seemed like one of those art milestones that you can’t read properly any more because all of its innovations have since become cliches. The stream of consciousness shifting perspective Woolf offers has become a commonplace stylistic trick. Heck, I’ve done it myself. Combine that with a busy run that saw days go by between chances to knock off a few pages, and I almost lost momentum entirely.

Then I hit the second phase of the book. I had no idea it was coming; a sudden change in tone and style and scope, crossing decades after spending dozens of pages in the minutia of a single day. Then the narrative eased into a third and final phase, another intense dive into character POV across the moments of a single day, a decade on from the first section.

And I *loved* it.

I can’t think of another time my reaction to a book changed so completely in the span of a few pages. The structural moves Woolf made completely won me over. Simple and powerful, retroactively making the first section seem fresh by the unexpected (to me) contrast with the final section. I think I’ll be going back to this one in a few years.

(Also: I imagine this book would be frequently studied in english lit courses. I am glad I never had to apply the scalpel of analysis to this – I doubt it could survive the experience. This seems to me a book to be felt rather than understood, even though there is so much in it to be understood. That’s a definite contrast to the cheeky gamesmanship of Joyce, who seems to be clearly writing with such analysis in mind.)

Buy Some Books

Over the last while I’ve been working through a stack of unread books by friends of mine. They are good. You should consider using your human money to add them to your stack of unread books.


The Guilty One

Not a crime book, despite being shelved in a lot of Crime sections, but it has the focus and drive of a screenplay – this sure ain’t a ponderous tale. There’s a lawyer defending a child accused of murder, while he himself is reminded of his own rough childhood and his relationship with the woman who fostered and then adopted him. The beauty of this book is that second relationship. Sometimes the imagery doesn’t quite land and you might see some twists coming but there are plenty of vivid characters here and Minnie is the most fascinating.

You’ll find this one at your local bookstore, in the UK/Aus/NZ at least. Little Brown have been pushing it hard, it was a Richard & Judy pick, etc. The author, Lisa Ballantyne, was a workmate & drinking buddy & occasional writing companion in my Scotland days, and I couldn’t imagine a nicer person to have a big publishing success story.


The Fly Papers Book 1: The Flytrap Snaps

A great, fun read for young’uns (I dunno, age 8-10 maybe? Who knows from age appropriateness) – kid adventure about a boy who befriends a sentient mutant venus flytrap and gets caught up in sinister goings-on. Great characters (particularly every single female character) and an even greater setting – a kind of kids-imagination version of what a filmmaking town would be like. This was nominated for children’s book of the year and I can see why. Johanna is based in the Wairarapa, and is an excellent lady.
(Also I want to mention that physically this is a beautiful book: well-designed, well-made. Johanna’s partner Walter was responsible for that, I think.)


Paranoia: Reality Optional

The dystopic satirical world of Paranoia has long been under-recognised as one of the greatest of all “story worlds” (to use the currently trendy transmedia jargon). It is a future society in thrall to a paranoid computer, while labyrinthine conspiracies and equally labyrinthine bureaucracy reduce everyday life into a series of catch-22 dilemmas. Created for a role-playing game in the early 80s, it has enjoyed ridiculously few forays into other media – three spin-off novels in the 80s, a 6-part comic series in the 90s, and now finally in the 10s there’s another run at using this world outside of gaming.

This particular story is a typically Paranoia combination of madcap hijinks and satirical brutality. It follows one member of Alpha Complex, Jerome-G, as he tries to make sense of the insane world in which he lives. There’s plenty of great laughs and action along the way. Oddly enough, the one section that didn’t quite work for me was where Jerome-G finds himself joining a troubleshooter team for a mission – which is the fundamental mode of Paranoia the game version. Great games and the great stories have different needs and rhythms, and here’s a good instance of that. The diversion doesn’t last long, anyway, and it’s still entertaining watching a typical Paranoia screwjob go even more out of control than usual.

Reality Optional was written by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, who is one of the nicest people ever to exist. This is his first novel, and given he’s about to become a dad to twins any day now it might be the last for a while…

This is only available in ebook. Free preview chapters at the link!


Mansfield With Monsters

Local publisher Steam Press released this great collection of reworked Katherine Mansfield stories last year, and to everyone’s surprise it won over the literary establishment as well as the genre folk. The Cowens have a wicked, understated sense of humour in how they choose to subvert each of the chosen Mansfield stories, and in many cases these literature-hacks reveal new aspects of Mansfield’s work. Some of them are big and almost goofy, others are sly and mean, others still portentous and sinister. I dipped in and out of this between other reading, and it was consistently rewarding. I loved it.

This collection was the work of husband-and-wife cool noodles Debbie & Matt Cowens. They have been making cool stuff of various kinds since before I knew ’em, and that’s a long time ago now. It’s awesome that one of their cool things is getting this kind of attention.

These are all good things to read. I recommend them all. Of course I am biased in every case, but hey, I could’ve just said nothing at all!

Spangle by Gary Jennings (1988)

In 1989, aged 13, I came first in my class in school and was asked to choose a book to receive at prizegiving. The pickings, as I recall, were not rich. I selected a hardback edition of Spangle by Gary Jennngs, primarily because it appeared to have lots and lots of pages and so was the best value for money available. (Plus, I remember thinking, if I didn’t like the actual book it would be thick enough to cut a space inside as a super-sekret book safe.)

Twenty-one years later I finally read it. It’s about a travelling carnival that moves from the post-Civil War U.S. to roam all over Europe. Some ex-soldiers join up, and then as it travels about other people join up, or leave, or die, or get married. That’s the whole book summed up for you. Lots happens, but not much goes on.

This is not a well-written book. The prose is leaden, the plotting is forced and telegraphed, the characterisation is close to nonexistent. The author’s copious research is painfully evident, with all his characters happily citing facts to each other. (“Did you know, John, that…”)

Nevertheless it was a happy-enough diversion. I made my way through the 800+ pages almost entirely by reading a few pages to wake my brain up before getting out of bed each morning. The author had clearly researched the dickens out of this thing, and it was a pleasant way to encounter lots of trivia about the lives of travelling carnivals and everyday life in the late 1800s.

Also notable: the fact that if my 13-year-old self had actually read this book, he would have been able to write his own cheque at school, for this gigantic tome is extensively salted with sex scenes involving a wide variety of participants. (In those pre-internet days, you worked with what you had.)

Indeed, Gary Jennings was known for his mix of research and sex scenes – trying to find out about him after finishing the book I stumbled on an account by some archaeologists who both queried some of his research and appreciated his enthusiastically pulpy titillation. Certainly the most sexually explicit book given out as a school prize that year. So in that sense, and that sense alone, I call this a belated win.