Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Son of Xanos ~ Rodney Ballenden

Son of Xanos is the first book of a four book series which tells the story of the life-journey of Rodino Xanos, with a strong autobiographical thread that runs through the novel as it relates to the author’s life experiences, and his quest to find answers to soul searching questions.

When we first meet Rodino, the Son of Xanos, he is a young boy growing up on the island of Crete during the Greek Civil War in the 1940s.  After the death of his father and an unforgivable act committed by Rodino himself, the young boy runs away from home into the mountains and begins an odyssey that will span across continents and decades.

Rodino is trying to find his place in the world but with no stable father figure to guide him he is easily led into dangerous situations and wherever he goes he finds revolution, unrest and war.  But Rodino’s experiences of growing up in Crete, surviving the civil war and travelling for a time with a band of Gypsies, give him the ability to survive with little resources.

People drift in and out of Rodino’s life, as he drifts in and out of theirs, but unfortunately he does not leave them any better for knowing him as he is at times selfish, very childlike despite all his experiences, and careless.  As Rodino grows older you like him less and less, and here the author has done his job.  Ballenden doesn’t want us to fall in love with Rodino right away; he wants to take us on a journey so that at the end of his book series we are one with the Cretan and we fully understand his life choices. 

The novel is broken up into various parts, and I thought that part one was the most beautifully written; it is poetic with an almost dreamlike quality to it.  Son of Xanos marks my final and probably favourite “indie” read for this year.

For more information on this author and Son of Xanos please visit:


The Best of The Best of The Best, Sir!

I always laugh at Will Smith’s delivery of this line in Men In Black, but of course to have the drive to be the best of the best is not something to laugh at but something to strive for, so just lately I've been searching for the books that are considered to be the best in their genre, or literary style.

What is considered to be the best is of course subjective depending on what it is we are each looking for in what we read.  I look for use of language; characters that I will never forget (such as Owen Meany) as well as a damn good yarn that will make me think or, in the case of horror, will unsettle me.

Best Short Story

The Dead by James Joyce is widely considered to be the best short story written in the English Language.  It is the last story in the Dubliner’s collection but it also works well as a stand alone novella.  It was the title, of course, that brought it to my morbid attention when I stumbled across it on iTunes!

The story centres on an annual dance given by two elderly sisters in Ireland around Christmas time. The main character is an insecure and socially awkward man by the name of Gabriel, who attends the party with his wife. We experience some of Gabriel’s awkwardness as he makes his way through the dances, dinner and speeches.  When the party is over Gabriel and his wife return to their hotel and it is there that she reveals something shocking to him.  I was expecting some really awful revelation, but it isn’t so bad.  What it does do though is make you think about the people that you know from your past and the influence that they have had on your life.  It also highlights that no matter how much you think you know somebody, you never really know them.

This story is beautifully written and you do feel for Gabriel as he deals with his wife’s revelation.  I had never read James Joyce before and I think that this is probably a perfect introduction.

The Funniest Novel

The second book I decided to read was on a list of 100 best books and was noted as being one of the funniest books written in English.  I made one of my monthly themes at book club a humorous read so that I could try Three Men in a Boat by Jerome K Jerome.  Written in 1889 it tells of three men, and Montmorency the dog, who take a trip on the Thames.  I could imagine this being written by Clive James as the delivery is very droll and pretty funny.  As well as the dramas on the river there are plenty of funny asides.  I’m not sure if I agree that it is the funniest book ever written as I’m currently reading a Gerald Durrell which has made me laugh plenty, but it is hugely enjoyable.

Apparently the trip is easy to re-create and many fans of the book travel the route and stop in at the pubs and inns mentioned along the way.

Greatest (Living) Author

Philip Roth
There are a few authors that are listed as our greatest living writers – Phillip Roth, Don Delillo and Jose Saramago amongst others. I decided to try Phillip Roth and I've nearly finished Sabbath’s Theatre. and I sincerely hope none of my book-clubbers pick this one to read as it is extremely licentious and explicit!  Mickey Sabbath is definitely someone you would not want in your life, but the writing is excellent and despite the subject matter I am (surprisingly) enjoying it. This is because Roth makes us see Mickey Sabbath, a sad old lecher, as a man trying to make sense of death and dying and the fact that he has left nothing of value to show for his sixty odd years on earth.  He is a man baring his miserable soul as his life winds down.

Don Delillo has 10 out of 16 books on the 1001 books you must read before you die listing that I follow, which is equalled only by Charles Dickens.  Surely this would make him THE greatest author?  I have never read him so Ratner’s Star will be going on my reading list very soon.

The Best Book Ever Written

So, popular opinion has it that Don Quixote is probably the best novel ever written.  That’s an amazing achievement for a book that was published in the early 1600s and written at a time when there would not have been many actual fiction novels being produced. 

Don Quixote
I've always been interested in this character ever since I inherited Don Quixote and Sancho Panza as two large Royal Doulton toby jugs from my much loved Grandmother.  I recently watched a made-for-TV movie starring John Lithgow and Bob Hoskins based on the novel and I also got hold of Lost in La Mancha about the failed filming of The Man who Killed Don Quixote which was to star Johnny Depp (it’s a great movie about the pitfalls of movie making, especially if the director is Terry Gilliam, and well worth watching).

Having an idea about the storyline didn’t really prepare me for the amount of WORDS that there are on each page, it’s very daunting each time I pick it up.  I've gone from audio to Kindle back to audio in order to try and get through this monster-piece.  From what I have read so far (half) it has mainly been very entertaining but there are some awfully long monologues and short stories which detract from the plot. The best of these though was the story of Anselmo and Lothario titled The Impertinent Curiosity which I enjoyed very much, and I have since learned that the term Lotharian was derived from this story.

Sancho Panza
Don Quixote is an aging tall thin man who, after reading many books on chivalry, is lost in his own world of knight errantry.  He believes that everything is under enchantment so that those around him can’t see what is really going on – such as the windmills really being giants, and the wine sack at the end of the bed really being an ogre.  Sancho Panza is a poor short squat farmer who is lured into being Quixote’s long suffering squire with the promise of being given an island at the end of their adventures.  Along with Quixote’s equally thin horse Rocinante and Panza’s beloved donkey, the two make quite a visual pair as they wreak havoc throughout the Spanish countryside.

The humour that worked back in the 1600s still works today amazingly, and Cervantes is quite cheeky in some of his observations, sometimes relating comments back to his own authorship.  I confess for me it has been a bit of a trial to read (almost as painful as Melmoth the Wanderer) but the characters and the humour will help me see it through to the end.

Until next time,


Tuesday, July 9, 2013

My Shirley Jackson Discovery

There are some writers who you read about, and whose work is recommended over and over again, yet when you look for their books they are either unavailable or hellishly expensive.  Robert Aickman is one author who comes to mind in this regard (though thankfully his work is slowly being reprinted) and the other is Shirley Jackson. I've been trying to get a copy of her novels for quite some time and was really pleased to see a couple of titles finally arrive at my library last month and, on checking out Fishpond, I was able to pick up a few at a reasonable price.

My first read was We Have Always Lived in the Castle and I thought this was a delightful tongue in cheek study of madness and control. The story centres on the Blackwood sisters who live in their family mansion on the outskirts of a small village.  It is well known that the entire Blackwood family were poisoned during a family dinner, with Constance Blackwood being arrested for their murder.  Constance was released though, without charge, and she returned home to take care of her younger sister Merricat and their infirm Uncle Julian.

Shirley Jackson
Mary Katherine Blackwood (Merricat) is a bit of a wild child, she believes herself to have magical powers and, although she is around eighteen, she spends her spare time running and hiding in the woods and playing with her cat.  Her internal dialogues show great disdain for those around her whilst elevating herself into some kind of Supreme Being (“Bow all your heads to our adored Mary Katherine”).  She also has a strong hold over Constance who treats and humours her like a young child (“Silly Merricat”). 

The two sisters have a regular routine of housework, shopping and cooking, and this routine is very important to Merricat.  So, when a cousin drops in unexpectedly to stay for a while and threatens to upset their daily rituals (and Merricat’s hold on her sister) she takes extreme measures to get rid of him.

Whilst reading this novel I was thinking of the phrase ‘fat girls and feeders’ - Merricat isn't fat but Constance is definitely a feeder, and food is a major theme for the novel.  In fact, the ending is almost fairy-tale like with the villagers paying homage to the girls with food.  I really enjoyed reading this one.

The Haunting of Hill House is what I guess you would call a traditional haunted house story, and I found Eleanor the central character quite interesting and someone I could identify with (she’s a chronic daydreamer and so am I).  Eleanor has been invited to take part in a study of the supposed supernatural happenings at Hill House and was chosen due to her experience with poltergeist activity when she was younger.

I remember that the original movie really frightened me, however when reading the novel you are a good half way into it before things really start to happen but Jackson shows quite an art in stealthily unsettling your nerves.  My favourite scene has Eleanor clutching her friend Theodora’s hand whilst she sleeps.  It is pitch dark in the bedroom that they are sharing and there are babbling noises and shrieks coming from the adjoining room.  As things reach a climax Theodora sits up suddenly to see what is going on at which point Eleanor leaps out of bed asking in terror whose hand had she just been holding because it obviously hadn’t been Theodora’s – reading this just prior to going to sleep was a real goose-bump moment for me!  I didn’t enjoy this one as much as We Have Always Lived in the Castle, but it is still definitely worth reading, especially for the opening paragraph which you will find yourself reading several times over (the same paragraph also closes the novel).

The Lottery and Other Stories is a different sort of read again.  This selection of short stories are unusual to say the least and I must confess that some of them I just didn't ‘get’. The main problem I had with the collection was that most of the stories just didn't mean anything, or they didn’t have any sort of ending.  Many of the character’s are known by their title and surname only (ie Mr White, Mrs Straw) and I found this made it a little hard to read with the characters seemingly faceless and impersonal.

However there were a few gems to be found and aside from the title story I really liked Like Mother Used to Make which is about a middle aged man called David who has got his apartment just how he likes it – it is homely, the colours work well together, and everything has its place.  He is investing in silver tableware piece by piece and he is very proud of what he has bought to date. His neighbour however is slovenly, her apartment is a mess and not homely at all and this really disgusts him.  The story takes a nice twist when he is entertaining this neighbour one evening, showing off his culinary skills and silverware, when they are joined unexpectedly by a friend of the neighbour and David becomes the third wheel and a stranger in his own apartment.

The funniest story in this collection is My Life with R H Macy, and I actually laughed out loud at the ending. It was brilliantly done.

You do notice that order and obsession are the primary themes in Jackson’s writing.  Some people have made the comment that these stories are an extension of her neuroses, and she does seem to be quite an enigmatic character who had a few problems, but she is definitely a writer whose work I would like to explore more.

For further reading on Shirley Jackson visit: http://shirleyjackson.org/