Book Reviews | Ancient Gods, Fallen Angels and Other Dissolute Beings Awaiting the End of the World

I’ve stopped logging my reading into Goodreads, mainly because I felt it was gamifying the experience for me far too much, and this really not the kind of headspace I want to be in when considering what I Wish to Read, what I’m Currently Reading and what I’ve just Finished Reading.

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As with most pseudo-social and insidiously easy-to-use interfaces, the Goodreads model only appears to respect the fluid ebb and flow that characterises the reading experience for most people. But in actual fact, asking us to list and show off our reading is just another way of adding undue pressure and exhibitionism over something that should be experienced in the deep inner recesses of our mind.

So rather than ‘clocking in’ – an even better term than logging in, I think, implying an employee-like schedule/adherence to the gods of social media – I thought I’d chat a little bit about some of the books I’ve recently enjoyed, in a way that’s hopefully more germane to the intuitive and flowing pleasure that reading them implies.

Mythos by Stephen Fry

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Perhaps opting to go for the audio route with this one was the best decision I could possibly make, as Stephen Fry’s self-narrated jaunt across the annals of Greek mythology is delivered in the lilting, bordering-on-placid notes that make him such a becalming yet enriching presence for many.

As regards the content itself, the tales are of course unbeatable in their timelessness, though Fry’s expansive approach is friendly and accessible, even if it risks ending up on the wrong side of avuncluar some of the time.

Much has been made of Mythos being published roughly around the same time as Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology, and the comparison illustrates precisely what I mean: where Gaiman retells key episodes from Nordic myth in lean, seductive cuts of self-contained story, Fry plays the encyclopedic know-it-all card. Not content to simply give us the stories, he will emphasise the linguistic and cultural strands that characterise the gods and personages that populate the myths.

It makes for a far ‘baggier’ affair than what Gaiman has to offer in his shoring up of the deities from up north, but it’s no less entertaining for it, and Fry made for an amiable companion during my self-administered work commute.

A History of Heavy Metal by Andrew O’Neill

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While I did not go for the audiobook route when it came to this hilarious and unputdownable trip across a music genre that defined me as a young man (it was a chance find at a local bookstore — quite rare, given that Malta is rapidly becoming swallowed up by a giant chain on that front), O’Neill’s voice quickly burrowed its way into my brain.

Unapologetically subjective (“Whitesnake can fuck off”) and in no way a conventionally authoritative, sober historical tome, it nonetheless reads like an impassioned and thoroughly lived-in love letter to an expansive, beguiling and often problematic musical genre whose intensity is often impossible to recapture in any other medium.

And that’s just it: a sober analysis would not have passed muster — it would have failed to capture the knotted, abrasive wall of sound that characterises that amorphous term, ‘metal’*. O’Neill is our man for the job. A black magic-practicing stand-up comedian who is also the vocalist and guitarist for the Victorian-themed hardcore punk band The Men That Will Not Be Blamed for Nothing. Can you really think of anyone else able to take up that mantle with the requisite amount of jagged style and grace?

The book made me ‘LOL irl’ in a way that only the likes of Terry Pratchett have done for me in the past, and it was also a contributing factor to me saying ‘fuck yeah!’ when a couple of friends suggested we go see Slayer in Glasgow on a month’s notice. Never underestimate the power of literature to influence impressionable young minds, folks.

Lucifer: Princeps by Peter Grey

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While Lucifer may feature heavily in all things (or at least, most things) metal, Peter Grey’s careful and thorough exploration of the evolution of the figure we’ve come to know as Lucifer sternly discourages any such shallow appropriation. Published in a gorgeous edition from Scarlet Imprint (which Grey runs with his partner Alkistis Dimech), Lucifer: Princeps is a beguiling and not-easy read, cleaving close to Biblical sources in an attempt to closely trace the most significant instances of the Lucifer figure, in what also serves as a preamble volume for Grey’s upcoming, Lucifer: Praxis.

With scholarly precision and an impatience for romanticised reimaginings of Lucifer and all he stands for, neither is Grey dismissive of the figure he considers to be the repository of Western witchcraft. Instead, as he writes in the introductory chapter (aptly titled ‘A History of Error), “My aim is to be effective in sorcery, rather than be ensorcelled”.

Long John Silver by Björn Larsson

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A life of itinerant freedom has always held a fascination for me, mainly because it represented a brighter flip-side to the many limitations otherwise imposed on a former ‘third country national’ such as myself. So of course, I will be magnetically drawn towards pirate narratives, and Larsson’s novel, which I found in a gorgeous bookstore in Rome after having Googled it as Black Sails withdrawal kicked in, provided that… and more.

Indeed, this novel may have been published in the early nineties, but its gritty revisionism is closer to the spirit of something like Black Sails — and the plethora of unapologetically violent anti-hero narratives that populate the crates of contemporary ‘prestige TV’ — while also using a seductive first-person narration to draw us into the story of Long John Silver, both before and after the events of Treasure Island.

In fact, the true genius of Larsson’s book is not its apt emulation of old-school adventure literature, and neither is it his evocative and often disturbing ‘maturation’ of the same (the slave ship segments don’t make for an easy read, for one thing, but this only helps Silver rise in our estimation: he is a no-bullshit narrator, at the very least). It is that Larsson’s Silver plays the same trick he played on young Jim Hawkins. He gets you on his side.

The Cabin at the End of the World by Paul Tremblay

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Ever since his twisty, layered, rich and creepily satisfying fourth novel A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay has been on top of the list of writers to read for horror fans of all stripes, down from little old me and up to the likes of Stephen King himself.

The Cabin at the End of the World strips down his approach from the formally ambitious acrobatics of ‘Ghosts’ and is even more close-hewn and minimal than its immediate predecessor, The Disappearance at Devil’s Creek (which shows up in a sneaky cameo, an Easter Egg for true Tremblay fans).

Telling the increasingly harrowing story of a small family whose vacation at a remote rural cabin is cut short by a group of seemingly ‘well-meaning’ cultists, Tremblay’s latest initially reads like a screenplay, with his present-tense sentences flitting perspective from one character to another while maintaining a fluid third-person narration throughout.

It’s a shrewd formal choice that fits both the apocalyptic ticking clock that characterises the story — a looming axe that’s about to drop  (or is it?) — that generates both basic suspense while providing a rich fount of thematically-relevant ambiguity. But what really impressed me is that in the end, it actually feels less like a film than a harrowing stage play: something Sarah Kane or Philip Ridley could have written.

The limited setting and cast of characters makes it so: there’s something classically Greek about how this all pans out — all in real time, and forcing us to ask hard questions to ourselves, and our culture at large.

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If you enjoyed these mini book reviews, please consider buying my own novel, Two. It’s a coming-of-age story set in Malta that blends realism and fantasy, and it has been described as “dreamy, and poetic and often exquisite“. Find out more about it here.

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*Though I humbly put forward the ‘Thor vs Surtur‘ scene at the beginning of Thor: Ragnarok (2017), set to Led Zeppelin’s ‘Immigrant Song’, as a pretty apposite distillation of what metal at its best should be all about.  

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Fighting fire with Fire: Hunger Games & Creativity 101

Hearts and minds: Jennifer Lawrence and Josh Hutcherson.

Watching the second instalment of the Hunger Games film franchise was a curious experience, more so than the original.

I’m not familiar with the Suzanne Collins source novels, so I’m coming into the series free of any expectations. What struck me more than anything this time around was the sheer extent with which the franchise appears to be playing a have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too game with its viewers.

It’s a critique of our entertainment structures, of course: the idea of kids forced into televised gladiatorial combat is disturbingly close to what we see on reality television.

But there’s thrills and enjoyment to be had in watching our protagonists attempting to survive.

I’m feeling generous, so I’ll say this is actually a reminder of how good, compelling stories should be about that immersive experience: about riveting your attention, thematic paradoxes be damned. Stories aren’t uni-directional messages. The good ones have a capacity of altering their shape in whichever way they deem is best for their survival.

Often, they’ll latch onto classic predecessors. In the case of Catching Fire, Francis Lawrence made a very wise decision in this regard. He channelled one of the most vaunted, enduring ‘middle chapters’ from sci-fi/fantasy: The Empire Strikes Back.

Come the end of Catching Fire – mild spoilers ahead – the ‘rebellion’ is dispersed, and our heroine has been physically compromised (see: Luke sans hand). Worse, her partner-in-justice has been captured (see: Carbonite Han Solo).

But apart from this narrative puzzle-arrangement, a pervasive darkness is also allowed to settle over the entire film – the feeling that things have to get worse before they can get better.

There’s no dictum, no Creativity 101 cliché I like more than ‘Whatever Works’. Zeitgeist-prodding satire married with classic Joseph Campbell/Star Wars riffs definitely works for Catching Fire.

I wonder how much of this is deliberate; a strategic narrative positioning for maximum effect. A film adaptation, I suspect, would be more invested in that kind of thing – particularly a film adaptation of this size and financial girth.

But from my own experiences of writing fiction, I know that it’s virtually impossible to remember what your original ingredients were. Once the stew starts to simmer, it all tends to coalesce into one colour.

Again, only if the story is good. Only if you’re being honest, if you’re letting – or training – yourself to tell the story as consistently as you can, if you’re giving it all the attention it needs. Only if you’re using the right ingredients, at the right time.