5/10. Another misleading blurb. This is not much of a thriller or horror; more like a drama about love, loss and friendship enabled by ice monsters. M...more5/10. Another misleading blurb. This is not much of a thriller or horror; more like a drama about love, loss and friendship enabled by ice monsters. Mostly bland, with tons of boring, useless information about the characters, and a lot of reflection on the deaths of loved ones. Read it if you're more interested in the lives of ordinary small-town Americans than being creeped out by ghosts. Full review to follow.(less)
Igor is a bit of a loser, a 31-year old man who doesn’t have a job or any plans to get one, and survives on the interest from a small investment. He l...moreIgor is a bit of a loser, a 31-year old man who doesn’t have a job or any plans to get one, and survives on the interest from a small investment. He lives with his mother in Irpen, Ukraine, about an hour away from the capital Kiev. One day his mother hires a mysterious old man named Stepan to work as their gardener and handyman. Stepan has a strange, indecipherable tattoo on his arm but he has no idea what it is. Bored, Igor photographs the tattoo and takes the picture to his friend Kolyan, a computer expert. Kolyan cleans up the image to reveal an address in Ochakov, a seaside town.
Stepan travels to Ochakov to learn more about his past, and because Igor has nothing better to do, he tags along, looking for adventure and treasure. The possibility of treasure sounds absurd, but this is exactly what they find – the address on Stepan’s arm leads them to what was once the home of Fima Chagin, a infamous criminal who lived in Ochakov in the 50s. Stepan’s father too, was a criminal, who left a stash of loot at the house.
As a reward for his help, Stepan gives Igor a few of the items – a gold pocket watch (broken), rolls of hundred-rouble notes (worthless), a gun (that doesn’t fire) and a Soviet policeman’s uniform. Igor feels short-changed, but one night he wears the uniform to a costume party and finds himself in 1957 Ochakov, where the pocket watch starts ticking again, the roubles amount to a very large sum of money, and the uniform gives him an authority that strikes fear in the hearts of citizens.
Stepping awkwardly into the role of a Soviet policeman, Igor ropes a young wine smuggler into helping him spy on the criminal Fima Chagin, who is living in Ochakov at this time. This quickly leads Igor to Red Valya – a stunningly beautiful fish seller who may have had an affair with Fima and who immediately captures Igor’s attention and admiration. He begins to flit between present-day Ukraine and 1957 Ochakov, entwining his life with his dabblings in the past.
Now, genre fans, a warning. This is not the kind of book with any interest in the time travel itself, the thrills and perils it offers, or complications like time paradoxes and anachronisms. I wouldn’t say that this is the kind of book where literary fiction and sff intersect because the sff aspect is almost negligible. Time travel is just a plot device. We have no idea why or how it happens. Igor doesn’t think about it much, and isn’t worried about getting stuck in 1957. All we know is that he has a few stiff drinks, puts on the uniform, walks down a certain road, and ends up running into Vanya, the wine smuggler, at the wine factory in Ochakov in 1957. To return home he takes the uniform off and goes to sleep on the couch in Vanya’s house. He wakes up in his own bed in Irpen. He believes that taking the uniform off will send him back home, but he never tests this theory. Nor does he check to see if he needs to drink copiously to time-travel, or if he could walk a different route to end up somewhere else. The time-travel phenomena really only serves to take him to 1957 Ochakov and back, juxtaposing the places and periods, and allowing Igor to carry out his little adventure.
His very random little adventure. It’s unclear if Igor is driven by anything other than idle curiosity, and he doesn’t seem to have any goals. He wants to spy on Fima Chagin partly because he’s pretending to be a policeman, and partly because he learned about this legendary criminal when he travelled to Ochakov with Stepan. What he’d actually do with info on Fima’s whereabouts is anyone’s guess. It’s no wonder that Igor is quickly and easily distracted by Valya; he’s just hanging around looking for something to do. There’s a semblance of a plot here, but it meanders aimlessly, much like Igor himself.
Normally in books like this, something else will drive the narrative, such as the character or setting. But in this case nothing did, at least not for me. The characters are all pretty boring. Igor, who has no ambitions other than to buy a motorbike one day, is totally colourless. Vanya is little more than a plot device deployed to guide Igor in 1957, except for a vague suspicion that he might be up to something sinister. The women in the story particularly dull. Valya is there to be a beautiful but reluctant love interest. Igor’s mother Elena Adreevna does little more than cook, clean and scold her son. We meet Stepan’s daughter, who is often just a silent presence.
There are a few potentially interesting characters who seem to have better stories – Stepan; Igor’s best friend Nikolai Kolyon; and the criminal Fima Chagin. Stepan is full of secrets, almost none of which are revealed. Kolyon is vivacious and enterprising – the opposite of Igor – and as a hacker he starts selling information illegally. However, his story is mostly sidelined. Fima Chagin, a famously handsome, charismatic and successful criminal also gets sidelined when Igor loses interest in him in favour of trying to get Valya to spend time with him.
Mostly, the novel seems to be about creating snapshots of day-to-day life in modern Ukraine (Irpen and Kiev) and 1957 Ochakov, which aren’t really that different. This involves stuff like public transport (Igor taking a minibus from Irpen to Kiev, buying instant coffee at the train station), a bit of crime here and there (Vanya’s wine smuggling, Kolyan’s hacking), food (buckwheat with a knob of butter, fresh flounder and gobi from Valya’s stall, salami and salted cucumbers), and A LOT of hard liquor (vodka obviously, but also vodka shots in beer, homemade vodka, brandy, and homemade wormwood liqueur, which I just found out is absinthe).
Then, towards the end, there are a few serious developments as , and Igor starts to have some insights about life – the aimless way he’s living, human nature in general, etc. None of it was exactly profound. Or memorable. Or book-redeeming.
Reading The Gardener from Ochakov is like moving languidly from point A to point B. If books were journeys then this would be a trip to the supermarket. A Ukranian supermarket, maybe. It’s not unpleasant, you pick up a few new and unusual things, but it’s mostly mundane. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it – I’m totally indifferent.
I’d say it’s more for fans of literary historical fiction than sff readers or any reader who enjoys plot. Kurkov uses an extraordinary and unexplained phenomena to portray ordinary lives rather than tell a gripping tale. And because there’s not much of a story driving the narrative, your potential enjoyment depends on whether you find the everyday details of Ukrainian life interesting, or if you’d like to follow the wanderings of a benign drifter like Igor. Its not necessarily a bad thing, and I can see how some would find a quiet, quirky appeal in The Gardener from Ochakov, but it’s not for me.
People look at me funny when I tell them I have a demon. “Don’t you mean, you have demons?” they ask. “Like a drug problem or an urge to stab your dad...morePeople look at me funny when I tell them I have a demon. “Don’t you mean, you have demons?” they ask. “Like a drug problem or an urge to stab your dad?” I tell them no. My demon is called Ruen, he’s about five foot three, and his favorite things are Mozart, table tennis, and rice pudding.
That’s Alex, a highly intelligent, totally charming but very troubled ten-year-old boy. And as he mentioned, he has a demon named Ruen, although Ruen is not quite as nice as Mozart, table tennis or rice pudding. He always takes one of four horrific forms, and while he claims to be Alex’s best friend, he often harasses and terrifies him too. But as a gifted, eccentric child living in an Irish ghetto with a severely depressed and neglectful mother, Alex has no other friends or companions.
When Alex’s mother Cindy is hospitalised after her fourth suicide attempt, child psychiatrist Anya Molokova is tasked with treating Alex. She believes that he may have early-onset schizophrenia and that Ruen is a clear indicator of this. While Alex’s social worker wants to improve his home-life and keep the family together, Anya wants Cindy declared an unfit mother so that she can medicate Alex.
Anya, however, can’t help but drag her own issues into the case. Her daughter Polly suffered from schizophrenia and died as a result. Anya has never gotten over the loss and knows that she needs to be very careful about projecting her daughter onto Alex as an attempt to make up for what happened in the past.
For the reader, the story is a different sort of conundrum, with the primary question being – is Ruen real or not? For the most part, the answer seems to be a definitive yes. Half of the narrative is composed of Alex’s diary, and he gives us a sense of what a serious presence Ruen is in his life, not to mention all the other demons he sees wandering around all the time. Obviously, his POV is deeply subjective and therefore unreliable, but Alex tells us things that about Ruen that suggest he’s real. For example, Ruen takes nightmarish forms that go beyond the mind of a ten-year-old. None of them are pleasant, and even the more benign ones make Alex uncomfortable at the very least. Ruen also tells Alex things that he couldn’t know otherwise, and this frequently comes out in Anya’s portion of the narrative, forcing her to consider the possibility that Alex can really see demons. It might have been more intriguing, perhaps, if Ruen’s reality were more uncertain, but personally I like the element of horror he brings to the novel.
Then there are little details that make you doubt Ruen’s existence, at least briefly. For example, two of Ruen’s forms resemble Alex. As ‘Ghost Boy’, Ruen looks exactly like Alex “only in a funny kind of way: He has my exact same brown hair and is as tall as me and even has the same knobbly fingers and fat nose and sticky-out ears, but he has eyes that are completely black and sometimes his whole body is see-through like a balloon.” When he takes the ‘Old Man form’, he looks frighteningly ancient but he dresses like Alex, in old tweed suits (Alex’s wears the too-big suits he found in a wardrobe in their house; his mother can’t afford normal children’s clothing and Alex seems to like his bizarre outfits). Things like this imply that Ruen is in some ways a reflection of Alex, raising the possibility that he’s just a product of Alex’s imagination.
And Alex is clearly not your average ten-year-old. He’s an amazing kid and a wonderful character. He’s lived a poverty-stricken life in an Irish ghetto, been neglected by his depressed mother, and witnessed her four attempted suicides. He doesn’t hold any of it against her though – he cares about her, and wants to make a better life for her (although this in itself is quite sad, given that he’s only ten). He’s a sweet, independent child with a lively mind. He’s involved in a modern production of Hamlet featuring child actors and he plays Horatio with flair and dedication. I loved reading the diary entries that made up his half of the narrative. The fantasy side of the novel is couched in his POV, which is quirky, funny, tragic, disturbing – all good things to me.
Anya’s narrative is quite different – serious, analytical. It’s not quite as enjoyable, but it’s not bad, giving the reader the realist perspective on Alex’s story. Anya tells us a lot about child psychiatry and her theories about Alex’s behaviour and Ruen’s presence. She tends to dismiss or weakly rationalise what she can’t explain (like how Alex seems to know about Polly) but you can easily see how certain details about Ruen lead her to interpret him as a delusion. She also describes links between children’s mental illness in Ireland and the country’s turbulent history with terrorism. Her belief that Alex needs to be medicated for schizophrenia looks like a serious mistake to the reader – Alex seems perfectly sane and needs decent housing more than drugs – but I didn’t dislike her because she clearly cares about Alex. Her slowly-revealed backstory with Polly also lends emotional weight to her narrative, so that even when you don’t agree with Anya, you can empathise with her.
I like the psychological entanglements of plots like this, but the pace also picks up as Ruen becomes increasingly sinister and demanding. It was a great read… except for the ending.
Up until a certain point The Boy Who Could See Demons is complex and full of uncertainties. It’s a great clash between fantasy and the psychological thriller. I had no idea how it could be resolved, but as I read I kept thinking about possible solutions and twists, happy endings and devastating ones. And, admittedly, I was still quite surprised by the way it turned out. Sadly, my surprise was matched by my disappointment, because the ending takes an otherwise interesting and unusual book and turns it into a tired old cliché that I hadn’t expected to see. I wanted to send the book back and ask for a more daring and inventive rewrite of the last chapter, those few pages where it all went south.
But it is what it is. I think it’s worth reading if you like psychological thrillers, and Alex is a lovely character. You might be annoyed, as I was, that it suddenly fails to be as good as it could have been, but that doesn’t make it a bad book.
This is the first time I’m giving up on a review copy. I’m a fairly determined reader. I’ve finished many books that I found to be tedious, badly writ...moreThis is the first time I’m giving up on a review copy. I’m a fairly determined reader. I’ve finished many books that I found to be tedious, badly written, or stupid (sometimes all three). But I can’t finish The Age of Ice, and I’m not going to try again later. Either I ran out of the determination I showed before, or this book is so boring it defeated me.
I was drawn in by the unusual premise – a Russian noble conceived in a palace made of ice finds that he’s immune to cold and has a weirdly long life-span. His story unfolds across Russian civil conflicts in the eighteenth century, a doomed Arctic expedition, and the Napoleonic Wars (which is where I stopped). It traverses Russia, Serbia, Paris and Afghanistan (I didn’t get that far). It’s two centuries long (but I couldn’t endure one).
What I expected was one of my favourite types of novel – the weird and wonderful creature you find at the intersection between literary and genre fiction. The blurb certainly gives that impression, throwing around words like “thrilling”, “stunning”, “original” and “genre-bending”. But as any reader will quickly find out, the blurb is wildly misleading. It places emphasis on the wrong plot points – the ice palace in which a disgraced nobleman and a humpbacked woman conceive Alexander and his twin brother, the boys’ idyllic childhood, and the brothers’ contrasting personalities. The conception and childhood however, are dispensed with in a couple of pages. Alexander and Andrei’s relationship is prominent at first, but Andrei dislikes his brother for rather vague reasons, buggers off out of the plot to live his own life, and then dies early on after a brief reappearance.
My genre-related expectations were also dashed. The fantasy or magical-realist aspects of this story – Alexander’s immunity to cold, his longevity and his inexplicable relationship with ice – just aren’t interesting. The historical aspect – described as “rigorous” in the blurb – is mind-numbingly dreary. The dense detail might be better appreciated by more dedicated fans of historical fiction (the research that went into this must have been rigorous, at least), but I found it suffocating.
Alexander’s fateful romantic relationships were the only things I found intriguing. Besides being immune to cold, his body can freeze others and form enduringly cold, hard ice. His flesh gets colder when he feels worked up or emotional, making sex and any kind of close physical relationship a serious problem for him. But these relationships get far less page time than such riveting content as Alexander slogging through the snow, Alexander taking the temperatures of dead fish, Alexander whining about being Old Man Frost. At one point I was so bogged down that I couldn’t remember the point of the characters’ current journey and didn’t care.
I could spend another month trying to drag my way through the rest of this, but I can’t take it anymore. I’m done.(less)
The Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy st...moreThe Shining Girls is the third of Beukes’s novels, and I think it’s now my favourite too, trumping Moxyland. Beukes writes with a very snarky, edgy style that I loved at first but tired of in Zoo City. The Shining Girls feels more mature, more refined, and offers a better story as a result. That’s not to say it doesn’t have that signature style or that Kirby isn’t smart-mouthed and bold enough to stand-up to her counterparts in Beukes’s earlier novels; it’s just toned down in a way that feels more natural and helps the story flow.
Mind you, it takes a fair bit of concentration to keep a firm grasp on the narrative, because the time-travel aspect means there’s a time shift with almost every chapter. The chapters are short too, keeping you on your toes. The key is to take note of the names, dates, and locations that comprise the chapter headings. I tend to ignore most chapter headings as unimportant, but I quickly learned that these are vital. The story is composed of multiple POVs in various times. Harper’s story begins in November 1931 but constantly moves between that time and 1993 as he hunts the shining girls. I think his story is actually relatively linear, but it doesn’t feel that way because what he experiences as linear time involves multiple time shifts, while the House itself is a atemporal space – a place that exists in all times and no time.
Kirby’s story begins in 1974, when Harper first contacts her. We see her as a child and a teenager, but usually as the scarred (literally and figuratively) 25-year old in 1993. The 1993 narrative is also told from Dan Velasquez’s perspective, as he tries to help Kirby out of his growing respect and affection for her. Then there are several minor POVs, including the shining girls and a junkie named Malcolm who tails Harper in the hope of getting some cash for his next hit.
It sounds overwhelming, but it easy to adjust to. The characters are distinctive and memorable, and there was only one chapter where I was confused about the POV. It’s not essential to understand everything in strict chronological order anyway; the most important events will come together smoothly. Beukes also employs an elegant tactic, using the objects in the House as narrative devices that tie the stories together: “Shining stars linked together through time. A constellation of murder”. The House is an atemporal space where the objects are always present, even when Harper takes them out. We see the links when objects in the room turn up in the shining girls’ stories, or when Harper takes an object from one girl and leaves it with another. Besides their practical narrative function, the objects are also just a pleasure to spot, like putting a puzzle together.