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What’s It About

This is not an easy book to describe without giving away spoilers.  So I’ve borrowed from the back cover blurb.

As the novel’s characters struggle to survive apocalypse, they are sustained and challenged by the demands of love in a shattered world both haunted and dangerous.

Should I Read It?

Yes.  While it’s another apocalypse novel it’s also the most imaginative book on the PKD ballot.  Crammed with SFnal ideas that go well beyond your traditional apocalypse narrative, the novel has an innovative structure that means the setting is always changing and so is the gender and identity of the protagonists.  What’s remarkable is how Brissett ties all these disparate ideas and threads together into a satisfying resolution.

Like Cheryl Morgan, though, I was less than convinced by the novel’s “interrogation” of gender.  Not that this is a deal-break – Elysium is an exciting debut novel.

 

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I’ll be honest, I have no idea what the elk symbolises – the passage below is not its first appearance – but the imagery here is lovely.

A side door opened and a sizable elk trotted onto the field of artificial green.  Its tall head of antlers spread wide and pointed in all directions.  It pranced about, clearly stunned.  Adrianne had a nasty, sinking feeling in the pit of her stomach.  It soured still more when another door opened.  Something from the darkness growled angrily, then snarled.  All went quiet.  The elk stood stock-still.  A large cat sprang out, maybe a mountain lion.  It eyed the elk and ducked low, slowed its motion to small graceful steps.  Adrianne wanted to yell to the elk to run.  Instead she remained frozen in her seat.  Her mouth went dry and her heart pounded.  With incredible speed and to be the cheers of the enthusiastic crowd, the cat pounced.  The elk galloped, but the lion was too quick.  It pulled down the elk with its mighty paws.  The audience jumped to its feet and applauded wildly.

Adrianne screamed.

Commentary

In November last year, Jennifer Marie Brissett wrote about her inspiration for Elysium on the SF Signal website.  She remarked,

I mean the whole book came to me, not word for word or even chapter for chapter, but the story and even the structure of the book all flowed from the theme that appeared in my mind: the story of the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his lover Antinous.

As I wasn’t aware of the story of Hadrian or Antinous, or that Hadrian built monuments in memory of his dead lover, this thematic hook made no impression on me.  But I don’t think it matters, Elysium is recognisably a story about coming to terms with lost love.

Having said that, what excited me about the novel was less the relationship between the protagonists and more the novel’s non linear structure and its playful mash-up of traditional SF ideas.  Everything from the end of the world, to the development of a powerful AI, to an alien invasion, to the possibility of human colonisation on other planets features in the novel.  If that’s not enough, our protagonists regularly experience shifts in their setting, ranging from present day New York to an alien prison camp to survival in a post apocalyptic city.  Each of those reality shifts spark a change in gender Adrianne / Adrian – Antoinette / Antoine – and the status of their relationship – lovers / parent and child / brother and sister.  It makes for an unpredictable and unsteady reading experience.  Unlike the other novels nominated for the PKD Award, I had no idea where Brissett was going to take us next and which iteration of her protagonists would be in the starring roles.  What’s especially remarkable is just when you think the ideas and concepts are going to go unresolved, the last third of the novel satisfyingly ties everything together.

Because gender is pivotal to Elysium‘s structure, the implication is that Brissett is saying something profound about sexual identity.  At one level it could be argued that with all the shifts and changes, she is arguing that when it comes to love and grief, gender and identity are constructs that don’t matter.  However, I’m less than convinced with this reading, especially when I consider this observation from Cheryl Morgan in her excellent review of the novel :

The thing that occurred to me very early on in reading the book was that the gender performance of the characters was always normative. That is, when a character had a male name, he behaved like a man; when she had a female name she behaved liked a woman… Also, as we get further into the book, it becomes obvious that these characters are not always the same person, in which case they are not actually switching gender. In neither case is anything particularly innovative about gender being said.

But if the gender aspect doesn’t entirely work, this shouldn’t be seen as a deal-breaker.  The book has been described as ambitious, a term often used when an author strives to do something different but doesn’t entirely succeed.  I think Elysium, for the most part, does succeed.  Brissett, in her handling of structure, plot and characterisation, gives us an SF novel that’s not only about the ideas, and not only surprises with its shift in setting and gradual reveal of the truth, but does that rare thing of actually sticking the landing.

Buggered though if I know what’s going on with that elk.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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Here I am, waiting for the BSFA and Kitschies shortlists to be announced and out from left field comes the first annual James Herbert Award for Horror Writing.  The nominees, as announced by Tor.com, are as follows:

  • M.R. Carey, The Girl with All the Gifts (Orbit)
  • Nick Cutter, The Troop (Headline)
  • Frances Hardinge, Cuckoo Song (Macmillan)
  • Andrew Michael Hurley, The Loney (Tartarus Press)
  • Josh Malerman, Bird Box (Harper Voyager)
  • Kim Newman, An English Ghost Story (Titan Books)

This is an impressive shortlists with books from Carey, Newman and Hardinge that I’ve been meaning to read.  Given the all male and uninspiring preliminary novel ballot for The Stokers, I’m seriously thinking of swapping that award out for this inaugural prize.  Whether I get to read the Herbert shortlist or not will depend on time, time, time, but well done to Pan Macmillan for honouring Herbert in the first place and putting together what looks, on the surface, like a fine bunch of books.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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What’s It About

A plague has wiped out most of the population.  The bulk of those who have survived are men, which makes women a scare resource.  Our protagonist was once a nurse.  Now she survives by masquerading as a man and offering her services as nurse and midwife.  But what hope is there in a world where pregnancy is a death sentence for both mother and child?

Should I Read It?

Yes.  Of the six books nominated for the PKD, this one just pips Memory of Water as my favourite.

Compared to other end of the world narratives, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is a brutal novel.  Not unsurprising given in this post-plague world women have become a commodity.  Except, for all the savagery displayed, Elison has done a masterful job in limiting the sexual violence.  It helps that our protagonist, who adopts a number of false names throughout the novel, is smart and resourceful and driven by the need to save the lives of women, not just by freeing them from men but by giving them access to contraception.

But what really struck me about the novel is its eroticism.  No, not rape fantasies, but consensual sex and intimacy.  It’s a surprising and powerful aspect of the book.

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A strategy for survival where woman are a commodity.

Apartment in the Mission, found a compression best to hide my tits.  Thanks transman of yesteryear.  Little too small, real tight.  Shaved my head.  Wasn’t easy.  Got men’s cargo pants and combat boots, with a couple of loose shirts and my hoodie on top.  Can’t do anything about a beard.  Couldn’t find one in a costume shop or anywhere.  Settled for rubbing dirt into my jaw every morning.  Candelit mirror tricky tricky.  Look like a young effeminate man… need to do more pushups.  Walk tall, keep hips straight.  Don’t sway.  Feel flat.  Hunch a little, arms straight down.  Don’t gesture.  Stare down.  Make fists while talking.  Sit with knees apart.  Adjust.  Don’t tilt your head.  Don’t bite your lip.  Interrupt.  Laugh low.

Sex while the world ends.

Tension = ridiculous.  Pretty sure Honus feels it too, but Jodi doesn’t have a clue.  Every time she’s out of earshot, we’re talking about sex.  How to touch her, how to talk to her, how to turn her on.  He says he’s not jacking off because it’s wrong but I doubt it.  Think I’m ding a good job of hiding it, but I’m down.  As down as I’ve ever been.  Shit. Trauma, loss, assault, afraid for my life, and yet.  Compulsion to fuck is so strong in our species.  In all circumstances, always.  Remember what it was like when I was with my first girlfriend in college.  Was head-over-heels wanting to fuck her all the time.  We barely went to class until we both flunked that anatomy test.  Ironic.  This feels like that.  Stir-crazy inevitable comes-and-fuck-me crazies.  Probably crazy for nothing.

Commentary

In a recent post on his excellent blog The Mumpsimus, Matthew Cheney wrote passionately about the apocalypse as comfort fiction.  In short he argues that novels which provide a hopeful outcome to an apocalypse, one where we do survive and thrive, are disingenuous and delusional.  He says,

It is highly unlikely that you, I, or anybody else would be a survivor of an actual apocalypse, and it is even more unlikely that, were we to survive, the post-apocalyptic world would be worth staying alive to see. To imagine yourself as a survivor is to evade the truth and to indulge in a ridiculous fantasy. To imagine yourself as a successful survivor — someone who doesn’t suffer terribly before finally, painfully dying — is even worse.

[…]

To tell a story of apocalypse in which people’s lives are not even as difficult or painful as the lives of millions and millions of people currently alive on Earth moves beyond escapist fantasy and into the realm of idiotic irresponsibility. (This, perhaps, is why some of the better apocalypse/dystopia stories are written by people who are not middle-class white Americans.)

Now, while I love Station Eleven precisely because it does reject the nihilism of books like The Road, I can appreciate Matthew’s point.  Apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic fiction that pretends that everything is going to be OK, that we’ll all become happy, chappy farmers free of the evils of the modern world, are, as Matthew points out, indulging in a “ridiculous fantasy”.

One of the key points Matthew makes, especially toward the end of his piece, is that if the aim of apocalyptic fiction is to provide the reader with a cautionary tale, then it’s irresponsible to make extinction seem bearable.  While the protagonist of Meg Elison’s The Book of the Unnamed Midwife does ultimately find stability in her life, the novel goes to great pains to show us a world that’s anything but bearable or desirable.  Elison chooses a plague to wipe out most of humanity because it gives her the ability to kill off more women than men and make pregnancy a near death sentence.  In other words, create an apocalypse scenario that’s not only bad because billions have died, but also puts whatever power remains in the hands of men.  Violent, angry, horny men.

This scenario makes for uncomfortable, upsetting reading, precisely the emotion that Cheney believes apocalyptic fiction should be aiming for.  Having said that, The Book of the Unnamed Midwife is anything but an extended rape fantasy.  Elison makes the smart move of having a protagonist who is competent and resourceful from the get go.  Some might think that’s cheating.  But by having someone who can fend for themselves, and is smart enough to realise that women have become a commodity, we avoid the woman captured, raped, escaped narrative.  Rather we get a female protagonist who not only rescues other women but offers them birth control.

But beyond the conventions of the post-apocalyptic narrative, where The Book of the Unnamed Midwife excels is via its structure and its take on sexuality.  In terms of structure I loved how we moved from abrupt diary entries written by the unnamed midwife to an omniscient third person perspective that provides more details about her journey and the people she meets along the way.  This third person point of view also allows Elison to momentarily move the focus away from America.  Yes, we have an apocalypse novel that isn’t American-centric, that actually recognises that other parts of the world exist.

And then there’s the sexuality.  For one, we have a protagonist who identifies as bi-sexual dressed up as a man to avoid the possibility of entrapment, rape and death.  Beyond the need to survive, Elison recognises the gender issues at play here.  When our protagonist finds herself living with two Mormons (a husband and wife) gender and sexuality is explored further.  And these discussions feed into the most startling aspect of the novel, its eroticism. This element comes to the forefront when she’s cohabiting with the Mormons, but it’s also there, softer and less insistent, earlier in the novel.  It’s startling because you expect a novel of this type only to be about survival and death and barbarism, to be bereft of any sense of intimacy even if it’s just the need to fuck.  And yet, given the novel’s focus on primal urges, such as giving birth and killing to survive, the idea that we would retain our horniness in the most miserable of situations makes perfect sense.

I loved this book.  It may still be a little too hopeful for Matthew Cheney – the indication is that the human race will survive – but it’s an honest novel, both in the way it depicts a post apocalyptic world and how it recognises that human sexuality and the need to fuck and feel pleasure will stay with us even as the human race falls into darkness.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Book Review: Maplecroft by Cherie Priest

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What’s It About

Lizzie Borden meets the Cthulhu mythos.  Lots of axe wielding and slimy monsters from the sea.  And mind controlling, stinky jellyfish.

Should I Read It?

According to Annalee Newitz from i09, yes you absolutely should.  (She calls Maplecroft the best “damn” Cthulhu novel you’ve read in ages”).  And, I agree that if you’re in the mood for a bit Lizzie Borden / Cthulhu action, then this book will definitely meet your needs.  It’s competently written, moves at decent clip and, most of all, is entertaining.  Lizzie, her sister Emma and Doctor Seabury – our point of view characters – are engaging and sympathetically drawn.

If the novel has a weakness it’s that it never breaks free of the novelty of having Lizzie fight Cthulhu’s minions.  This might have something to do with Maplecroft being Book One of a series.  In anycase I’m not compelled to read the second novel in the series.

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Observations of the squamous horror from the well-meaning Doctor Owen Seabury

But the thing. It was the shape of a human being, provided that the human being had been horribly emaciated, his bones stretched, his skin blanched, and his head both swollen and misshapen. I would use the word “encephalitic,” but it doesn’t feel quite right. I’ve never heard of an encephalitic with a forehead sloped and pinched, eyes that were covered with the same membrane I’d seen before on other corpses in Fall River (so there’s one point in Lizbeth’s favor, or in favor of her revolting theory). The thing’s eyes were also shaped strangely, oversized and elongated, drawn back to a point that aimed at the forehead, almost as if they’d been turned on their sides. No, that’s not what I mean. It was more the shape of a raindrop, landing on the face and sliding downward. It was . . . . . . I am no good at this.

Commentary

I wasn’t a huge fan of Cherie Priest’s well-regarded and popular novel Boneshaker.  I’ve never been that keen on steam-punk or zombies and Priest’s by-the-numbers prose did little to convince me otherwise.  Five years later, and with Maplecroft nominated for a PKD Award, I can say that Priests’ writing style and pacing has improved immeasurably.

On the face of it, there’s something inspired about mashing together the urban legend of Lizzie Borden with the Cthulhu mythos.  Both mythologies are rich with speculation and deep mystery.  And as has been pointed out by others more geographically inclined than myself, Ms Borden and Howard Lovecraft lived about twenty miles from each other.

Priest, fully aware of the geographical and mythological links, is clearly having a great deal of fun mixing Lizzie and Cthulhu together.  The novel revels in all the slime and gore and insane Professors from Miskatonic University possessed by evil, mind-controlling jelly fish.  Priest also solves the mystery of Lizzie Borden’s crime by explaining that she killed her father and step-mother because they were slowly transforming into something otherworldly.  Added to that, Priest tweaks and modifies Lizzie and Emma’s history.  While the Borden murders did occur in 1892, the appearance of Nance O’Neil – Lizzie’s lover – is anachronistic.  According to Wikipedia they didn’t meet until 1904 – ten years after the event of the novel.

But all that is part of the fun, and this is certainly an entertaining book to read.  Lizzie, her ailing sister Emma and Doctor Owen Seabury are sympathetic, engaging characters.  In particular, I appreciated the strength of will and intelligence exhibited by Lizzie and Emma.  Their relationship is a highlight of the novel.

But because this is Book One in a series, Maplecroft never really breaks free of the novelty of having Lizzie fight Cthulhu’s slimy minions.  The second half of the book is begging for a scene where Lizzie, Emma and the hapless Doctor come face to face with ancient, cosmic evil.   But Priest disappointingly pulls back from this, swapping an apocalyptic and insane climax for a house under siege narrative that becomes fairly predictable once it’s clear that the jelly-fish possessed Professor Zollicoffer is on his way to Falls River.

Other than a few enigmatic hints left by the mysterious Simon Wolf, the ending is self-contained enough that I feel no compulsion to read the sequel.  As far as I’m concerned, Maplecroft fills whatever need I had for Lizzie Borden and Cthulhu shenanigans.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

And So It Begins… The PKD Award nominees

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The PKD Award nominees have been announced.  And the nominees are:

  • ELYSIUM by Jennifer Marie Brissett (Aqueduct Press)
  • THE BULLET-CATCHER’S DAUGHTER by Rod Duncan (Angry Robot)
  • THE BOOK OF THE UNNAMED MIDWIFE by Meg Elison (Sybaritic Press)
  • MEMORY OF WATER by Emmi Itäranta (Harper Voyager)
  • MAPLECROFT: THE BORDEN DISPATCHES by Cherie Priest (Roc)
  • REACH FOR INFINITY edited by Jonathan Strahan (Solaris)

First off, a massive congratulations and pat on the back to my mate Jonathan for the nomination.  And second off, what an interesting bunch of novels and writers I’ve never heard of (Priest aside).  That’s what makes reading a shortlist like this so exciting.  Exposure to authors and idea that until this point I didn’t know existed.  Except review of the shortlist in the coming weeks.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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How to Be Both by Ali Smith in the best novel category and Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey for best first novel.  The announcement (including winners of the other categories) is here.

Absolutely endorse the best novel winner.  Just yesterday I ranked How To Be Both as one my favourite books of 2014 and I can’t wait to discuss it on the next episode of The Writer and The Critic.  So congratulations to Ali Smith.

And while I wasn’t as fond of Elizabeth Is Missing (I would have given the best novel award to Carys Bray for A Song For Issy Bradley), I can appreciate why it won the award.  Healey’s take on dementia feels both real and genuine.  It’s a shame that the scenes set in the past aren’t as compelling (at least for me).

Still, congratulations to Emma Healey.  I’m sure I’ll be seeing Elizabeth Is Missing on other first novel ballots in 2015.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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MORE THAN THIS BY PATRICK NESS

What’s It About

Following a horrible drowning, Seth Wearing wakes to find himself not in heaven or hell but in the town of his childhood.  He soon discovers that the town is deserted… or is it?

Should I Read It?

Yes – though with reservations.  Intriguing set-up aside, Patrick Ness is an engaging and accessible writer.  The chapters in the novel are short, the prose is fluid and easy to parse and the character of Seth (especially what we learn about him through flashback) is genuinely sympathetic.  I also appreciated that the other characters we’re introduced to (Seth is not alone) are not of the cookie-cutter white middle class variety.  It’s hard to say more about the novel without spoiling it, and my issues with the novel are related to its one major revelation.  So, under a cut…

Spoiler For More Than This

The technology, though, that would require this sort of international VR system isn’t reflected in the VR World we’re made privy to.  More than that, the ability for this VR system to not only maintain its reality but also allow participants to give birth to real children seems a level of technology closer to magic than science.  The worlds we’re shown, both the old wasted one and the one existing in cyberspace, are essentially no different to the world we live in.  The idea, I believe, is that the VR world has been edited to remove any reference to itself or the technology that allows it to be.  But the advent of this technology would have been a major step forward with a knock-on effect in other sciences.  Editing out all those discoveries simply didn’t gel with me.

[collapse]

The book does become a bit run and chase toward the middle, but Ness more or less maintains the novel’s momentum.  It’s an entertaining read that does raise some interesting questions about finding your place in a world that seems to have literally and figuratively rejected you.

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Some very nice writing.

And then, suddenly, a break in the clouds, shining starlight that’s faint but like the blowing of a trumpet compared to the darkness. Because it’s so dark, Seth can see more stars in the small rip in the sky than he thinks he’s ever seen in the whole expanse of it. The break widens, shining more, and Seth can’t quite figure out the strange streak of faint white he’s seeing across it, as if someone’s spilled –Milk.The Milky Way.“Holy shit,” he whispers.He’s seeing the actual Milky Way streaked across the sky. The whole of his entire galaxy, right there in front of him. Billions and billions of stars. Billions and billions of worlds. All of them, all those seemingly endless possibilities, not fictional, but real, out there, existing, right now. There is so much more out there than just the world he knows, so much more than his tiny Washington town, so much more than even London. Or England. Or hell, for that matter.

RED DOC > BY ANNE CARSON

What’s It About

Apparently, this verse-novel is a sequel to Carson’s 1998 work, Autobiography of Red in that it takes the characters Geryon and Herakles from that book and puts them in the modern age.  Where Geryon (now G) is all world-weary, cynical and a herder of ox, Herakles (now called Sad But Good, or Sad for short) is a war veteran with PTSD.

Should I Read It?

Yes.

Better question is whether you’ll understand it.  I certainly didn’t.  Or more to the point, while I was able to pick up numerous threads – scenes set herding ox, scenes set in a clinic dealing with Sad’s PTSD, scenes set at the deathbed of G’s mother – the utter lack of linearity or conformity to traditional story-telling means that I struggled to join the pieces together.  I’m not sure I’m meant to though.

Having said that, at page by page level the book, broken up by gorgeous prose poetry and some of the funniest and natural scenes of pure dialogue I’ve read, is  accessible.  And funny.  There’s a sense of whimsy about the whole thing, highlighted by a scene where an ox takes flight.

In the end, Red Doc is worth reading because you’ll have read nothing like it before.

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Though I’m not sure any paragraph does justice to this fine book.  And Io is an Ox.

Sparkling along in the valley below is a car unaware it is driving directly into the path of the lava flow.  M’hek stands transfixed watching a black cloudform advance from the horizon toward the car its molten edge snarling its fiery paws eating steadily at the world ahead.  Moving about 40 mph.  The herd now breathing like a bellows has formed into a circle facing outward.  Io stands apart.  She dips her head to her knee momentarily.  Blood still buzzing with gorse she does not hesitate to believe that a masterpiece like herself can fly.  Should fly.  Does fly.  Without a sound and by the time M’hek turns around she is aloft.

STRAY BY MONICA HESSE

What’s It About

In the near future, children who are wards of the State are sent to a complex where they’re plugged into the life experiences of Julian (a real person) who is considered to have led a normal life and is therefore the perfect role model.  This is referred to as The Path.  For sixteen year old Lona, being on-Path is the only world she’s ever known until she’s kidnapped by a group of anti-Path rebels.

Should I Read It?

No.

It’s not an actively terrible novel, but it’s utterly unengaging, which is a shame because the central conceit and theme of the novel – how should society deal with dispossessed kids – is an important one.  The problem I had with the book is its main character, Lona.  She’s meant to be a fish out of water type, given that she’s only ever experienced life through the eyes of Julian.  Aside from the alienness of existing in a world that’s not been carefully modulated and governed for her, just the act of thinking for herself should be a knee wobbling experience.  And yet Lona is uber competent, quickly adapting to her new circumstances.  She even has the wherewithal to get into a love triangle with an 18 year old boy (and old friend) who was also on Path before he graduated and the woman who is working hard to save his life and those of other ex-Pathers.  In fact just to show how competent she is, not only does Lona end up baby-sitting a group of children who had once been on the Path and then rejected, but she has the nous to organise the takeover of the compound she came from.

Hesse does attempt to explain why Lona adapts so quickly to the outside / non-Julian world (we discover that it might have something to do with her lineage), but I’m bored with exceptional characters in genre fiction.  While I didn’t want to see Lona go catatonic the moment she’s kidnapped, I’d have liked more of the natural uncertainty and, frankly, outright fear that comes from being forced into an environment you’re not accustomed to.  In addition, more insight into what pushed this society to take this approach toward the care of dispossessed children, would have been appreciated.

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Foster Care is BAD!!!

Lona shuddered.  She didn’t technically remember – none of them did – but she had learned about Before, in one of the presentations that sometimes happened during Calisthenics.  Path History.  Emotional Well Being.  Proper Calisthenics.  In this particular presentation, they learned about Before Path.  Before Path, Lona would have been beaten or neglected by parents who had been declared unfit.  If she had been lucky she might have been put in something called ‘foster care’, but even that was dangerous.  The presenter showed pictures of a shrunken boy locked in a dog cage, staring through the bars with huge eyes. ‘That’s how the authorities found him’ the presenter said.  ‘That’s where his foster parents kept him.  He didn’t know how to read.  He spent every day in his own filth.  This is what it used to be like, for everyone like you.  You have all been given a very special gift’.

MR PENUMBRA’S 24-HOUR BOOKSTORE BY ROBIN SLOAN

What’s It About

A 24-hour bookstore.  It says so on the front cover.  If you’re expecting a magical bookstore, impossibly large and filled to the brim with all the fiction and non-fiction ever written (including works that were only ever a sparkle in the author’s eye) then you’re going to be disappointed.  That’s not to say it’s an ordinary bookstore.  As Clay Jannon discovers, hidden among the extremely tall shelves hides, possibly, the code to immortality.

Should I Read It?

Yes.  Very much so.

Sloan’s début novel is an enormous amount of fun.  I was suffering pneumonia while I was reading it (I’m fine) and the fact that it maintained my attention, says something about the story-telling on display.  It helps that the book feels fresh and original.  The first person style is conversational and vibrant and (as seems always the case in these post-Buffy days) very self-aware.  The story-itself does that smart thing of feeling like a genre novel – you expect magic… or something magical to happen on every second page – and yet having a rational explanation for everything that occurs.  Clay Jannon aside, the book is peopled with the sort of quirky characters that don’t entirely feel like real people but rather plot tokens.  Every challenge Clay faces can be dealt with because he knows someone rich enough or smart enough to get him past the obstacle.  Sloan characterises this as Clay’s super hero power, his ability to network and bring the best out of people.  For me it felt all a bit too convenient.  And yet, these other characters have enough life about them beyond their plot significance that they’re genuinely enjoyable to read about.  The best example is the housemate who works for ILM and is building a miniature city in the living room.

With the book set in San Francisco, Google (and its programmers) feature heavily.  I’m glad Sloan avoided the temptation of making up a tech-firm and instead took advantage of Google’s (controversial) plan to scan every book in existence.

I haven’t said much about the plot itself because it’s something that’s meant to be discovered rather than told.  But other than the aforementioned Google, it does involve a 500-year-old cult, the Gerritszoon font, the secrets hidden in a much loved fantasy series and the search for immorality.  All packed into 78,00 words.  Which is how it should be.

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A neat description of the tall bookshelves you’ll find in Mr Penumbra’s bookstore.

The shelves were packed close together, and it felt like I was standing at the border of a forest—not a friendly California forest, either, but an old Transylvanian forest, a forest full of wolves and witches and dagger-wielding bandits all waiting just beyond moonlight’s reach. There were ladders that clung to the shelves and rolled side to side. Usually those seem charming, but here, stretching up into the gloom, they were ominous. They whispered rumors of accidents in the dark.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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What’s It About

Set in 2001, Maxine Tarnow, an ex-licensed fraud examiner, gets sucked into the shady world of the Deep Web and half baked conspiracy theories as she examines the suspicious goings on at hashslingrz, a computer security firm run by Gabriel Ice.

Should I Read It?

If you’re a Pynchon fan, then yes. If you’re not, then I’d read a sample. Pynchon has a particular style and sense of humour that, going by a quick skim of the interwebs, can be divisive (also see The Commentary). This particualr story is a mess, often drifting into irrelevant tangents and introducing a whole number of quirky, weird, outsiders. Having said that, for the most part I enjoyed the novel’s anarchic nature, reflecting the chaos that was the internet after the dot.com crash. Pynchon’s askew treatment of 9/11 is also interesting. I can’t promise a satisfying ending though, it sort of just peters out.

Representative Paragraph

It’s a talking penis!

Well. Should’ve been it for Agent Windust. So it doesn’t help that that very night, or actually next morning just before dawn, she has a vivid, all-but-lucid dream about him, in which they are not exactly fucking, but fucking around, definitely. The details ooze away as dawn light and the sounds of garbage trucks and jackhammers grow in the room, till she’s left with a single image unwilling to fade, this federal penis, fierce red, predatory, and Maxine alone its prey. She has sought to escape but not sincerely enough for the penis, which is wearing some strange headgear, possibly a Harvard football helmet. It can read her thoughts. “Look at me, Maxine. Don’t look away. Look at me.” A talking penis. That same jive-ass radio-announcer voice.

Commentary

Here’s how Talitha Stevenson ends her Guardian review of Bleeding Edge:

No doubt a good genre book is worth more than a bad literary one any day, but when a writer with real genius squanders so much of his energy on clowning – and for an audience it’s not at all clear he respects – it’s worth asking what’s going on. The idea that jokes are a defence against intimacy is a cliche – perhaps they can also be a defence against close reading.

While her critique of the novel only generated a paltry nine comments, this was enough to get a snapshot of the divisiveness of Pynchon’s work. There were those who believe it’s about time that a reviewer pointed out Pynchon’s shortcomings, including his “unfunny sophomoric goofing” and those who see the clowning around as part and parcel of the package that is Pynchon.  In other words, you either get it or you don’t and those who don’t need not apply.

As a contrast, Jonathan Lethem’s review in the New York Times comes to terms with Pynchon’s humour, his paranoia and the slipperiness of his prose:

But wait. I’m acting as if we all know what it is to read Pynchon. In fact none of us do, for figuring out what it is like to read Pynchon is what it is like to read Pynchon. You’re never done with it. He’ll employ a string of citations to real and imaginary Bette Davis movies, say, or riffs on basketball, much as Pollock uses a color on a panoramic canvas or Coltrane a note in a solo: incessantly, arrestingly, yet seemingly without cumulative purpose. Instead, they’re threads for teasing at, or being teased by.

It’s not so much about getting a joke as admiring an author who’s playing to an audience of one, namely himself.

As someone coming to Pynchon for the first time I found myself having fond flashbacks to Infinite Jest. While there are no footnotes, Bleeding Edge has the same sense of literary chaos (some might call it post-modernism), consisting of long tangents (which are often moments where Pynchon gets to soap-box) word play (there are some terrible puns) and the promise of a convoluted plot that never actually delivers. Of course, recalling Infinite Jest is looking at this the wrong way around, as it was Foster Wallace who was, apparently, influenced by Pynchon’s early work.

Having said that, this novel is more than just an amalgamation of post-modern quirks and tics. In contrast to Stevenson who criticises Pynchon for his lack of intimacy, I see Maxine Tranow as not only anchoring the novel but providing it with its sense of humanity. She’s this beautiful mix of cynical world weariness and the Yiddishe Mama. I normally grind my teeth when novels and TV “Larry Charles” their Jewish characters, falling back on the neurotic and nebbish stereotype, but in this case – especially Maxine’s relationship with her parents and her children – there’s a real feeling of warmth and love.

Maxine’s investigation of Gabriel Ice and his shady dotcom is linked to the key event at the heart of this novel – the fall of the twin towers. It’s interesting that this is my second consecutive review where I’ve made reference to September 11. For Mary Costello, the tragedy is just another excuse to punish her character Tess (her son worked in the Twin Towers) for Pynchon, it’ an excuse to write, as Adam Kirsch aptly puts it, a “shaggy-dog story” of conspiracy theories and paranoia. There are moments when Pynchon seems to be siding with the view that September 11 was a false flag perpetuated by shady elements of the US Government. But the novel never commits. Is Pynchon poking fun at the conspiracy nuts? Or is this novel a knowing wink in their direction.

It’s hard for me to complain about Bleeding Edge‘s lack of a decent resolution given Pynchon never promised to provide one. But with the novelty worn off and the jokes starting to wear thin the last 100 or so pages are a bit of a slog. Still, there is enjoyment to be had here and while Pynchon might be a divisive writer, I don’t think Bleeding Edge is a divisive work.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

TinkerMond

What’s It About?

Spanning 6 decades, beginning with Ireland in the 1940s and ending with the tragedy of the Twin Towers, Mary Costello’s short novel details the life and times of Tess Lohan.  The back cover blurb says, that during her fourty years living “with quiet intensity on Academy Street in upper Manhattan, Tess encounters ferocious love and calamitous loss.”

Should I read it?

No.  No.  No.

Even though it’s received rave reviews from critics and literary authors like J.M. Coetzee and Ron Rash, Mary Costello’s first novel is a dull and earnest slog.  Tess is a miserable martyr of a character who has sexual relations once… gets pregnant… never sees the father again… brings up the child alone (with some help from the next door neighbour)… and never again finds intimacy or, for that matter, has sex.  To cap it all off her 37-year-old son, Theo, dies in the Twin Towers on September 11.

I know there are people who gobble up this sort of misery-porn.  I just found it tedious.

Representative Paragraph

The one and only moment of sexual intimacy.

And then, woozy, half dreaming, she gasped at the first hot stab and cried out in pain.  She pushed at his chest, tried to pull herself from under him.  Frightened, he looked in her eyes, and rolled off.  He stroked her cheek tenderly.  Shh, I’m sorry.  A look of sorrow came upon him.  She began to crumble.  A tear rolled from the corner of her eye.  He kissed her eyelids, whispered something she did not hear.

They lay in each other’s arms  She did not want to lose him.  She pressed herself to him, felt herself yield again.  He searched her face, kissed her.  He began to move, slowly, gentle, his hands caressing her until she felt the swell and ache of her body, the longing to fuse, to be subsumed.  She turned her head to the side, repositioned herself under his weight.  He seemed to forget himself then, and her.  She did not care.  She closed her eyes against the pain, both shocking and stirring.  She was offering herself to him, and to something larger.  She felt herself topple and a point of light, of bright sensation, opened and spread, spacious within her, and pushed her perilously close to a precipice.  She had the feeling that he might after all save her, save them both, but then he gasped and shuddered and collapsed on top of her.

Commentary

I really didn’t like this book.

First there’s the prose.  With six decades to cover in 170 or so pages, the writing is dense, compressed, mostly telling and never much showing.  The novel is also entirely devoid of humour.  Everything is grim and faded and earnest, the sort of literary writing that strives for profundity but is mostly stodgy and dull.

On top of that Tess is a passive character.  Other than choosing to travel to America, life seems to just happen to her.  I think we’re meant to admire Tess’ inner strength or “quiet intensity” as she deals with the struggles of being a single mother in America during the 60s.  But she’s so inert that I found it impossible to engage with her as a person, especially given the amount of tragedy she faces throughout her life.

But my complaint goes beyond Tess’ utter lack of aspiration or ambition.  I quoted above her first and only sexual encounter with her one true love, David.  Much later she wonders whether there would ever “come another night, another time, another man, to match that brief all-consuming union?”  The answer (spoiler alert) is no.  She not only loses her virginity to David but she’s never again intimate with another man.  Rather this one moment of desire, described by Tess  as going “awry”, results in the birth of her son Theo.

I understand that not every woman had the opportunity to empower themselves, to enjoy the burgeoning fruits of feminism and sexual freedom in the 1960s.  But in neutering Tess, and in falling back on that awful cliché of the unmarried woman becoming pregnant the first time she makes love, I can’t help but feel that Costello is punishing her main character.  It’s made worse when Theo, once he hits teenage years, distances himself from Tess, a state of affairs that remains constant throughout adulthood.  The narrative doesn’t really provide a reason for this.  There’s no evidence that, aside from being a bit cold, Tess is a bad mother.  But Theo and by extension Costello, punishes Tess anyway.  And to add salt to the wound, Theo is in the Twin Towers on September 11.  It feels like a reworking of The Fallen Woman trope, but one that’s needlessly cruel and tasteless.

Even the one bright moment in Tess’ life, her relationship with her neighbour Willa, is framed in this context.  They become very close and there is a moment where they touch and… “[Tess] had a sudden longing to reach out, move aside the fabric, touch a breast, lay her head there, her mouth, ease her terrible ache for human touch, human love.”  I thought Costello was going to save the situation and allow Tess to enjoy and experience a genuine moment of love.  But no.  Prometheus must stay chained to his rock.

I didn’t like this book not just because it’s so dull and earnest but because Costello feels the need to constantly flagellate her character, to provide her with a life of tragedy and sadness and loneliness, to remove any chance she might have of feeling love and intimacy.  Some will find this inspiring, a great example of the human condition.  But really it’s just misery-porn masquerading as something profound and significant.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

Insanity (Part One)

TinkerMond

For the six of you who read my blog you might have noticed my focus on reading and reviewing books that have appeared on shortlists.  Well, starting next year I’m going to amp this up ever so slightly.  You see, while the internet is full of shortlist discussions, mostly focused on favourites like the Man Booker and the Hugos, no-one has ever put these shortlists side by side and decided which is the best one in any given year.  And do you know why?  Because such a comparison would be utterly insane.  You only have to check this link to see that there are hundreds and hundreds of literary awards given out every year.  Even if you just focus on the English-speaking world, the number of awards (and therefore books) to consider is beyond the reach of any person.  (Unless they literally do nothing else but eat, sleep and read books).

But that’s not going to stop me.

Next year I am going to read through the novel shortlists of the following genre and literary awards (they’re in the order of when the shortlists are announced).

Phillip K Dick Award
National Book Critics Circle
Hammet Prize
Kitschies
The Folio Prize
Nebula Award
Andrew Norton Award
Stoker Award – Best Novel
Aurealis Award – one category
Bailey’s Prize
Tiptree Award
Believer Magazine Award
Clarke Award
Pulitzer
Hugo Award
Edgar Award – Best Novel
Shirley Jackson Award
Locus Awards
Desmond Elliot
British Fantasy Award (Horror)
World Fantasy Award
Man Booker
Goldsmith Prize
National Book Award
Costa Award
New York Times Best Books

Now, in the case of the Pulitzer and the Tiptree I’m going to only read the winner.  And for those awards that have more than one novel category, like the Stokers or the Aurealis Awards, I will focus on a specific category (though I do intend to read all the Locus Award novel categories).  Overall, this amounts to an estimated 156 books.  Taking into account some shortlist overlap (books appearing on more than one list) I believe I’ll still be required to read 125 books.

This year I’ve read 90.  So, the chances of actually getting through all these shortlists is buckleys and none.  Still, we all need to set ourselves insane, unreachable, mind breaking goals from time to time.  And this is mine.

In Part Two I’ll explain what I intend to do with all this shortlist reading.

Mirrored from The Hysterical Hamster.

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