Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

This short novel chronicles an adventure in the life of a sea-faring drifter called Marlow around 1900. Most of the action takes place aboard a steamboat travelling up the Congo river. Marlow’s destination is deep into the jungle, to the farthest point any white man has travelled. His aim, to find and retrieve an Englishman called Kurtz. Along the way, Marlow learns a great deal about Kurtz, through people at the various stations along the river. It seems Kurtz has set himself up as a feared leader among the natives.

I’m conscious of the fact that I’m not making this book sound very interesting. If anything, the plot itself is fairly uncomplicated and run-of-the-mill. But the strength of the story lies in the way that Conrad describes what his characters go through. You might expect Marlow to marvel at the beauty of the jungle, but what happens is quite the opposite. The jungle is described as a terrifying place, almost prehistoric in nature. What Marlow experiences most of all is the fear of leaving civilisation so far behind. And when we finally meet Kurtz, we don’t find an Englishman who has brought civilisation to the uncivilised, but a man who has abandoned civilisation, seduced by the anarchy around him. The author himself was a mariner, and I get the feeling that some of what he’s writing is autobiographical.

I found this to be a difficult novel to understand fully. Other reviews have described it as dealing with moral struggles. I felt the story was much too vague in that respect. The novel is also difficult to read because of the way paragraphing has been handled. At one point, a single paragraph ran across three full book pages. Why? Well, the story is written from the point of view of Marlow, aboard a boat on the Thames, narrating his adventure to his shipmates. The entire story is written as one large quotation. I’ve seen this done very well, such as Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne. But Conrad seems to feel this this format won’t allow him to space his paragraphs out in normal fashion. For instance, when two people are speaking together, Conrad rarely if ever takes a new paragraph each time the conversation switches between persons. Instead, quotes are sandwiched together, one after another, along the same paragraph.

I got some enjoyment out of this novel, but as I was reading it, I found myself being glad that it was so tiny (under 100 pages). With prose that was this awkward to read, I couldn’t have faced a longer book.

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Unbeliever by Robert Swindells

Is religion a good thing or a bad thing? It’s a question I don’t feel comfortable answering, because it’s something I’ve kept changing my mind about over the course of my life. One thing I will say, though: It’s a dangerous thing. It can change your life; it can give you peace and happiness; it can torture your mind; it can give your life purpose; it can change your whole personality; it can revolutionise your lifestyle; it can make you throw your common sense to the wind. And those things are what this novel is all about.

Malcolm Henshaw becomes involved in a Christian sect known as “The Little Children”. Their beliefs are pretty outlandish in today’s scientific world, but Malcolm is convinced he has found God. He is on a quest to eliminate “wrong living” from his life, and more importantly, the lives of his wife and daughters. It’s religious fundamentalism. No fun, too much damn, and completely mental, as the saying goes. Malcolm’s teenage daughter Annabel comes off worst, with her natural interests in boys and pop music abruptly taken away by her father’s legalistic demands. It’s not long before the family is thrown into domestic chaos.

This story struck a real chord with me because I lived a lot of it. I’m the guy who once “got saved” and drove his mates round the bend, completely blind his own coldness and disloyalty. It took me a long time to work through that phase of my life, but at least I came out the other end reasonably sane (and a whole lot less gullible). Some people don’t.

The book touches on some very important issues: Is religion a means of controlling people? Is it about having a comforting crutch to lean on when life is dark? Can praying sometimes just be an excuse for cowardly inaction? Don’t get me wrong; this not an anti-God book. It’s not even an anti-religion book. All it’s trying to do is make young people cautious about believing everything they hear. I applaud Swindells for daring to write honestly and brutally about a taboo subject. I urge every young person to read it. It’s an eye-opener.

Abomination by Robert Swindells

“Abomination” makes this novel sound like a trashy monster yarn. Nothing could be further from the truth. It’s a heart-warming story about a twelve-year-old girl called Martha doing her best to fit in at school when cruel circumstances force her to be very different from her peers. No, she hasn’t got some horrible deformity to deal with (if you’re still thinking along the “monster” line); it’s her parents. They are religious nutcases. Belonging to a vaguely Christian cult known as “The Righteous”, they force Martha to eat plain food and wear home-made clothes. Most importantly of all, Martha must never, ever, bring a friend home. And as a result, she has no friends. Enter Scott, the new kid at school. A moment of absentminded kindness to Martha causes him to be branded as much an outcast as she is. And so, they find comfort in each other. But what will happen to their friendship when Scott wants to visit her house? She can never let that happen, for her family has a dreadful secret.

Swindells has a knack for short, snappy chapter divisions that keep you reading. It’s that syndrome where you turn ahead and think, “Ah, the next one’s only three pages. I’ll read on.” And before you know it, you’ve got half the novel read. I had this one finished in two days flat. The main credit must, of course, go to the engaging storyline.

Some great themes going on: childhood cruelty to one’s peers; coping with being different; how religion can warp the mind; smearing over evil by calling it good. Real life never gets romanticised with Swindells. And that’s why his books are so good.

Father to the Man by Adrian Plass

Somehow it feels as if there should be a drum-roll or something to precede this review, as it happens to be the first ever piece of Christian literature I’ve included. Quite odd to have it sandwiched between a load of horror novels, perhaps, but this reviews section was started with a view to reporting on everything I read, so why break the habit?

Father to the Man is a collection of seven stories, most of which feature an aspect of the parent-child relationship in one way or another, whether the child be of primary school age or grown up and coping with a parent’s death.

The first story, “Nothing but the Truth” begins with the enigmatic line Dying was a doddle. And so we have the story of a dead man walking around in spirit form, waiting to see what happens next. Rather than treating us to some elaborate effects-driven What Dreams May Come-type experience, Plass takes the reader to a very ordinary interview situation, where the protagonist is asked to talk about some key moments from his past. As I write this, I realise how boring the concept sounds; but let me tell you it was rivetting. The protagonist reveals his innermost feelings about the death of his father; expressing his heightened fear that death is the end of existence, despite all he believes about God. There is a raw honesty running through this story, and the others, that is a rare find in literature.

“Stanley Morgan’s Minor Misdemeanour”, the third tale in the volume, is another favourite. It concerns a Christian man who, although married with kids, has never quite come to terms with his own sexuality. A brief encounter with a pornographic magazine when he was sixteen has haunted him ever since. The “quiet compatibility” he has with his wife has never seemed to satisfy the hunger for some kind paradise glimpsed elsewhere. Without wanting to spoil the rest of the story, I’ll just say that it’s essentially about seeing through illusions. And if you read between the lines, you might think differently about the use of sex in the media today; through TV adverts and pop videos, etc., we’re all being encouraged to take fantasy a little too seriously, and I reckon it’s anything but healthy for the human mind.

Unfortunately I found many of the endings to these stories a little confusing or disappointing. Sometimes it’s as if Plass is dancing around the edge of something really meaningful, and just when I think I’m about to be enlightened, I end up scratching my head instead. So, whilst that does somewhat spoil things, this book still scores well above average for its brutal honesty and in-depth look at human life and relationships. And it’s pretty funny to boot.

Boy’s Life by Robert R. McCammon

Having read McCammon’s outstanding short story collection Blue World about a decade ago, and having heard consistently good reports about Boy’s Life, this has been a novel I’ve wanted to read for many years. It’s disappointing, therefore, that I have to report that it doesn’t quite live up to the hype.

Things get off to a good start. We are introduced to life in a 1960s small town called Zephyr, told through the eyes of a twelve-year-old boy called Cory. Whilst helping his dad do the milk rounds in the early hours of one morning, the pair are witness to a car driving into a lake. Cory’s dad attempts to rescue the driver before the car sinks, only to discover the man unconscious, beaten to a pulp, handcuffed to the steering wheel with a length of piano wire around his neck. So begins the mystery of who this mysterious man is and who murdered him.

The disappointment for me began when I realised McCammon intended to keep this plotline well and truly in the background, rathen than using it as the driving force behind the novel. The duration of the book takes place over one year of the boy’s life, split into four roughly equal seasons. Each individual chapter has its own theme, and these themes are so varied that at times it almost feels like reading a short story collection. That in itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but among these chapters you’ll encounter a sea monster, some ghosts, a bicycle that has a life of its own, a zombie dog, a dinosaur and a sprinkling of voodoo magic; for the a single novel, I can’t help thinking things are getting a little overcrowded.

The real theme of this novel is recapturing one’s childhood. This is a theme I have some appreciation for, but McCammon gets down to some in-your-face philosophising that I didn’t find particularly true. He puts on his rose tinted glasses about the past, and insists we adults are all dissatisfied with our lives and wishing we could just be children again. He forgets about the selfishness, ignorance, cruelty, name-calling and insecurity of childhood, insisting that the world is full of magic if only we could see it again. Things get blown out of all proprortion when Cory sees an eyeball in the headlamp of his new bicycle, and the bike often steers him out of trouble. I guess bikes without headlamps must be blind, eh?

OK, I’ve been very critical, but let me state for the record that I liked the people in this story. I got to know them fairly well, and I often enjoyed myself when McCammon took me off to one side on a mini adventure. These adventures ranged from the excellent to the below average. So, it’s with regret that I give this novel three out of five stars.

Undercover White Trash by David Kilpatrick

With the word “undercover” in the title, you could be forgiven for thinking this is a novel about crime. It’s really a story about an elite advertising executive, Edward Vincent Prescott III, who makes a terrible blunder in his campaign for the BillyMart wholesale consumer store. The blunder doesn’t cost him his job, however; in a maverick move, his boss suggests that he spend several months undercover as a member of the blue-collar society. It’s an opportunity to research the target audience first-hand. So, Ed Prescott prepares to leave his rich life behind (at least temporarily) and embark on his mission. First, he heads for a BillyMart store (a place he would never normally shop) to check out the people. After singling out one family and following them home to their trailer park, he decides to rent the trailer opposite and observe them more closely. Prescott doesn’t know it yet, but his stay with the “white trash” is going to change him more than he could ever have predicted.

I discovered the author, David Kilpatrick, through his website, and got particularly interested in him because of his blog. It is both honest and sensitive but sometimes hard-hitting, and usually full of dry wit. One of Kilpatrick’s best lines, in describing a particular woman’s attractiveness, was, “I’d be on her like a hobo on a ham sandwich.” That just cracked me up. I figured that if this guy can write like this on the fly in his blog, then his fiction has got to be good. He has written four novels, but I got particularly interested in this one due to him mentioning that some of the events in it were true (but he’s not telling which ones).

Both the title of the book, and the author’s sales pitch, led me to believe this would be a raw read, where humanity at its worst is put under a microscope. Nothing could have been further from the truth. The story is sensitive, concerning itself mostly with exploring the issue of friendship between people at opposite ends of the class spectrum. What a great theme. Another thing that becomes apparent as you read it is that you have absolutely no idea where the story is heading; there is no clear goal for the protagonist to achieve (other than advertising research); no disaster to be averted; no one to save. Usually that makes for a boring read, but not in this case. Each chapter was consistently interesting, and kept dragging me back for more.

Kilpatrick’s style is happily loaded with the same dry wit that you’ll find in his blog. His novels are self-published through print-on-demand, which usually means you get a novel loaded with typos and poor sentence structure. For once an author has done the necessary editing work, and despite the occasional missing comma, you have a smooth read.

I look forward to reading the rest of David Kilpatrick’s novels in due course. This one, at least, deserve a mass-market publishing deal.