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Book Review: 10:04 by Ben Lerner

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What’s It About

10:04 is Ben Lerner’s follow-up to the critically acclaimed Leaving the Atocha Station (I bought a copy of his début back in 2013 when it was nominated for a Believer Magazine Award.  Though, like many other books that linger and loiter in my garage, I haven’t read it).

In 10:04 the unnamed narrator, who may or may not be based on Ben Lerner, is dealing with the success of his first novel.  With New York publishes throwing money at him, the pressure is on to write a second book that meets theirs and the critics expectations.

Should I Read It?

Probably not.  I found a good chunk of the novel to be a struggle.  Part of that had to do with Lerner’s choice of words and the rhythm of his sentences (more of that in the commentary).  And part of it was related to Lerner’s unnamed narrator, with all his neuroses and doubts.  (I’m struggling here not describe him as Woody Allen-esque).

Having said that, Part Three of the novel is fantastic.  This is where he meets graduate student Noor and hears her fascinating story, gives a brilliant speech at Columbia University dealing with collective communication and off-color jokes about the Challenger disaster and then has dinner with another writer where they discuss the ideas behind his new novel (a scene which should be dull but is really engaging).  So while I’d normally never recommend that someone skip whole sections of a book, due to its fragmentary nature in this instance you won’t be missing much if you just read the middle and forget the rest.

Representative Paragraph

As a commentary on the business of publishing, this seems all too cynical and accurate:

I asked my agent to explain to me once more why anybody would pay such a sum for a book of mine, especially an unwritten one, given that my previous novel, despite an alarming level of critical acclaim, had only sold around ten thousand copies. Since my first book was published by a small press, my agent said, the larger houses were optimistic that their superior distribution and promotion could help a second book do much better than the first. Moreover, she explained, publishers pay for prestige. Even if I wrote a book that didn’t sell, these presses wanted a potential darling of the critics or someone who might win prizes; it was symbolic capital that helped maintain the reputation of the house even if most of their money was being made by teen vampire sagas or one of the handful of mainstream “literary novelists” who actually sold a ton of books. This would have made sense to me in the eighties or nineties, when the novel was more or less still a viable commodity form, but why would publishers, all of whom seemed to be perpetually reorganizing, downsizing, scrambling to survive in the postcodex world, be willing to convert real capital into the merely symbolic? “Keep in mind that your book proposal…” my agent said, and then paused thoughtfully, indicating that she was preparing to put something delicately, “your book proposal might generate more excitement among the houses than the book itself.”

Commentary

10:04 has clearly resonated with a number of people, including critics, the New York Times (who ranked it as one of their top five books of 2014) and the Folio Prize judges.  In particular both Alex Preston and Hari Kunzru, in their respective reviews of the book, compare Lerner to WG Sebald and praise the novel for its fragmentary nature, it’s ability to “dissolve” or “deform” the novel into something that’s compelling and heartbreaking.  I, on the other hand, was less than impressed.  Whereas Preston and Kunzru saw Lerner’s stylistic flourishes as playful and bold, I struggled to deal with the narrator’s choice of words and the rhythm and structure of the sentences.  For me, they created this impression of a narrator so far up his own arse that the only time he ever saw light was when he opened his mouth.  Or to put it more diplomatically – a tad pretentious.

Take this chunk of text as an example

I was alarmed by the thoroughness of what I experienced as Alena’s dissimulation felt almost gaslighted, as if our encounter on the apartment floor had never happened. Here I was, still flush from our coition, my senses and the city vibrating at one frequency, wanting nothing so much as to possess and be possessed by her again, while she looked at me with a detachment so total I felt as if I were the jealous ex she’d wanted to avoid, a bourgeois prude incapable of conceiving of the erotic outside the lexicon of property.   Maybe she’d separated from me only so she could reencounter me coolly, asserting her capacity to establish insuperable distances no matter our physical proximity.

I know that some will look at that passage and say, “what’s your problem, that reads fine to me and it’s so very clever.”  But my eyes couldn’t help but stumble over words and phrases like “coition”, “dissimulation” and my personal favourite, “lexicon of property”.  What makes it all the more irritating is that the novel is packed with these neurotic moments where the unnamed narrator can’t help but over analyse the motivation of others.  Added to this, he agonises over his health, whether he’d be a good father and his struggles with the second novel.  It should surprise no-one that he lives in New York.

Thankfully, the novel does improve immeasurably when Lerner’s narrator takes a step back and starts to engage with the world around him.  There’s a brilliant moment where he meets a graduate student named Noor while volunteering at the Park Slope Food Co-op.  Noor starts to tell the narrator her story, how her father was from Lebanon, how mother was Jewish and how she became involved in Boston University’s Arab Student Association.  It’s a genuinely moving tale that is so markedly different to what’s come before that it feels like Lerner has cut and pasted this scene from another book.  Also wonderful is the speech he gives at Columbia University.  In an exploration on collective language and experience the narrator uses the Challenger disaster as a springboard, effortlessly marrying together Ronald Reagans’ televised address about the tragedy, his quoting… or misquoting… of John Gillespie Magee’s High Flight and the off-colour jokes that people started sharing hours after the disaster.

The last third of the book, however, returns to the narrators anxieties about the subject matter of his novel.  It’s not as annoying as the first third, and some of the poetry is nice, but it culminates in the revelation… or awful joke… that the book you’re reading is the very novel he’s been kvetching about.  It’s this sort of obnoxious self-awareness that stopped me from engaging with the book.  Which is a shame, because there are moments of brilliance hidden among all the second-book anxieties and post-modern flourishes.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

And the Winner of the Folio Prize is…

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… Family Life by Akhil Sharma.

While I have yet to write-up my reviews of three of the eight finalists, I have read all the nominees and Family Life is definitely a deserving winner.  It’s a powerful novel about the immigrant experience, assimilation and dealing with disability.  A review is forthcoming.

In the meantime I draw your attention to this review of two of the Folio finalists All My Puny Sorrows and the Dept. of Speculation – on the @Number 71 blog.  The post makes some salient points that I’m going to refer back to it when I do a round-up of the Folio finalists.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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What’s It About

Elf is a brilliant pianist who performs internationally in front of sellout crowds.  She has a wonderful marriage with a husband who loves her deeply. And she also desperately wants to die.

Yoli is Elf’s younger sister, recently divorced, who is living off her savings and is struggling to finish her first literary novel.  When Elf tries again to take her own life, Yoli is the first one there to support her.

And then one day Elf asks Yoli if she’d like to accompany her to Switzerland. A country famous for its armed neutrality, its watches, its chocolate and its legalisation of assisted suicide.

Should I Read It?

It’s very hard to describe All My Puny Sorrows without making it sounds like the sort of book that will darken a sunny day and put a frown on a clown.  While it’s absolutely about mental illness, about the right to live and the right to die, it’s also one of the most life affirming novel’s I’ve read.  This is because Miriam Toews understands that the line between soul shredding grief and laugh out loud comedy is incredibly thin.

All My Puny Sorrows is an astonishing novel.  And you should most definitely read it.

Representative Paragraph

Elf’s description of her depression to her sister (and first person narrator) Yolanada (AKA Yoli):

Then Elf tells me that she has a glass piano inside her. She’s terrified that it will break. She can’t let it break. She tells me that it’s squeezed right up against the lower right side of her stomach, that sometimes she can feel the hard edges of it pushing at her skin, that she’s afraid it will push through and she’ll bleed to death. But mostly she’s terrified that it will break inside her. I ask her what kind of piano it is and she tells me that it’s an old upright Heintzman that used to be a player piano but that the player mechanism has been removed and the whole thing has been turned into glass, even the keys. Everything. When she hears bottles being thrown into the back of a garbage truck or wind chimes or even a certain type of bird singing she immediately thinks it’s the piano breaking.

Commentary

When as a society we debate the merits of assisted suicide, we generally envisage it applying to someone who no longer has any quality of life due to terminal illness or some other sort of disability such as a brain injury.  We rarely consider those with a mental illness because we believe that a person’s state of mind is treatable with therapy and drugs.  And generally that’s the case.  I’m an example of someone who suffers anxiety and depression and treats it with medication (and therapy a couple of years back),  But Miriam Toews’ asks us to consider those who, for whatever reason, no longer see the traditional approaches, the drugs and the counselling sessions, as useful.  People like Elfrieda, a world renowned pianist, who can no longer accept the darkness in her life.  Does someone like Elf, Toews’ asks, deserve the right to take her life in a controlled, pain free and legal manner?

When Elf asks her sister Yoli to accompany her to Switzerland where euthanasia is legal (not that Elf is that explicit but her sister reads between the lines) Yoli is faced with that very question.  Should assisted suicide apply to people with an extreme forms of mental illness?  To the credit of both Yoli and Toews, the novel doesn’t become bogged down in ethical questions on euthanasia and the right die.  In fact Yoli makes the decision to help her sister relatively quickly even if early on she ruminates that:

[Elf] wanted to die and I wanted her to live and we were enemies who loved each other.

But in spite of her desire to fulfill her sister’s wishes, Yoli spends most of the novel trying to save her sister’s life.  While there’s a comedic / fanciful element to some of her ideas (dropping Elf into North Korea where she’d be forced to survive on her own, thus ultimately cherishing each day), mostly her efforts are marked with frustration and anger. She berates Elf for her selfishness —

Has it occurred to you ever in your life that I’m the one that’s colossally fucked up and could use some sisterly support every once in a while?…  Has it ever occurred to you that I’m not okay, that everything in my life is embarrassing, that I got knocked up twice by two different guys and had two divorces and two affairs that were—are—not only a nightmare but also a cliché and that I’m broke and writing a shitty little book about boats that nobody wants to publish and sleeping around with men who … fucking ooze nicotine into their sheets from their entire bodies…

— and blasts Elf’s Doctor for his lack of care —

After just one visit with her you’re refusing to help? I said. You’re some kind of esteemed psychiatrist. You’re just fucking dismissing her out of hand right in front of her? My sister is vulnerable. She’s tortured. She’s your patient! She’s begging for help but wants to assert one small vestige of individual power over her life. Surely even a first-year psych student would understand the significance of that stance. Are you not … do you not have any professional curiosity, even? Are you alive or what the fuck?

It’s these angry, raw outburst that bring home the message of this novel, that as a society we still struggle to deal with those who suffer from mental illness.  Yes, there’s greater awareness with more treatments and resources available to help those who are sick, but they’re all directed at keeping the patient alive, at making them recognise the value of life.  Even Yoli’s attempt to have Elf acknowledge that she isn’t the only one suffering is just another way of avoiding the elephant in the room – that Elf’s urge to die isn’t a whim or a phase, but a real and tangible thing.

As uncomfortable and confronting as this might all sound Toews has written a book that’s not only very funny – even if it’s a laugh tinged with sadness – but life affirming.  Much of this has to do with Yoli, our point of view character, who faces a mounting level of shit and yet muddles her way through it, though not always successfully.  I could describe her as engaging or believable, clichéd descriptors that I often fall back on, but what I really want to say is that I loved Yoli because there was something genuine and real about her frustrated anger, her fears and her deep unquestionable love for her family.

Yoli’s love for her family – in particular her mother and father – remains strong and steadfast even though both Yoli and Elf rejected the Mennonite faith they were brought up with.  Toews could have very easily put the sisters at odds with their parents while using the tragedy of mental illness as a springboard for discussions about the soul and extreme forms of religion.  But other than one scene where a Church elder comes unannounced to Elf’s hospital bed in an attempt to save her, Yoli looks back fondly on her quirky upbringing.  Her mother also happens to be a delight, a religious woman who takes very little shit from anyone, including and especially her daughters.  The final third of the novel – which I won’t spoil here – has some lovely mother / daughter moments.

I know it’s been a long review.  I’ve gone well over my nominal word limit of about 900 words.  But sometimes I need to explain – even if it’s mostly a ramble – why I loved a book so much.  Or to put it another way: Miriam Toews has written a beautiful novel dealing with an uncomfortable and tough subject with great humour and humanity.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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Here is a chilling reminder of the finalists (and a link to my frightening reviews):

So what can you conclude from an award where two of the books are outstanding, where three of the novels are not very good and where one is middling?  Maybe that horror fiction, as a genre, has always been a bit hit and miss and that the James Herbert Award is simply reflective of that.  Or maybe that my tastes have changed and the novels I would have loved as a twenty year old – especially the gore and violence of The Girl With All The Gifts and The Troop – no longer sizzle my synapses.  Whatever the reason, what I can say is that in spite of the duds any award that introduces me to a novel as complex and textured and mature as The Loney and one as imaginative and daring and engaging as Cuckoo Song gets my tick of approval.

Obviously I believe one of those two books should win the inaugural James Herbert Award.  There’s bugger all between them but if you put a knife to my throat and whispered sweet, sweet horrors into my half chewed and bloody ear, I would probably go with The Loney.  But I’d be happy with either one.  And if I had to predict the eventual winner my money would be on Cuckoo Song.

We will find out sometime… soon.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: Bird Box by Josh Malerman

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What’s It About

It’s another post apocalyptic novel.  (Including Bird Box I’ve now read six of the buggers this year).  On this occasion the cause of humanity’s mass destruction is a phenomena that when seen drives a person into a suicidal rage.

Malorie is a survivor and the mother of two four-year old kids, both of whom have been trained with the ability to “see” with their ears.  The three of them are about to set off on a journey into the outside world, where the act of opening your eyes is a death sentence.

Should I Read It?

A reserved yes.  Of the six James Herbert award finalists, it’s by far the most chilling.  Malerman’s sparse, blunt prose is very effective at describing those claustrophobic moments when characters are forced outside – whether it’s to search for food or get water from the well – with their eyes closed.

At its most interesting Bird Box is a novel about motherhood and responsibility and guilt.  However, for the most part the book follows the same well trodden ground as most post-apocalyptic narratives.

Still, if you want to read a short novel that’s competently written with some genuine scares than Bird Box is recommended.

Representative Paragraph

An example of what happens when you see the phenomena (as related by Tom):

‘It started with George gasping. Like he had something lodged in his throat. He’d been up there two hours and hadn’t made a sound. Then he starting calling to us.

‘Tom! You piece of shit. Get up here. Get up here.’

He would giggle, then scream, then howl. He sounded like a dog. We heard the chair bang hard against the floor. He was screaming profanities. Jules rose to go help him and I grabbed his arm to stop him. There was nothing we could do except listen. And we heard the entire thing. All the way until the crashing of the chair and the screaming stopped. Then we waited. We waited for a long time. Eventually, we went upstairs together. Blindfolded, we turned the VCR off, then opened our eyes. We saw what George had done to himself. He’d pressed so hard against the ropes that they had gone through his muscles all the way to the bone. His entire body looked like cake frosting, blood and skin folded over the ropes in his chest, his belly, his neck, his wrists, his legs. Felix threw up. Don and I knelt beside George and began cleaning. When we were finished, Don insisted we burn the tape. So we did. And while it was burning I couldn’t stop thinking that with it went our first real theory. It seems that no matter what prism you view them through, they’ll hurt you.’

Commentary

The intriguing idea at the core of Bird Box is what if you lived in a post apocalyptic world where walking outside with your eyes open was a death sentence.  Not only is this the sort of high concept, thirty-second elevator pitch that has formed the bedrock of Hollywood for the last century – Universal, recognising this, optioned the book in 2013 – but at a story level it’s an idea that promises all sorts of possibilities.  It’s a shame then that Malerman takes, for the most part, a meat and potatoes approach.

The book is split into two distinct plot threads.  Story number one is set four years post the apocalypse where Malorie and her two four-year old children – a boy and a girl named… “boy” and “girl” – are preparing to go outside for the first time since the children were born.  The second story is essentially an extended flashback set four years in the past where Malorie has just discovered she’s pregnant and the first reports are coming in about a phenomena driving people to suicidal rage.  It’s the flashback story-line, which dominates the novel, where the meat and potato approach is evident.  If you’ve read a post apocalypse novel (and I’ve now read six of the buggers) you’ll be very familiar with the journey Malorie takes after her sister dies from seeing… well.. whatever it is that’s driving people to cut their own throats.  That story goes something like this:

  • Malorie leaves her own home…
  • Finds a small group of survivors living in a house nearby…
  • Malorie and the survivors consider their options…
  • Much paranoia, claustrophobia and the fear of dwindling supplies ensues.

And in among all that you get visitors to the house, banging on the door and asking to be let in which sets the residents off on the usual clichéd discussions about “can we trust them” and “how do we know they’re not already crazy” etc.

Fortunately, all this predictability is broken up by Malorie’s river journey with her two children – all of them blindfolded.  Not only are these scenes tense and gripping, but Malerman uses this part of the novel to draw out themes on motherhood, responsibility and guilt.  Malorie is weighed down by how she has treated these children over the last four years, training them to see with their ears while refusing them the beauty of the outside world.  And the guilt, at times, overwhelms her:

You’re a bad mother, she thinks. For not finding a way to let them know the vastness of the sky. For not finding a way to let them run free in the yard, the street, the neighborhood of empty homes and weathered parked cars. Or granting them a single peek, just once, into space, when the sky turns black and is suddenly, beautifully, spotted with stars. You are saving their lives for a life not worth living.

Thankfully, the novel makes no judgement whether Malorie’s actions as a mother and a survivor are warranted, avoiding a dull debate about the ends justifying the means.  As a result, these scenes have a depth to them that’s absent from the rest of the novel.

Having said that, I did struggle to get my head around how Malorie kept two infants / toddlers alive for four years with no help.  The house they are living in was well stocked, but there would still have been a need to forage and hunt outside.  Malerman glosses over this, making vague references to Malorie learning how to fish with her eyes shut.  There’s also the neat coincidence that the house is situated right next to a well that’s supplied with fresh water.  I suppose in a post apocalyptic nightmare everyone needs a break.

Bird Box should be the benchmark for contemporary horror.  The yardstick that determines whether it’s worth bothering to publish the next zombie apocalypse, mutant tapeworm or vampire-with-a-twist novel.  Because while Bird Box isn’t a great book, it does get the basics right.  The writing is competent, the characters are believable, the novels themes are well handled and the book maintains a level of tension (and the odd scare) throughout.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: The Troop by Nick Cutter

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What’s It About

Five scouts and their scoutmaster are spending a weekend on a deserted island enjoying scout-related shenanigans when a strange man collapses outside their cabin all sick and wasted away.  Things go quickly from weird, to upsetting, to get me off this fucking island right the FUCK now! as the scouts discover that the man has been infected with a vicious strain of evil, mutated tapeworm.

Should I Read It?

Absolutely not!

But come on, I hear you say, its Lord of the Flies meets the Invasion of the Evil Tapeworm and that’s gotta be gory, intestinal fun!  And maybe it would have been if Cutter had played up the B-Movie aspect of the plot.  Instead we get a straight down the line horror novel, that takes the issue of intestinal tapeworms and genetic experimentation very seriously.  And, again, even this might have worked if the fives boys were anything more than just characters that ticked boxes – the jock, the nerd, the sociopath, the misunderstood rebel, the quiet one.

The book is readable – a mix of short narrative chapters, court transcripts, newspaper articles and police interviews – but there’s no fun or scares to be had here.

Representative Paragraph

Crabs a la goo:

There! Skittering along, its exoskeleton glossed in the moonlight. A sand crab. His hand closed over it—its ocean-coldness wept into his flesh—and stuffed it between his lips. He felt it dancing along his tongue with its hairy little legs. He bit down. A gout of salty goo squirted in his mouth. Its pincer snipped the tip of his tongue in a death spasm, bringing the penny-bright taste of blood; he swallowed the twitching bits convulsively, the spiny exoskeleton tearing into the soft tissues of his throat—which felt so thin now, nothing but a fleshy drainpipe, the skin stretched tight as crepe paper over his esophageal tube.

Commentary

The Troop is the second mutated intestinal tapeworm novel I’ve read in 12 months.  The first was Mira Grant’s Hugo nominated Parasite.  If I happen to read a third (and please God may this not occur) I’ll be calling tapeworms the new zombies.

Both Grant and Cutter have taken the issue of mutated intestinal tapeworms very seriously, the sort of serious that ranks right up there with global warming, inflation vs deflation and peak oil.  Personally, the threat of being possessed or sucked dry by a tapeworm has never pricked my consciousness, but then again I wasn’t that worried about Pay Day loans until Jon Oliver gave the whole industry a shellacking.  In all seriousness though, Cutter had this great opportunity of taking the piss out of his own concept.  And yet what we get is a whole lot of goo and gore, paper-thin characters and some on the nose finger-pointing at unregulated genetic experimentation.

Cutter tries to fool us into thinking his novel has depth by employing the collage technique made famous by Dos Passos (though according to Cutter he borrowed the idea from Stephen King).  So short chapters are mixed together with court transcripts, police interviews and newspaper articles.  It makes for a quick read but it can’t hide the novel’s major deficiency, the caricatures pretending to be characters.

The main stars of The Troop fit neatly into five character-types.  We have the jock, the nerd, the sociopath, the quiet one and the angry rebel.  As a starting point I don’t have a particular problem with this.  But if the intent of the novel is to be inspired by or have a dialogue with Lord of the Flies, then these boys needs to change significantly as they face their own mortality.  Other than the nerd growing a pair of balls toward the novel’s conclusion, the boys experience fear but very little growth or development.  The worst case is Shelley the sociopath who becomes a fully fledged psychopath by the end of the book.  But that’s a change I hear you say.  Well, yes, but only in the sense that he was headed in that direction anyway.  How much more interesting would this have been if the psychopath had been one of the other boys – a character who wasn’t already ear-marked for that role.

Like the novel by M J Carey, The Troop is readable and some of the early scenes with the tapeworm – especially what it does to the scoutmaster – are genuinely icky,  but for the most part this a disposable novel with forgettable characters about a subject matter that I hope never gets legs.  Geddit!!!  Tapeworm!!!  Legs!!!

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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What’s It About

It’s 1920s England (Ellchester to be exact) and Triss has woken up after an accident to discover that (a) she has significant holes in her memory (b) her parents are acting strangely around her and (c) her little sister Pen utterly hates her.  But that’s just the beginning.  When dolls start coming alive in her hands, and birds start speaking to her, Triss realises that she’s either going mad or something other-worldly is simmering under the surface.  Something connected to a mysterious figure known only as The Architect.

Should I Read It?

YES!  I’m reluctant to say much more about the novel as it’s one of those books where part of the pleasure comes from uncovering the truth along with the main character.  What I can say is that Hardinge’s handling of narrative, of style, of plot beats, of characters, of atmosphere and of theme is first rate.  For those who have read Hardinge’s previous novels, this will come as no surprise.

Representative Paragraph

You want a brilliant turn of phrase?!  Well I’ll give you two – Hardinge’s pitch perfect descriptions of jazz

This was a record that had been places and come back scratched, and somehow the roughness made it seem all the more itself. This jazz had not wiped its feet; it crunched right into the room with gravel on its shoes.

and

Triss had heard jazz with neatly wiped shoes and jazz with gritty soles and a grin. And this too was jazz, but barefoot on the grass and blank-eyed with bliss, its musical strands irregular as wind gusts and unending as ivy vines. It was not human music; she could tell that in an instant. This was truer, purer and more chaotic, but also . . . colder. Human jazz was a clumsy imitation of this music, but it had blood, breath and warmth to it.

Commentary

One of the disadvantages of setting myself the goal of reading between 15 and 20 genre and literary award shortlists is that when I come across a novel I adore I don’t have the time or luxury to explore the author’s backlist.  Because that’s what I’d be doing now, gobbling up Hardinge’s five other books rather than exposing myself to a bunch of mediocre horror novels.  It’s entirely my fault.  I’ve been aware of Hardinge’s work for years, regularly coming across reviews from people whose tastes I respect, gushing and squeeing at her work.  I’ve had ample time to read one of the novels.  But it’s taken this silly project of mine for me to realise what I’ve been missing out on.

What immediately struck me about Cuckoo Song  was the quality of the writing.  Nearly every page features a considered metaphor or simile that perfectly renders and crystallizes the moment Hardinge is describing.  You only have to read the above descriptions of jazz to see what I mean.  But even in moments of action and horror, Hardinge settles on exactly the right word or phrase creating an effect that’s both chilling and cinematic:

The Besider man split like a cloud before the moon, and light spilled out, wet light that screamed as it came. His mouth opened wide and ghostly ribbons spiralled out into the air, chittering forgotten tales. As they pulled away from him and vanished, he seemed to unravel, twitching. Soon there was nothing left but a grey-brown coat slumping to the cobbles.

What’s astounding is that the novelty never wears off, your constantly surprised and delighted by the way Hardinge describes her characters and her world.

I also appreciated how Hardinge did something innovative with familiar ideas.  Whether that be taking inspiration from the Golem or Faust or drawing on the battle between chaos and order, in her hands these concepts and tropes feel new and exciting.  It all culminates in the introduction of the Besiders, a beautifully imaginative community of amoral beings that thrive on uncertainty.  Straight lines and order and cartography are an anathema to them.  So are scissors – they snip things in two… they divide by force – and church bells – the sharing of faith makes the Besiders sick.

This idea of uncertainty versus certainty informs the mental states and motivations of the main players in the novel.  Triss faces constant uncertainty in relation to her identity, which only deepens once she realises what she is.  Interestingly, this uncertainty fuels her need to act, to find answers, to save the day if she can, even if it means her destruction.  Her parents face the uncertainty and confusion of a son that may or may not have died during the First World War.  Their reaction is to place cotton-wool around their surviving children, providing a stultifying  and unbearable environment.  And the Besiders, ironically face an uncertain future as the world around them solidifies  It’s this inevitability that motivates The Architect’s nefarious, evil plan which wonderfully has all the hallmarks of a traditional alien invasion.

I just loved this book.  I loved the writing, the ideas, the complexity of the themes and – though I haven’t really discussed them in the review – the characters, specifically Triss and Pen.  Their sisterly relationship is a highlight in  novel that’s filled with highlights.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Nebula Award Novel Shortlist

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The Nebula Award nominees have been announced (click on the link for the full list).  For the novel category, this is what the SFWA members chose:

I’m less than excited by this years group of nominees.  It might have something to do with the appearance of the Gannon and the McDevitt, two books I wouldn’t normally bother with if I wasn’t partaking in the madness of reading award shortlists.  The Gannon is a sequel to last years Nebula nominated novel and clocks in at over 200,000 words.  While long novels generally don’t intimidate me – in 2014 I read both The Goldfinch and The Luminaries – 200,000 words of MilSF by a Baen author is piss your pants scary.  The McDevitt is nowhere near as long but it’s the seventh book in a series.  Though given how many times McDevitt has been nominated for a Nebula, anyone who’s been keeping up with the award has probably read the other six books.

I’m pleased to see Annihilation on the ballot because it’s a damn fine book (click the link above for my review).  And I’m genuinely looking forward to reading Cixin Liu’s The Three-Body Problem, partly because of the praise it’s received, but also because of how intelligently Ken Liu spoke about the translation process on the Coode Street podcast.  Talking of praise, The Goblin Emperor generated its fair share as well, and so it’s no surprise to see it nominated.  I’m thinking it’s a certainty to appear on the Locus Award list for Fantasy and the World Fantasy Award.

And the Leckie, well it’s already been nominated for a BSFA.  Except it to receive a Hugo nomination.  While the sequel to Ancillary Justice has been, for the most part, critically well received, I can sense increasing resentment toward Ancillary Sword.  If it does bag a Hugo nomination I expect that resentment to spill over (though it might have to contend with some Sad Puppy action).

And finally Larry Nolen has also shared his thoughts on the nominations (with focus on the novels).  He’s less than impressed.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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These were the novels nominated for the National Book Critics Circle Award.   Click on the links to read my entertaining but always insightful reviews.

With no hesitation or doubt I’d be handing the award to Marlon James.  As I said in my review of A Brief History of Seven Killings, this is a book that grabs you by the neck and forces you to watch.  Which, now that I think about it, sounds awfully abusive and violent.  The point is you can’t help but be engaged and part of the world (Jamaica) that James is depicting.  He does this through a masterclass of language and tone.

Given how fantastic the book is I’m surprised (and annoyed) that it hasn’t appeared on other shortlists – not even the longlist for the National Book Award or the Folio Prize.

One book that did appear on the National Book Award shortlist is Rabih Alameddine’s An Unnecessary Woman.  Like James’ novel it’s a book that compels you to engage with the setting (Lebanon) and the character’s state of mind.  It’s a wonderful novel which I’d be happy to see called out as the winner on March 12.

However, if I had to pick who was going to win the NBCC, my money would be on Marilynne Robinson’s Lila.  It’s not a book that I particularly liked, but it continues to generate much praise and love.  I’m surprised it hasn’t been showered with prizes.

Overall, this was a decent shortlist.  Yes, I had major issues with on On Such a Full Sea and the last few pages of Euphoria tainted my enjoyment of the novel, but any shortlist that introduces me to a writer as fantastic as Marlon James has to get a tick of approval.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: Euphoria by Lily King

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What’s It About

Set for the most part in 1930s New Guinea, American anthropologist Nell Stone and her Australian husband Fen meet Andrew Bankson, an English anthropologist, who introduces them to the Tam, an artistic, spiritual and female dominated tribe.  As the three anthropologists become absorbed in their investigation of the Tam, their relationship grows increasingly complicated, fueled by love, guilt and violence.

Should I Read It?

Yes – but with reservations.  The characters of Nell, Fen and Andrew Bankson are based on Margaret Mead, her husband Reo Fortune and Gregory Bateson.  (So in this alternate history it’s William Bankson, not Bateson, who coins the term “genetics”).  These changes gives King the freedom and opportunity to tell her own story, one that still cleaves to historical events – Mead and Bateson did fall in love with each other in New Guinea – but takes a very different and darker turn (which I won’t spoil here).

While the love-triangle between the three anthropologists is the main driver of the novel, the best scenes beautifully mix together the intimate and intellectual discoveries made by Nell and Andrew. However, I did have issues with the ending which I thought was unwarranted and tasteless (more in the Commentary).

Representative Paragraph

Bankson observes Nell:

Though she was looking at me, she hadn’t heard. She was still with her work. She was wearing a tulip bark ribbon, too, just above her elbow. I wondered what they made of this woman who bossed them around and wrote down their reactions. It was funny how it all seemed more vulgar watching someone else do it. I felt like my mother, with this sudden distaste for it. And yet she was good at it. Better than I was. Systematic, organized, ambitious. She was a chameleon, with a way of not imitating them but reflecting them. There seemed to be nothing conscious or calculated about it. It was simply the way she worked. I feared I’d never shake my Englishman Among the Savages pose, despite the real respect I had come to feel for the Kiona. But she with only seven weeks under her belt was more of the Tam than I ever would be of any tribe, no matter how long I stayed. No wonder Fen had grown discouraged.

Commentary

Not surprisingly, most of the questions Lily King has been asked about Euphoria deal with Margaret Mead, her relationships, her sexuality, and the fact that she was a trailblazer in the field of anthropology.  When Nell Stone is mentioned, she feels more like a placeholder than the main character of a novel.  And yet when you read Euphoria, it’s easy to forget that Nell is based on a historical figure.  While Mead might be front and centre in the mind of interviewers and reviewers, Nell Stone’s vibrant, passionate, sometimes overwhelming personality takes centre stage in the novel.

Don’t get me wrong, when I finished Euphoria I was compelled to learn more about Margaret Mead.  In particular I was interested to pick out the points of divergence, where King had followed the course of history and where she’d allowed her characters to take a different path.  It’s fitting that in a novel about an anthropologist who experienced tribal life without prejudice or pre-conceived notions, that King would adopt the same attitude in writing her novel.  There’s nothing preconceived about Nell, Fen or Andrew.  They are their own people, no matter who they might be based on.

Until the final pages, Euphoria is a wonderful novel about exploration, both intellectual and intimate.  This is best evidenced by Nell and Andrew’s development of The Grid, a schematic that would allow them to categorise not only tribes but other cultures and people.  King infuses a level of physicality and emotional intensity to the discovery:

We kept at it.  The sun came up and went down again.  We believed we were in the throes of a big theory.  We could see our chalk on university blackboards.  It felt like we were putting a messy disorganized unlabeled world in order.  It felt like decoding.  It felt like liberation… For long stretches of time it felt like we were crawling around in each other’s brain.

Then there’s the inclusion of the fictitious Tam.  As a metaphor for empowerment, the Tam might feel like an authorial cheat in that they are a female dominant tribe that conveniently and neatly aligns with Nell’s sense of independence.  However, whereas the woman of the Tam have carved out a level of freedom in their own society, Nell’s empowerment is entirely contingent on her location. In New Guinea she can be free and passionate and wild with her opinions and the men in her life.  But when she comes back to “civilisation” the norms of her own society constrain her.  This culminates in her death at the hands of a jealous Fen who (as heavily implied by Bankson though not proven) throws Nell overboard on their way back to New York.

While I acknowledge that Nell is more than just a thin copy of Margaret Mead, her death is the one point of the novel where I wish King had aligned Nell’s life with history. There is some evidence that Reo Fortune abused Mead, however history (and Wikipedia) tells us that she survived her journey back to civilisation, married to Gregory Bateson. For the rest of her life Mead continued to trailblaze, publishing significant work on tribal cultures.  In light of this, vibrant, passionate, breathless Nell Stone deserved more than a cheap, unwarranted and tasteless death.

Still, the ending aside, for most of its length, Euphoria is a wonderful novel that mixes together the exhilaration of discovery with the intensity of intimacy and love.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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