Walking Wounded

One of my favourite books, even though I don’t think all the stories in it work. I’ve just read it for the third time, and I’m still as taken with these observations of ordinary lives as I was when I first read it in 1990. Arguments, seductions, bravado, dreams, epiphanies and failures – they’re all treated with sympathy, delicacy and understanding. They’re like little snapshots of emotion – hardly any story is more than 10 pages – and the best of them stick in your mind forever.

My favourites: Performance, Death of a Spinster and Tig.



Criticizing a classic is no fun. But I’m surprised this IS a classic. It’s not the subject matter I didn’t appreciate; it’s the style. Apart from the dog Sounder, nobody in the book has a name. They’re ‘the father’, ‘ the mother’ or ‘ the boy’. Then there’s the setting, which I’m guessing is somewhere in the southern USA after the Civil War? Or is it later, in the 1920s or 1930s? The book never specifies. And this lack of specificity applies to the book as a whole: it’s written in a cool, detached, third person narrative that makes it next to impossible – for me, at least – to feel involved. The emotion is described, not felt.

I imagine admirers will say the author is attempting a feeling, a mood. Rather than describing one particular moment, he wants to communicate a general experience of the racism that drives the plot. And that does come across. But it comes across at a distance. Because nobody has a name, because there’s practically no dialogue, because of that third person narrative, caring about the characters becomes an effort.

All that said, though, kids read differently. They take books at face value. If I’d read Sounder when I was 12, I probably would have loved it. It’s the non-stop-reading adult me who gets to analyze like this. I’d certainly never try to dissuade a child from picking this up.


Strange stories

Trying to understand Robert Aickman’s ‘strange’ stories – the term he preferred over ‘horror’ or ‘ghost’ – is like to trying to pick up smoke with a fork. For me they work like dreams you can feel fading away as you wake up: you remember much of what happened, but none of it quite makes sense, and in the end all you’re left with is a feeling of uneasiness you can’t put into words.

I don’t like all the stories in these four collections; I find some too vague for their own good, as though I’d been led down a dimly-lit passage to a brick wall, rather than the warped glass of a window onto a hidden world. But at his best – The Hospice; The Same Dog; The Trains; The Swords; Ringing the Changes; The Stains – nobody comes close to his peculiar achievement.

(Note: It took me about two years to read all the stories in these four books. I’ve always seen them as four parts of one volume, hence the inclusion of all four here.)



This is a tough book to read. I don’t mean the prose, which is elegant and lucid, but the subject matter. This is not a feel-good, we-all-triumph-in-the-end-and-the-band-comes-in-swinging tale. A farmer’s son discovers his vocation, teaches English literature all his life at the same university, marries badly, struggles with office politics and personal problems, dies and is barely remembered. In today’s winner-take-all world, Stoner would most likely be dismissed by many as a total loser.

But there is triumph in this often little-noticed life. However, to understand that triumph, you have to experience not just the small victories but also the pain, frustration, confusion and missed opportunities that Stoner encounters. You have to experience the man’s whole life. And that’s the tough part: living through the pain with him. I did, though, and I’m glad I did. This is truly life-affirming.


The Machine Gunners

World War II. English children take a machine gun from a downed Luftwaffe plane and use it as the centrepiece of a lair they build in the grounds of a bombed-out home. Just what kids would do. But human nature messes up their cosy game. Other kids want the gun. The police and the Home Guard are looking for it. And when adults start panicking at the (imagined) threat of a German invasion, events take a possibly lethal turn. It all ends well, but not happily. Once again, a children’s book that belies that category title. There are a lot of uncomfortable insights tucked away inside this gripping little story – which may well explain why it’s sold more than a million copies. It stays in your mind long after you finish it.


Edge of Dark Water

Joe Lansdale is my favourite writer. Period. I buy all his books without hesitation, something that’s hard on a limited budget with an author who’s so prolific. I don’t think this is one of his best – the pace is a little too slow at times – but all the regular Lansdale trademarks are there. Great sense of place – East Texas – vivid characters and crackling dialogue.

‘There ain’t no such person,’  Constable Sy said. ‘ Cletus ought to know better. He might as well stick a dollar in his ass and wait for the leprachauns to leave him a note.’

And it has one of the best titles. Not quite as good as my absolute all-time favourite title for any book, ever. That would be All Heads Turn When the Hunt Goes By, by John Farris. But almost.


Finn Finnegan

Thirteen-year-old boy moves in with his guardian and begins to learn the skills needed to fight the centuries-old enemy of his (part-mortal) people. Finn has a temper, doesn’t like all the boring rules, and can’t understand why his guardian is SO strict. Which pretty much describes me at that age and explains why I could relate to this a lot more than the one time I tried one of the Twilight stories.

There’s also a nice plot turn near the end, when social services mistake bravely-earned battle scars for domestic abuse; I love it when the real world intrudes on a secret fantasy one. And it’s the reason I’ll be reading the sequel.