Despite having finished Ethan Frome a good fortnight or so ago now, I’m still haunted by this book, and suspect that I will be for a long time to come...moreDespite having finished Ethan Frome a good fortnight or so ago now, I’m still haunted by this book, and suspect that I will be for a long time to come. If you’re after a read that’s relentlessly desultory but that is, despite its inherent emo-ness, worthy of your emotional investment, then pick up a copy of this book, and read it straight through. I would, however, suggest supplementing your literary journey with a hot chocolate or something similarly comforting. This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com
Ethan Frome is a challengingly bleak novel that slowly, quietly forces itself upon the unsuspecting reader’s psyche. It’s less a recount of something that has happened than one of what might –or could never–have happened. Wharton takes a circular approach to her narrative, using the flashback framing device popular when the book was written to explicitly contrast the then and the now. The book opens with an unnamed narrator hiring a crippled husk of a man–Ethan Frome–as his driver during his stay in town. Inclement weather forces them to return to Frome’s home, where the stranger speculates on Frome’s downfall, after which point the novel takes us back to the events that culminate in Frome’s disfigurement–a disfigurement that certainly seems to be a sort of moral or karmic retribution.
Some twenty years ago Frome was a strong, able-bodied man, although emotionally he has never been in especially good shape. Frome’s life has been one of expectation and obligation, and he has spent the better part of his youth caring first for his mother, and subsequently for his wife Zeena, whom he takes in out of a sense of duty. The dynamic between Frome and Zeena is a chilling one, and it’s one that no doubt deserves some dissection by someone who’s more pyschoanalytically inclined than I am. Zeena is the type who is perpetually indisposed, something she puts down to her past efforts to care for Frome’s mother, and their entire marriage revolves around this fact. Zeena plays the consumptive card to keep Frome close, while Frome’s sense of residual guilt over both his late mother’s and over his wife’s health sees him take her incessant barbs without comment.
The puritanical context in which Frome and Zeena live, as well as Frome’s wont towards self-flagellation, essentially create a scenario that is all about stagnation, repression, and resentment–so what better way to throw a spanner in the works than a love affair? And this Wharton does in style by introducing Mattie, a live-in, unattached housemaid who happens also to be Zeena’s cousin. What follows is an abject depiction of a love that is notionally requited, but that is acted upon in only the most roundabout way. This affair, after all, is representative of Frome’s freedom–something which his moral concerns disallow him from chasing after. Every wayward thought or action, therefore, becomes something that cripples Frome with its weight, and Frome and Mattie find themselves in a spiral of increasing lust (if one could call it that) and thus increasing self-loathing.
Zeena, of course, is aware of the tension between the two, and thus of Frome’s desire to reclaim his freedom and youth, and she seeks solace in her illness by claiming ever worsening symptoms. In what is a stroke of manipulative genius she heads off to a nearby town in search of a diagnosis solemn enough that it might force Frome to remain by her side. Frome and Mattie are left alone during this time, but their sense of duty and moral uprighteousness, which are underscored by the moralistic challenge inherent in Zeena’s actions, precludes them from doing anything wayward. But it’s not their adulterous actions that pose the problem here–it’s the fact that that desire exists despite not being acted upon. And given thatFrome’s relationship with Zeena is necessarily emotional rather than physical, the psychological nature of his adulterous inclinations is all the more sordid.
Did I mention that Frome is the self-flagellating type? Well, things become even more desperately bleak upon Zeena’s return, when Zeena circuitously condemns the affair by noting that she has hired a new girl to replace Mattie. Given that Zeena has essentially okayed casting out her own kin, Frome feels vindicated in doing the same, and decides that he’ll leave his wife at last. But upon making this decision, he realises that he cannot do so without taking advantage of those who have historically been kind to him. Mattie gets in on the act at this point, suggesting a suicide act by sled (possibly one of the more novel approaches to suicide I’ve heard), but Frome’s guilt is such that he derails the sled at the lost moment, meaning that the two end up seriously injured rather than dead. This, perhaps is the most challenging aspect of the novel, and I could go back and forth for hours attempting to tease out the motivations here. Mattie, now an invalid, is cared for by Zeena and Frome (or at least by Frome when he is well enough to do so, having been nursed back to health by Zeena), adding a whole new dimension to the dynamics here. Is this Frome’s way of seeking retribution? His way of ensuring that he can spend the rest of his days by Mattie’s side? His way of punishing both himself and Mattie for their unbidden love? And what of Zeena’s response to this? Where her husband’s infidelity was ostensibly once the stuff of her paranoia, she now has proof of its existence, but is forced to live with the knowledge of his quiet desperation for the rest of her days.
Ethan Frome is proof that sometimes the greatest horrors are those that aren’t made explicit. It deliberately forces the reader to imagine the twenty years of convalescence and obligation that occur between the first and final chapters, and to endure the emotional challenges no doubt involved in this time. And if you’re not thoroughly disturbed by the thought of this, then you’re made of sterner stuff than I am.(less)
Given the spate of mediocre YA dystopian fiction hitting the shelves of late, it’s pleasing to read one that is as beautifully wrought as Caragh O’Brien’s debut Birthmarked. O’Brien’s novel, while admittedly flawed plot-wise, relying far too strongly on coincidence and circumstance, is thematically complex and challenging, and all of this is further complemented by largely spot-on characterisation and a world that is eminently believable.
Three hundred years from now, Lake Unsuperior is a world where the haves and the have-nots are explicitly divided by a Berlin-esque wall. Within the wall lives the Enclave, those genetically gifted individuals who live lives of relative leisure and abundance, while outside are those who eke out a simple, subsistence-level style of existence. But as with all such yin-and-yang societies, there is a sort of symbiosis going on here: those outside the wall pay to the Enclave a patently unusual tithe–their children. The tithe is essential to maintain appropriate levels of population within the wall, but is, of course, only extended to healthy children. Protagonist Gaia, a midwife by trade, is regularly privy to both the births of these children and to their subsequently being taken by the Enclave. It’s a fact of life that Gaia, who is socialised into believing that not only are such things normal, but they’re for the greater good, never questions the practice until her mother, herself a midwife, is kidnapped for her suspected crimes against the Enclave.
This becomes the catalyst for Gaia to begin questioning not only her role within society, but the ethical foundations of the Enclave as a whole, and the rest of the book follows Gaia’s efforts to enter the hallowed walls of the Enclave society, and her subsequent questioning of the way of live of these individuals–and of the Wharfton society in which she has grown up. And O’Brien does an admirable job of these. Awkwardly telegraphed plot coincidences and “just in time” rescues and escapes aside, just about every facet of this book is well done. O’Brien’s world distinctly recalls that of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, in which women essentially become little more than wombs valued for their reproductive ability, and where the epitome of their existence is the birth of a healthy child.
O’Brien challenges the reader to assess the value the life of the individual over the value of a wider society, but doesn’t let things lie at this broader level of conception. We’re told of how the lack of genetic diversity within the Enclave is leading to a high prevalence of haemophilia within the Tvaltar, itself a commentary on both the eugenics-style approach of this society, and also on the way it has turned its back on science and technology, this latter perhaps in response to the human-induced global warming that has led to the current situation. The regression of this supposedly progressive society is chilling: despite creating an illusion of pomp and splendour, we’re shown a world that is not only technologically and scientifically backwards, but which is also hopelessly parochial in terms of both its politics and social norms. The “protectorate” ruler, for example, could be characterised as either a dictator or an absolute monarch, as his powers seem endless and unmitigated; similarly, the justice system has devolved into a “lynch ‘em all” style hysteria, with prisoners either hanged without trial, or imprisoned indefinitely in order to serve the needs of the state. And, of course, individuals are kept in order by the prevalence of security cameras–the fact that these are one of the few pieces of technology to have survived the past few hundred years is eerily indicative of the power of the state and its efforts to exert power and cow its citizens into submission.
Likewise, the lack of dissemination of knowledge is worrisome: the remaining scientific and medical knowledge of the world is kept amongst only a scant few, and this specialisation touches on those same issues raised by HG Wells’s The Time Machine, which I reviewed last week. Likewise, it’s hard not to consider Jules Vernes’ notion of the pursuit of science to the exclusion of all else, which is a key theme in Journey of the Centre of the Earth (see my review).
Perhaps the key underpinning idea of this book is whether the ends can ever justify the means, and given this emphasis, Birthmarked fits in well with books such as The Chrysalids (see my review), as O’Brien ponders relentless what it is that makes us human, and what it is that makes one human better (or more human) than another. As in The Chrysalids, Birthmarked‘s society is arbitrary in its decisions about what is genetically or evolutionarily “correct” (indeed our main character is horribly scarred–a fact that makes her “unfit”, despite it having nothing to do with her genetics) and the result is chilling, particularly when applied to our own historical context or those scientific dilemmas regarding genetic manipulation or genetic selection that have been on the horizon for a while now.
One facet of this novel that I have to applaud is O’Brien’s deft avoidance of the “noble savage” trope. While Gaia initially romanticises her world outside the wall as a sort of bucolic idyll filled with rosy-cheeked women and rustic delights, her conceptions become far more incisive as her worldview is necessarily expanded courtesy of her travels within Tvaltar. But similarly her perceptions of the world within the wall change, too: rather than seeing people as a sort of faceless collective–much as the Protectorate seems to–she begins to see people for the individuals that they are. Admittedly, it is unusual to read a dystopian novel narrated by someone who is so disturbingly uninformed, but given the stories we hear about those living within communities where propaganda and misinformation is the word of the day, well, it’s believable–albeit disturbing. Some readers may find this confusion and ambivalence frustrating, but this, combined with the contrasting narrative of semi love-interest Leon, makes for a thought-provoking read throughout.
Just as a final aside, I have to admit that I’m rather disappointed to hear that this book is the first part of a trilogy (or however many books). I thought that Birthmarked ended in a manner that was superb: in the manner of all of the golden-age classics I’ve referenced in this review it was open-ended enough to evoke myriad questions from the reader, and I’m a bit saddened to hear that those ambiguities will be resolved in future volumes. With luck, though, O’Brien will prove me wrong.(less)
Having recently ventured around the world with Mr Verne, I decided that a journey into its depths with the same author might be in order. After all, Around the World in 80 Days, while flawed in many ways, was an immense amount of fun, and it’s hard not to feel fondly towards it despite its shortcomings. So it was in an adventurous frame of mind (cue image of hard hat, goggles, and spelunking gear) that I began Journey to the Centre of the Earth.
Unfortunately it seems as though travelling around the world is rather more interesting than travelling through it. In this novel, Verne takes us along on a psuedo-scholarly journey through the earth’s mantle, stopping frequently to tell us all about different geological materials and the equipment by which they might be assessed. And while I have an appreciation for rocks and stalactites and sedimentary and igneous what-have-you, I admit to needing a bit of plot or character to make this educational meal more palatable.
Verne’s characterisation seems to be a recurring weak point in his work, but it’s painfully apparent in this book. Brusque and snarky Professor Liedenbrock is, well, brusque and snarky, and engages in all manner of shenanigans for utterly incomprehensible reasons. Upon by chance finding in a newly purchased book a cipher he’s unable to crack, he locks up everyone in his household. When his (no doubt hungry and cabin-feverish) nephew Axel cracks the code (a process that is depicted in thoroughly excruciating detail–Mr Verne, if I wanted to read about tedious cryptography and steganography, I’d pick up a Dan Brown book), which tells in poor Latin of the truth of the centre of the earth, Liedenbock suddenly sets off to Iceland, dragging a few hapless others in his wake. And Liedenbock continues in such a manner throughout the rest of the book (with the exception of a few scenes in which he’s forced to show his oh-so-human colours). It’s with a Terminator-esque determination that he sets out on his journey. But curiously, it seems less that he’s motivated by the geological side of things–which might be the case given his preferred area of study–but by a boyish need to conquer stuff.
While a larger-than-life character can be good fun, their presence needs to be balanced by the other characters with whom they interact. But Verne gives us wimpy Axel, who’s roughly as useful as Bella Swan, and who has a similar propensity for tripping over his own feet, and a guide called Hans, whose role is limited to occasional ejections in Danish: “water!”, “help!” and so forth. In fact, the most interesting character is Axel’s betrothed, a young lass who’s an academic in her own right and might well have made for some interesting reading. Of course, being a young woman she’s unsuited to such things, and is left behind to undertake some needlework in the parlour or somesuch.
Needless to say, all of this makes for a rather bumbling effort when it comes to determining whether or not the centre of the earth is molten.
But perhaps what’s most frustrating about this book is its potential–and the fact that that potential goes unrealised. There’s so much room here for this book to be a fabulous, rollicking adventure. We get dinosaurs! Underground waterspouts! Humanoid life! But Verne’s characters utterly ignore these in their efforts to effectively plant a flag in that all-essential central part of the earth. And, of course, once they meet their destination they’re vomited up back on to the earth’s surface (after a few random flashbacks about skulls and academic lectures). I understand that there’s a statement being made here: the human tendency to fixate on one outcome or objective to the point that our myopia stops us from so much as noticing those other astonishing things around us. Given that Verne’s main character is a scientist, this is no doubt a commentary on the nature of scientific practice and research. But while that’s all fine and dandy, one can’t help but feel that this insight might be better served with a dinosaur scene or two.
In all, Journey to the Centre of the Earth makes for a fabulous elevator pitch: “three guys journey to the centre of the earth!”, but there’s little more to it than that.(less)
Frontier planet Hallholme has earned the moniker Hellhole due to its immensely inhospitable environment: static storms, myriad endemic illnesses, and poor agricultural prospects are just a few of the issues that its down-and-out inhabitants have to deal with. But Hellhole is, after all, a no man’s land that at its best is a dumping ground for the Empire’s unwanted, including General Tiber Adolphus, whose attempt at revolt against the Empire has seen him sent into lifelong exile. But Adolphus refuses to be put down: he has spent years slowly working to unite the numerous nearby independent planets in order to secede from the Empire once and for all. But the Empire, led by the ferocious Diadem Michella, has little intention of letting this happen.
I’ll come clean and admit right away that I’ve yet to read Dune, Frank Herbert’s space opera classic to which Hellhole apparently makes more than a passing nod, so you’ll have to excuse my ignorance here. Still, it doesn’t take more than a page or two of Hellhole to realise that Herbert isn’t the only influence here: this book departs from modern day progressive SF to wallow shamelessly in the golden space opera stuff of the mid twentieth century, and one can almost picture Asimov and his kind leaping up and down and exclaiming, “me too, me too!” Unfortunately, Hellhole suffers from many of the issues that plague its ancestors, and lacks the endearing factor that made those earlier books readable despite their shortcomings.
Perhaps the biggest fault of this novel is that it’s so determinedly epic. Everything about it has a tone of vastness, of hugeness, of verbosity. The cast of characters is George RR Martin-esque, and the setting essentially British colonialism but with bonus space travel. However, while the novel’s breadth may be impressive to some–there’s a clear notion of a huge narrative sandbox in which to play–this breadth results in a significant lack of depth. We’re given a number of hastily sketched worlds with which we must become accustomed, and all of them in the midst of political tumult. In addition, we’re made to contend with the various sources of alienation and disenchantment touched upon throughout the novel: these range from civil war to invasion to alien forces to usurpation. While each of these is an admirable and intriguing theme in its own right, there’s so much going on here that the reader is given little more than a cursory description of what’s going on.
Another issue, to me at least, is the political machinations that are the focus of this book. We’re given a political system that’s straight out of feudal times, with noble families and Lairds and Ladies galore, and one that’s crumbling under its own decadence. While I know that space opera is typically old-fashioned and conservative in nature, I always find the notion of aristocratic society reclaiming dominance over meritocratic systems rather tough to believe. And particularly when the politicians in this book seem to be more focused on sex scandals than anything else.
On that topic, I can’t help but note that I found the depiction of relationships, marriages, and power balances rather an issue in this novel. We’ve reverted to times where individuals (namely women) are married off into politically notable families, and the whole thing smacks of a destructive John Howard-esque nostalgia for white picket fences and apron-clad homemakers. In addition, the way in which women are depicted in this novel is an issue, too. While we’re given a female figurehead in Michella, she’s depicted as a power-hungry ingenue (indeed I imagine her as evil Mom from Futurama–incidentally, while we’re at it, I also envisage the unpleasantly named Adolphus as Adama from Battlestar Galactica), and any other notionally “powerful” women are in such a position due to the fact that they’ve clawed their way back from the brink after suffering at the hands of men. One woman, Michella’s daughter, is on the run after her extramarital affair with a nobleman is discovered; Tiber’s lover Sophie is recovering from the slights of her ex-husband; and young Antonia is on the run from a misogynist who, incidentally returns to rape her. The fact that each of the key female character has been cowed for sexual reasons while their male equivalents are on the run due to political or occupational reasons is something that is hard to ignore.
In addition to all of this messiness, we’re suddenly forced to contend with a subplot about a group of aliens ostensibly seeking their own version of the rapture. It’s a plot device that involves X-Files-esque slimy black pools and Bodysnatchers-like possessions, and it’s one that seems to randomly fall from space and land in chapter 50 (or whichever chapter it is–I don’t have the book handy), leading to a bit of bemusement on the behalf of the reader. While I’d let this sort of narrative zaniness go in an episode of Stargate or even an old issue of The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, this sort of stuff doesn’t really have much of a place outside of serialised fiction. (And while we’re on the theme of serialised fiction, I should point out that Hellhole ends, after 500 or so pages, on a cliffhanger.)
While the various bits and pieces of this plot are interesting enough in their own right, it’s hard work for the hapless reader, and the poor characterisation that’s one of the major shortcomings of this novel doesn’t help matters. Characters are drawn with wide, scant brushstrokes, and we’re never really given enough time with each character to truly get inside their heads. It’s a shame, as the worldbuilding is there, and with a more thorough approach to characterisation, this book could have been a good deal stronger.
While ardent lovers of golden age sci fi may revel in the back-to-basics feel of Hellhole, I can’t help but feel that it’s time these old-school authors took a page or two out of the literary oeuvre of some of today’s up-and-coming authors. Great sci fi can be world-changing stuff, but this, I’m afraid, isn’t.(less)
Most agree that character growth and development is the key component of a successful narrative. After all, what’s the point in completing a journey if one emerges from it utterly unchanged? Even a small change is significant in the greater scheme of things, with even incremental shifts in outlook changing the way we approach things. These small shifts are the standard shape of things in adult literature, where few individuals undergo a truly epiphanous experience. In children’s literature, however, such changes are reasonably common: think of the myriad “chosen one” narratives out there, or those that could be tucked under the wing of the “overcoming adversity through [random activity]” sub-genre.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s much-loved The Secret Garden is all about these sorts of dramatic changes, and is perhaps so universally so well-received because she allows her characters such flaws in the first place. Where many authors err on the side of the likeable protagonist in order to ensure that the reader is able to feel some sort of empathy with the character in question, Hodgson Burnett eschews all of this and gives us a trio of rather foul, down-trodden individuals who are more sour than a tub of off cream. Fortunately, Hodgson Burnett is skilled enough that she not only works her magic on her characters, but on us, too, and what should be a book that’s rather pat and twee is something utterly superlative instead.
Indian-born Mary Lennox is a self-centred, snippy young girl who has spent the formative years of her life being waited upon by an array of servants and governesses. Mary is used to being treated with deference, to having her every whim attended to. But her being able to treat her servants as playthings doesn’t hide the fact that Mary is utterly without companionship, and that her callousness and insularity is a shield that serves to protect her from the loneliness she feels. A loneliness that is only compounded when, after a bout of cholera churns through the population in her area, she is the only survivor. With no one to care for her, Mary is sent to Misselthwaite, a rambling manor deep in the heart of the moors of Yorkshire.
The contrast of vibrant, bustling India, with its dazzling heat and socially and linguistically complex way of life and quiet, bucolic Yorkshire, whose own soft beauty Mary has be coaxed to learn to appreciate, is a fascinating one. But while Mary was an outsider in India, so to is she an outside at Misselthwaite. Unversed in the Yorkshire dialect and unaccustomed with the pragmatic way of life of the locals–which includes things such as dressing oneself, a notion that’s utterly foreign to Mary–Mary is equally out of her depth in this new environment as she was in India. But she’s not the only one. Her new guardian, the aptly named Dr Craven, is a forlorn, lost man who has never recovered from the death of his wife some ten years ago. And, of course, there’s Colin, the would-be cripple who lives out his days secreted away in his bedroom, counting down the days until his inevitable death.
It certainly sounds like an abject setting, and yes, at first one is rather tempted to slap a bit of sense into this moody lot. But Hodgson Burnett’s way of doing so proves to be rather more beautiful than my own suggested open-handed approach. She uses a garden, a locked away, lost garden that has gone untended for years, to illustrate the way in which beauty, passion, and hope, lay dormant in all of us, and need only be tended to if it is to be brought to the fore. Hodgson Burnett highlights the way in which so much of our way of being is psychosomatic, with our self-concept being based upon fears and habituated behaviours that have simply gone unchecked and unchallenged. She highlights that the very act of tending to something, or indeed someone, necessarily involves tending to oneself.
Thus, as Mary throws herself into the new-found delights of the natural world, led carefully by the winsome country lad Dickon, who is the very embodiment of love and acceptance, she gradually comes into her own. With her every effort Mary becomes physically, emotionally, and spiritually enhanced, and she reinvests her new outlook into improving the lives of those around her. She helps to imbue Colin with the self-confidence he needs to cast of his own emotional shackles, and her increasingly robust presence brings life to Misselthwaite, raising the awareness of Dr Craven, who becomes more reflective and open and less lost in his own misery. The children’s breaking into the “secret garden”, of course, emphasises the importance of dealing with one’s emotions and struggles rather than leaving them to fester: for both Colin and Dr Craven the garden represents a wound that no one has thus far been allowed to tend to.
Hodgson Burnett manages all of this with astonishing warmth, and though there is certainly a quixotic feel to the narrative at times, with every Yorkshire native a red-cheeked, plump, and universally loving individual, and motifs such as the garden and the robin redbreast (who is, oh, just a wee bit over-anthropomorphised) being trotted out time and time again, it’s impossible not to adore this book. Like The Little Prince (see my review), it’s gentle, suggestive, and so very evocative, and it’s hard not to do a little reflecting yourself once you’ve turned that final page.(less)
Rather like an individual whose vices include smoking, tanning, and excessive drinking, science fiction typically doesn’t age well. I’ve cringed my way through countless SFnal classics attempting to determine what it is about them that has seen them catapulted to cult-like status. Science fiction, of course, is almost necessarily a reflection of the present, rather than of the future: reading an SF volume is a way of gauging the fears and concerns of the era from which the writer is currently writing. Thus, while so many volumes seek to elevate themselves in one area, they often fall flat in others (women’s lib, hello). For me, the best SF is that which works as a simple allegory, those novels that rely on a single trope, and which simply explore the resulting actions and reactions of those around. I’ll take a story about two characters stuck in a room over one that spans galaxies any day. And given this, it’s perhaps no surprise that HG Wells has found himself another fan with The Invisible Man. This, of course, wasn’t my first encounter with this famous novel: I have vague memories of reading a bright yellow volume of the same as a kid, and I’ve seen and read countless variations on its theme since. But this, like the Wyndham or Cormier novels I’ve recently worked through, just to name a few, is one that rather benefits from an old fogey-style reading rather than a cynical school kid-style one.
Iping is your quintessential small town: everyone is known to everyone else; it has its own particular quirks, habits, and customs; it’s narrow in scope, set in its ways, and terribly, terribly insular. And while all of this works perfectly well so long as the status quo is preserved, any changes to its compositional fabric are all but doomed to have some sort of desultory effect. So when a mysterious, inhospitable stranger arrives at The Coach and Horses Inn, we know it’s only a matter of time until things begin to go horribly awry.
A lodger of any sort is cause enough for gossip and chatter in Iping, but the Inn’s newest patron is one who is roughly as evocative as possible. Who is this surly, vituperative stranger who refuses company and gives away nothing of himself? Just how does he spend his days? The lodger, an inherently peculiar thing at the best of times, only elicits increased surveillance and curiosity as he further and further withdraws, attending to his own needs and declining to interact with others. But curiosity, if left unsated, quickly turns to suspicion, and such is the case here. As this strange individual does everything he can to retreat away from the watchful eyes of those around him, they become more determined to learn his secret. But it’s a secret that is both utterly astonishing, and terrifying.
The lodger (whose name is deliberately withheld for the majority of the volume) is, of course, invisible, a condition that is the result of scientific experimentation. And while this notion might not be anything novel or challenging to today’s readers, who’ve seen this idea trotted out as often as a champion show pony, Wells turns the idea into a thing of frightening proportions, and works allegorical wonderment on so many levels.
The most salient of these, is of course, the dangers associated with science. Not science itself, perhaps, but the hubris associated with it: humanity’s search for omniscience, that desire to not only know, but to control the natural. The lodger, in his efforts, has overstepped the bounds of humanity into the sphere of godliness, and it’s something that can have nothing less than disastrous results. By transforming himself, he has not only lost his outward sense of humanity, but given that he is no longer (to a degree, at least) restricted by the bounds of physicality/humanity, he is, by extension less restrained by those of morality. The lodger thus descends into a sort of amoral madness where he resorts to not only extreme pragmatism as a way of justifying his behaviour, but where his actions become almost senselessly motivated. Without the boundaries imposed by the visage of humanity, the lodger regresses to a violent, aggressive state–yes, comparisons with The Island of Dr Moreau and Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde are inevitable.
But there’s so much more to this book than the simple idea of being punished for overstepping the bounds of science. Apologies for name-dropping Foucault, but the notion of surveillance is utterly key in this novel. Foucault, of course, posited that regulation, documentation, monitoring, and surveillance are all key elements of ensuring that individuals within a given society behave the way that they should. People behave differently if they are being observed, for example. And other norms, such as that of naming–something which does not happen to our lodger until very late on in the book–are also essential to behavioural control. Thus, if our lodger is subject to none of these behavioural mechanisms, in what way will he respond? Truly, what would you do if you were not bound by the punitive force of others’ gazes? To me, this is perhaps one of the most chilling ideas present within this slim little volume: the fact that our humanity, our civilisation, is only a veneer kept in place by the sanctions of those around us.
A third concept, and one that is perhaps on par in terms of eerieness as its predecessor, is that of xenophobia. While the invisible man wreaks havoc and eschews morality at just about every turn of the novel, it’s not entirely without precipitation. From the outset he is othered–the townspeople, in their curiosity, treat him as some sort of curious attraction, or a puzzle that must be solved. And when the reality of his condition is revealed, their response is a mixture of fear and revulsion. The townspeople, including those who knew the invisible man in his pre-transparent days, quickly resort to a classy mob mentality, with even educated individuals, such as the invisible man’s university friend Dr Kemp, turning on him out of fear of his differences. Humanity’s terrifying ability to turn on the unknown and the different is at the forefront here, and it makes for a truly horrifying read. In fact, both the invisible man and the townsfolk end up resorting to the very same pragmatic ends-justifies-the-means approach. And where science is blamed for the actions of the former, it can be in no way identified as the cause of the actions of the latter. Given the complex, changing societies in which we live today–where there are many “others”–this is a sobering, poignant thought.
The Invisible Man is far more than a novel that rests on a cool trope and some well-written fight scenes. It’s complex, dark, cynical, and in its final scenes, surprisingly moving. As an examination of the flawed nature of humanity, and the ease with which the facade of our civilised state can slide, it’s a standout work indeed.(less)
Michael Grant is an author who has no problem killing his darlings–and I’m not just talking pretty adjectives here, but whole characters, too. In fact, Grant seems to take rather a good deal of joy in torturing them, tormenting them, and eviscerating them in as gory a manner as possible. While Grant’s characters don’t exactly have a fun time of it, the reader certainly does. And with Plague the most visceral, cruel outing thus far in Grant’s consistently outstanding Gone series, it’s safe to say that the reader is in for quite the thrill-ride–albeit a stomach-churning one.
It’s been seven months now since the adult population of Perdido Beach vanished without a trace. Seven months in which the kids of Perdido Beach have faced everything from civil unrest to abject famine to murderous mutants. And despite the best efforts of everyman hero Sam Temple and his industrious mates, the fragile democracy the survivors have fought so hard for is teetering on the edge of a participative precipice. Because scarcity makes people do funny things. And so does power. And so does fear.
One thing that people struggle with is systems thinking, and it’s a problem that’s all too evident in this tentative little society. While some individuals take steps towards a longer-term vision–fiercely capitalist Albert being a salient case in point–it seems all but an impossibility to think beyond the current state of affairs, let alone try to take into account the flow-on effects of even the smallest action. But if even Buddhist monks struggle with karmic reckoning, then these kids are in for a tough time. Particularly when many of their woes are from external, unforeseen forces.
In Perdido Beach, water supplies are dwindling. Not only is water scarce to begin with, but the mechanisms for collecting and purifying water are quickly breaking down. But while thirst is a terrible thing, so is illness. And the incurable plague that is sweeping through the already weakened young populace of survivors is about as horrific as one can imagine. But these setbacks aren’t all that Sam and the others must face. A huge swam of parasitic mutants with a distinct inclination to kill is on its way, too.
As in the previous books, Grant keeps things moving with all manner of big-talking, butt-kicking action scenes, and there’s nary a scene where at least one character is in peril. But while the blood and gore and action is no doubt key to keeping his young readership engaged, it’s the social themes in this series that keep oldies like me reading along. Somewhere amidst all of this narrative mayhem, Grant manages to get his teeth into some solidly fascinating concepts that range from the political to the philosophical to the social to the economic. There’s a good deal of thematic continuity in these books, with certain themes gradually expanded upon as the books progress and as certain elements become more salient, but each book has its own distinct issues that help to set it apart from prior reads.
Plague‘s, in my mind, are those of power, sacrifice, and perhaps even contentment. One of the toughest struggles faced by the characters in the book is whether to grant the return of exiled megalomaniac Caine, and what exactly this will entail. Taking this step necessarily provides a commentary on the value of these leading characters’ earlier actions, and certainly gets one thinking about the prisoner/prison guard paradox dissected in so many social theory critiques. Caine’s being called upon immediately results in a shift in the balance of power, with Caine’s self-concept undergoing a dramatic (and terrifying) shift almost instantly. And of course the self-concepts of the other characters must similarly shift to accommodate this new dimension.
Grant gets into morality and ethics here, too, and the notion of the sacrifice of one for the greater good of many crops up in several different contexts–with Dekka, Little Pete, and to some extent Diana, just to name a few. We not only see characters acting in a way that they perceive may be for the greater good, but also to atone for past wrongs. This concept segues challengingly into the value of human life, which is considered widely throughout the novel: Quinn and his new identity; the inhuman Orc; tormented Albert; and Diana and her end-of-the-book surprise. (Incidentally, one thing that fascinates me in these books is that there’s such emphasis on convalescence. Despite the sheer terror of these kids’ lives, we have a full-time make-shift hospital on offer to help with sick and ailing kids. This is course, points to the value of all human life–including invalids and the disabled, which is an essential point raised when the future of autistic Little Pete is discussed and challenged.)
Contentment and happiness are curiously salient themes in Plague, too. Despite the frankly vile situation in which these kids have found themselves, Grant’s characters are damn’ robust, and many of them actually come into their own as a result of the challenges that they face. They slip into new identities, and take pleasure in their new skills and abilities. This is in a contrast from the earlier books, where happiness could be found at the bottom of a box of XBox games.
For the most part, Plague continues the superb legacy of Grant’s earlier books. Still, there are a few moments where things slow down a little, or where we seem to be spinning our wheels. Caine’s reappearance–and his subsequent claiming of a regal role (oh, the audacity)–is a touch on the nose, for example, and one does become bogged down occasionally amongst the various characters who make little more than a cameo appearance. A bit of editorial snipping might have made for a sleeker read, but despite its flaws Plague makes for a page-turner that’s surprisingly thoughtful, too (monsters and mutants aside).(less)
This review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page b...moreThis review originally appeared at www.readinasinglesitting.com I’m the type of reader who prizes style, theme, and characterisation over plot–a page break is all that’s needed for me to be convinced that there’s some action going on. But there’s something to be said for those rollicking adventure stories of old: those where a hapless individual chases after a questionable end goal whose purpose is minimal at best. The type of narrative I’m talking about is that were each chapter might well begin with “And then…” And with an oeuvre that’s all about hair-raising, pulse-speeding adventures, the famous French fabulist Jules Verne fits perfectly into this breathless, zany genre.
Around the World in Eight Days is one of Verne’s most celebrated works, and has no doubt played more than a slight role in the sudden ubiquity of goggles, pocketwatches, cravats, and adventuredom beloved by the steampunk crew. Its plot is slight, its internal logic akin to my own, and its characterisation flimsier than a house built from crepe paper, but goodness, it’s a lot of fun. And when listened to in audiobook format in the gloomy early hours of the morning (yay for my 50 minute hike to the office at 7am daily), it’s all the better. Particularly when that morning walk involves trekking through Fawkner Park, where hot air balloons regularly land after their morning flights.
Phileas Fogg is the kind of man who would put an atomic clock to shame. Much like a production editor, he has every moment of his life regimented into strict segments. In fact, perhaps the only spontaneous thing he’s ever undertaken in his life is his sudden decision to attempt an around-the-world journey in 80 days–no more, and no less. But while the completion of the journey will net him a hefty sum indeed, it’s the strict time requirements of the journey that most interest Fogg. And, so, having mapped out in his mind the exact chronological requirements of the journey, he and his hapless assistant Passepartout set out on their omnicontinental journey. But while Fogg’s dogged punctuality sees things starting off on the right track, there’s necessarily a spanner or two thrown in the watch-works. First, Passepartout’s bumbling shenanigans, which see the pair get themselves into all manner of time-chewing mischief, and the fact that Fogg is being stalked by a Terminator-esque police officer who is adamant that Fogg is in fact a bank robber on the run. Having found myself stuck for several days in international airports, missing all manner of connecting flights, one can only imagine how easily things could be derailed in a time where correspondence via snail mail (pony mail?) was the order of the day.
Yes, it’s all rather ludicrous, and each chapter essential entails Fogg and Passepartout setting out on a leg of the journey, Passepartout screwing things up, and Fogg saving the day (and time) in the end. It’s kind of the narrative equivalent of There was an old lady who Swallowed a Fly. But really, there’s a great deal to like here. For my part, I’m rather impressed by Verne’s efforts to put together a worldwide itinerary in pre-Google days. There’s also the cold pragmatism of Fogg, who feels like a clockwork man himself–perhaps he’s a precursor to the Vulcan race? But Fogg, despite being intransigent in his goals, is surprisingly beneficent, being willing to help out just about anyone along the way so long as his his time constraints aren’t stymied.
But while the characters are so thin as to be see-through, there is some character growth. Fogg, who throws money at just about every obstacle that comes his way, does so in a way that indicates that money is no object: rather it is one’s intentions, beliefs, and passions that are paramount. But while extreme punctuality may not seem like an exceedingly admirable goal, rest assured that Fogg’s chilly heart does begin to warm in the name of lurve. Passepartout, too, while a shambling delinquent for the most part (I picture him rather as one of the Frenchmen in Monty Python and the Holy Grail–”your father smells of elderberries!”), is in fact a big-hearted chap who does what he can to see the goals of those he cares about realised. The contrast of rationalism and passion–indeed, the two men are both archetypes for their respective countries–is often hilarious, and Verne’s clever mix of poignancy and tongue-in-cheek mockery makes for a rather fun read indeed (and the fact that Verne’s characters can make it around the world in 79 days when the Melbourne Metro system takes similarly as long to get from one station to another makes for some relevant modern-day commentary…).(less)
Every couple has their own dictionary: all those shared moments lead to a secret language that can be utterly incomprehensible to the outside observer. These lovers’ dictionaries are continually evolving, and are perfect for tracing the trajectory of a romance (and not to mention those cringe-worthy pet names). David Levithan’s latest novel, The Lover’s Dictionary, does exactly this. Divided into a series of brief alphabetically arranged entries, each headed with an evocative single-word title, the book follows the ups and downs of a relationship between two unnamed characters. Certainly, the method is a trope, but in Levithan’s capable hands it’s one that is, with the exception of a few slightly melodramatic or extraneous bits and pieces, close to flawless.
Levithan captures so perfectly the events that transform a nervous acquaintance into a tentative relationship into full-blown coupledom, and his laconic style allows this path to be traced with surprising narrative elegance. It’s not a linear narrative, and we see hints of a darker future amidst the rosy explorations of those earlier entries. Much of the book relies on allusion and on elision, with the reader forced to do much of the legwork to fill in those meaningful gaps. After all, it’s the pauses and hesitations that are often more meaningful than words themselves. And Levithan certainly doesn’t shirk this fact, doing everything he can to exploit it. Dark, challenging entries are juxtaposed against whimsy and XKCD-like observations to moving contrast, and while there are moments where it’s a little blatant (the repeated entries regarding one lover’s infidelity being a case in point), for the most part it’s highly effective.
Levithan’s incisiveness is perhaps what surprised me most about this book. There are so many painfully familiar moments in it: those ambiguities, ambivalences, those moments of self-loathing and self-doubt that are inevitable in any relationship. All of those tiny turning points in a relationship are somehow captured in this concise little tome. And oh, it’s so easy to see oneself popping up here and there in its pages (although perhaps that’s my inner narcissist preeningly rearing its head). It’s a saddening, maddening book in so many ways: it’s not so much a dissection of a failed relationship as the analysis of a psyche determined to remain in an increasingly desultory relationship out of sheer determination to make things work. But Levithan’s wit and irreverence stop it from becoming a book with which to drink away one’s sorrows, which makes it a refreshing entrant in the world of relationship narratives. It doesn’t moon, it isn’t platitudinous: it just is.
Perhaps what I liked most about this novel is its confounding of archetypes and othering. Levithan neither names his characters nor gives anything away regarding gender. Perhaps due to my fleeting familiarity with Levithan and his other work, I read this under the assumption that both characters were male, but having done a quick google, it turns out that almost everyone else has defaulted to a male/female heterosexual relationship. It’s a touch saddening to realise this, and there’s certainly opportunity for a dialogue here. But while the story is all about the universality of love (and its myriad related conditions, afflictions, and emotions), a part of me wishes that Levithan had screwed the Irving Goffman bit and gone on record.
All in all, this is a refreshing, wonderful little volume that you’ll delight in dipping in and out of–if you don’t devour the thing like I did. It’s simultaneously sparse and sumptuous, incisive and irreverent, but it’s always human. A great read.(less)
Despite her frank, pragmatic outward persona, would-be novelist Lily Lin is a romantic at heart. Tales of her childhood homeland have always captivate...moreDespite her frank, pragmatic outward persona, would-be novelist Lily Lin is a romantic at heart. Tales of her childhood homeland have always captivated her, and she has always held a certain nostalgia for the famed Silk Road. So when Lily receives an offer from a mysterious benefactor that will see her inheriting three million dollars in exchange for travelling the Silk Road–and undertaking a few admittedly odd tasks besides, she scarcely hesitates before booking her ticket. In China she finds herself a world away from her domineering married boyfriend and her minimum wage job: instead she finds herself caught up in the nuances of life in, for the most part, rural China. Her trip takes her to remote Buddhist temples, to Uyghur settlements, and through exquisite, challenging landscapes. And of course, Lily finds herself falling in love…
Books in which the protagonist finds themselves on the receiving end of a life-changing sum of money abound. There’s Patricia Wood’s Lottery, Inheritance by Nicholas Shakespeare (see our review), and Millions by Frank Cottrell Boyce. It’s a trope that abounds film and TV (ah, poor Homer Simpson and his elusive millions), perhaps in part because there’s something utterly life-changing about the promise of such huge sums of cash. Money is something that has the potential to change both the how and the why that we live, and its impact can be immense. Curiously, the financial aspect of Lily’s journey is scarcely touched upon throughout the novel. Of her promised three million, she receives fifty thousand up front, and it’s this that she uses during her travels throughout China. Given that even this sum is exorbitant in rural China, there’s never any real sense of need. In fact, despite the fact that Lily asserts that she’s financially motivated, we really only see this towards the end of the novel, when she meets her benefactor. Lily’s journey, rather, seems to be more motivated by the desire to escape from the rather desultory living situation in which she’s found herself.
But Lily’s efforts to escape from her rather vile partner and lead an unencumbered life throughout her travels, she quickly finds herself courted by a young man intent on playing a rather significant role in her life–indeed, this 21-year-old lad drops the “marriage” bomb within a day or so of meeting Lily. His infatuation is so over-the-top that I couldn’t help but wonder whether he himself had a similar quest to Lily’s (this doesn’t turn out to be the case). It’s a sweet relationship for the most part, despite its oddly stalkerish beginnings, but there’s such a sense of convenience to it that I felt myself struggling to believe it. This element of the book in my mind runs counterpart to the love story in Xinran’s Sky Burial, in which a widow searches endlessly for her lost husband in Tibet.
Yip takes us through a fascinating array of cultures and scenery, and the narrative is liberally peppered with all manner of anthropological and ethnographic delights: religious customs, herbal healing, philosophy and ideology, and more. Oddly, these elements are far more enticing than the actual narrative itself, which reads like a poorly plotted road trip novel slotted into an exotic milieu. Lily’s trip, despite requiring her to spend several years in China, only contains three or four actions that she must undertake in order as part of her benefactor’s “mission”, and all of these seem extraneous to the actual themes of the novel– self-discovery. These tasks feel almost as though they have been stitched into the novel as an afterthought, and don’t quite sit neatly against the wider tapestry of the novel. While some of them result in some amusement for the reader, others simply feel like devices to get Lily on her way.
This is in part because of the particular stylistic approach of the novel. Song of the Silk Road is not a translation, but its style is certainly far from that found in a typical western novel. There’s a bluntness and matter-of-factness that I’ve come across in other Chinese novels (and indeed in the Buddhist texts and stories that my Chinese boyfriend occasionally passes my way) that is occasionally jarring to the western ear, and the narrative asides occasionally result in textual bloating. This narrative style also affects our ability to empathise with Lily: heavily self-critical and exceedingly honest in her intentions and goals, she comes across as distinctly unlikeable, and honestly if it weren’t for some of the other characters with whom she interacts along the way, I think I would have struggled to get through some parts of this book.
Moreover, while the Silk Road aspects of the book offer up some truly fascinating insights and experiences, things get messy when Lily returns to New York, and the remainder of the book turns into blatant wish fulfilment and authorial insertion. It’s just so neat and tidy, and while I do understand that Lily gets what she deserves (albeit in rather a different manner from how she imagined she might), I can’t help but feel that the last few chapters of the novel might have benefited from taking a slightly different turn of events. This is a personal taste issue, of course, but there’s a certain “nyah nyah!” to these final chapters that feels awkward to the reader.
If you’re a lover of international literature and you have a yen for travel, then Song of the Silk Road may be something that you enjoy. Despite its slightly wonky narrative and its rather frustrating series of plot coincidences, it brims with cultural insights and explications, and I don’t doubt that many a reader will take something from this novel. If you put yourself in the mindset of a romance reader rather than a mystery or literary reader, you’ll find plenty here to like.(less)
**spoiler alert** Lexi Baill’s life has been anything but easy. With an absent father and heroin-addict mother, Lexi finds herself shunted from foster...more**spoiler alert** Lexi Baill’s life has been anything but easy. With an absent father and heroin-addict mother, Lexi finds herself shunted from foster home to foster home. But when she is legally adopted by her aunt, Lexi’s life takes a turn for the better. She finds herself attending a good school in a good community, and quickly becomes close friends with Mia Farraday. The picture-perfect Farradays are soon a second family to Lexi, and their ties become closer when she begins dating Zach, Mia’s twin brother. But a fatal accident sees Lexi’s, and the Farradays’, lives torn apart. The consequences are far-reaching, and both Lexi and the Farradays find that piecing back together their lives is a far greater challenge than they ever imagined–particularly when the past refuses to remain where it belongs.
(the spoiler-averse might wish to stop reading here, as my analysis touches on some key plot points you may prefer to read for yourself)
Best-selling author Kristen Hannah writes with confidence and flair, and it took me all of a few pages until I was completely enamoured of Lexi and her story. Yes, the against-all-odds approach is more than cliched, but Hannah manages to take her characters beyond archetypes and imbue them with such a sense of self that it’s difficult not to feel compassionate towards them. The narrative initially traces Lexi’s efforts to become integrated into the world in which the Farradays inhabit, but soon splits into a dual narrative: that of Lexi and the struggles she faces to become accepted both the first, and a second time, and that of Jude Farraday, the claustrophobically protective mother of twins Mia and Jude.
Curiously, I couldn’t help but think of F Scott Fizgerald’s Tender is the Night (see my review) when reading Night Road, as both novels deal with the growth of one character at the expense of another: in Night Road, Lexi comes into her own as Jude flails, and then, conversely, Jude takes a sense of power from Lexi’s social demise. The catalyst, of course, is the death of Mia, Jude’s daughter and Lexi’s best friend, in a road accident–an accident caused by Lexi, who was at the wheel at the time, and drunk. The effect that this accident has on all parties is obviously devastating: Lexi loses her best friend, and of course her lover Zach, while Jude loses her biological daughter Mia, and also her soi-disant adopted daughter, Lexi. Jude, who has always been protective to a fault, lashes out at Lexi as a result, pressing for a harsh penalty to avenge her daughter’s death. But these efforts serve only to further punish Jude herself: not only does she effectively lose Lexi, too, but she pushes away her devastated son. It’s a challenging scenario, and one that Hannah depicts beautifully–the anguish all but drips from the pages.
But things, of course, are only about to get more complicated, and after Lexi is sent off to prison Night Road gets a little The Lovely Bones on us. Lexi it seems has fallen pregnant to Zach, which poses all manner of problems to these fractured individuals. The pregnancy raises issues such as the value of Lexi and Zach’s relationship, the role of Jude as a grandmother and would-be mother, and perhaps most importantly, the notion of life inevitably springing from death (a theme I recently looked at in my recent review of Salley Vicker’s excellent Instances of The Number 3). But it’s in this area where I felt the novel flailed a little. Zach, still professing his undying love for Lexi, takes full custody of his new-born daughter without so much as a brief moral struggle (let’s bear in mind that this kid is 18 and about to head off to university). His altriusm is unending: he sacrifices everything for his daughter, and continues to secretly love Lexi, despite her lack of reciprocity, throughout the intervening years. For her own part, Jude continues to punish both herself and Zach by refusing to engage with her granddaughter at all.
While Hannah is undoubtedly a good writer, it’s hard not to stop such a situation from devolving into a soap opera-esque debacle, and unfortunately none of this evokes quite the pathos desired. In fact, it all becomes rather tedious after a few hundred pages, as Jude’s anguish, her deteriorating relationship with her husband, and her inability to forgive are reiterated endlessly, and we cover the same narrative ground time and time again. Moreover, the characterisation and setting seem to slowly crumble, too: jail scenes of Lexi befriending a tough-as-guts lifer feel like something out of an 80s boxing film, and things struggle to pick up when she gets out of prison and begins, well, stalking her daughter. (There’s also the fact that Lexi’s daughter’s invisible best friend is ostensibly the ghost of Mia, but this very notion strained an already struggling narrative so much that I tried to pretend that this was not the case). While I commend Hannah for attempting to deal with such a challenging scenario, I can’t help feel that Heather Gudenkauf’s These Things Hidden (see my review) did so with much more elegance.
Narratively, things only become more implausible from here: Lexi and Zach passionately reunite, and Jude manages to rend the outfit of mourning she’s been wearing these past years. It’s just all so very neat, and all so very convenient. Given that the cynic in me finds it very hard to believe in puppy love as something that will last out the years, I struggled to believe that Lexi’s past as an ex-con did nothing to sway Zach’s feelings at all.
Still, while the narrative as a whole feels rather too colour-by-numbers for me to endorse whole-heartedly, there are some surprisingly good moments in this novel, and I can see why Hannah is such a popular writer. Jude’s relationship with her husband, for example, is tenderly depicted, and there are many characters who, despite being only sketchily drawn, are easy to empathise with–characterisation is clearly Hannah’s forte as a novelist. The setting is believable, and the dialogue for the most part is spot-on. If Hannah steps away from these neat endings in future, she might well have a winner on her hands.(less)
Queer Fish in God’s Waiting Room is an unlikely title–and indeed has an unlikely title–but it’s one that I suspect will generate more than a little buzz. A slightly crazed, dadaist road-trip romp, the at times pained and laconic voice mixes giddily with the unabashed madness of William S Burroughs (his Junky days, not the cut-up poetry days), and for me, the gloriously self-indulgent work of Martin Clark (see our review of The Many Aspects of Mobile Home Living).
The novella follows a trio of pommy lads–narrator Liam, his younger brother “Brother James”, and their mutual comrade Ed Lover–as they trek about the world on a boozy, junk-food fuelled holiday. Destinations like New York, Mexico City, and Venezuela loom large against the starkness of life in working class Macclesfield, and the three push the bounds of responsible drinking, political correctness, and good taste at every available opportunity.
But what could easily be an inhuman dirge is far from it. Henshaw’s gonzo approach knits fascinating characters from a few tiny details, and the sense of alienation of these three would-be worldly lads is at all times palpable. Despite the constant big-noting and bragging and preternatural amounts of alcohol consumption stippling this book’s pages, the fragility of these individuals, and of their relationships, is superbly rendered. Their extended holidays, where pizza and booze and dope, not their exotic environs and the fascinating and foreign cultures in which they find themselves, are invariably the focus, underscore their existential pointlessness, and as the book progresses we see how tenuously each character is clinging to the lifestyle of their shared youth.
While all three happily mire themselves in a morass of seediness both while on holiday and when back at home, there’s a sense of desolation that becomes all the more apparent, and we watch as the paths of the characters’ lives gradually diverge, despite their best efforts to avoid this. While the misogynistic bravado of the characters grates, a final scene between Liam and Brother James helps set things straight.
There’s a good deal to like here, although I suspect that much of my enjoyment came from the fact that I listened to the audio version of this book, which is superbly narrated by Adrian Pasdar (Nathan Petrelli on Heroes). For the most part, Pasdar does a fabulous job of bringing this book to life, although one does wonder at the wisdom of having an American read a book narrated by a pom (it’s very odd listening to an American say “mate”, and let’s not get me started on his attempts at an Australian accent). Pasdar’s careful, nuanced reading makes mellifluous work of scenes that I suspect might drag a little on paper, or which I’d likely skim over.
While there’s no doubt that this slim read is immensely enjoyable in many ways, it does struggle under its own weight at times. The incessant relay of quips often feel as though they’ve been shoehorned into the prose, and every now and then one gets the sense that this book started out as a collection of witty quotes noted down in a notebook. Moreover, given that the author used this book as a way to propose to his girlfriend (aww), the ending disappoints somewhat, feeling perhaps a little mawkish and pat given the rather hilariously desultory preceding events. Still, it’s a worthy read, and I recommend getting your hands on the audio version if you can.(less)
Well-regarded paranormal writing duo Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie, best known for their Wicked series, have returned with a new series in which the...moreWell-regarded paranormal writing duo Nancy Holder and Debbie Viguie, best known for their Wicked series, have returned with a new series in which the “cursed ones”, the blood-lovin’ folks of the world, have had enough of behind-the-scenes living, and have made their presence known to the world. However, unlike the vamps in the Sookie Stackhouse books (see our reviews), the nocturnal critters in Cursed Ones aren’t sexy, and they aren’t especially friendly. In fact, they have a bit of the ol’ world domination on their minds, and that, combined with an insatiable blood-lust, makes them rather formidable foes. So formidable in fact, that the developed world is slowly crumbling beneath the onslaught of these dastardly folk.
But where there are vampires, there’s always a vampire hunter, or in this case, a team of them. Eighteen-year-old Jenn Leitner is one such “hunter”, having stepped into the role after a rigorous, Tarantino-worthy training schedule at Spain’s Sacred Heart Academy . Working as part of a team of butt-kicking comrades, it’s Jenn’s duty to go about dusting any of the fanged and the fabulous. But things quickly become complicated when one of Jenn’s own family betrays her, and when her little sister Heather is kidnapped by a fearsome gang of blood-thirsty vamps, and Jenn finds herself facing down her greatest fears, and foes, all at once.
Perhaps I’m showing my reviewery age, but I’m quite the jaded cynic when it comes to all things vampire-related. As a reader, I tend to find myself liking a book despite it including vampires rather than because it does, so any author trotting out vampiric tropes before me is facing some harsh initial hurdles indeed. I’ve certainly been pleasantly surprised by some authors in the past year or so, but I’ve also found myself groaning through a morass of cliched dross.
The Cursed Ones certainly isn’t the latter, but I’m afraid that it didn’t quite light my fire the way it might have. Despite an exotic setting (Spain, glorious Spain), and a racially diverse cast (hooray!), the book struggles somewhat in the plot stakes (pardon the pun), perhaps in part because of the challenge involved in setting up a new series, which I admit is far from an easy one.
The book’s painfully confusing in media res opening had me flailing about as a reader, and I admit to going back to check whether this was indeed the first in the series, or whether I’d missed a volume or two somewhere down the track. We’re immediately thrown into the action, with an array of seemingly disparate characters slaughtering vamps and monsters all over the place. While these openings can be great on camera, in a novel the reader needs a touch more time to find a character with whom to empathise so that they can hitch on and enjoy the narrative ride. As it was, I found this book rather like a Japanese hot spring: far too terrible to leap into immediately, and requiring a few tentative toe-dippings before I could fully immerse myself in it.
While things certainly pick up after this awkward opening, the plot struggles to bring much anything fresh to the table, meaning that the reader is left relying on the characters to carry the novel. While there are some interesting characters introduced throughout the novel, there’s rather a sense of a D&D game to it all, with characters picked deliberately in order that they might contrast with the others in the book (the Planeteers from Captain Planet rather come to mind here…). There are some interesting personal challenges highlighted, with Catholic vampire Antonio’s quest for redemption being a particularly interesting one, and the difficulty in resolving human and inhuman aspects, such as those doing battle within the werewolf character Holger. However, I felt that the fact that much of the narrative focuses on Jenn, who spends most of her days swamped by feelings of inadequacy, resulted in the novel being less successful than it might have been if we’d spent more time in the point of view of the other characters.
That’s not to say that we don’t flit between POVs, because, oh, we do. While for the most part this works, some of the head-hopping becomes a little vertiginous after a while, and I found myself in so many different heads that I was beginning to wonder if I’d developed psychic powers. I can’t help but wonder whether a tighter approach to point of view might have resulted in a streamlined book. And just as an aside, I always find it weird when non-native speakers slip into their native tongue for basic phrases such as “yes”, “no”, or “thank you”. Surely these phrases are amongst those learnt by rote, and it’s the more challenging parts of the language, such as idioms or exceptions, that would require one to fall back on one’s native tongue?
Perhaps the major issue with the book is that each character’s kryptonite is so explicitly stated that much of the mystery is taken out of the narrative. We know that Jenn’s sister’s asthma will play a role in the plot. We watch as Jenn and the vampiric would-be Catholic priest struggle through the most challenging demonstration of starcrossed loverdom since Romeo and Juliet. The careful telegraphing of the various characters’ motivations, weaknesses, and actions results in a plot that’s neat, but unfortunately rather inexorable, which is a shame.
Finally, I did find myself struggling a little, as I usually do, with the characterisation of the vampires. With the exception of Antonio, who is rendered as a counterpoint to the rest of his brethren, this whole race is drawn in rather broad brush-strokes (read: “baddies”). Such approaches always unnerve me a little in fiction, as it’s hard not to draw analogies with historical minority groups, and I always find myself mentally flagging these instances.
Admittedly, as someone who is lukewarm about paranormal fiction at best, The Cursed Ones isn’t quite my cup of tea, but if you skip the few first chapters you’ll find yourself in for a neat and tidy, if not especially memorable, read. I suspect that since this book was largely dedicated to laying the groundwork for this series, things will pick up in the next offering from this powerhouse duo.(less)
When Peter Hansome dies in a car accident, a number of carefully concealed–or perhaps simply wilfully ignored–truths bubble to the surface. Bridget Hansome, Peter’s widow, is contacted shortly after by Frances Slater, Peter’s long-time mistress, who asks whether she might attend his funeral.
If the authorial pen for this narrative were being wielded by anyone else, this story would veer into flagrant tumult, but in the hands of acclaimed writer Salley Vickers things proceed rather differently from how one might expect. Bridget and Frances, rather than locking horns over who is the rightful possessor of Peter’s heart, embark instead on a mutual journey of self-discovery, delving quietly and inexorably into Peter’s past, which is a dark and problematic area about which each has her own suspicions, but has continued thus far quite happily without airing them to the world. The two develop an acquaintance that teeters between friendship and adversary, and it’s this unlikely relationship, along with that of the mysterious Zahin, a handsome Iranian boy whose relationship with Peter remains ambiguous until the end, that takes up much of the rest of the book.
I suspect that American readers might be put off almost immediately by this development, but that British readers or those from rather more conservative societies might well be sympathetic to each woman’s quiet acceptance of the other’s existence. Both women wish to maintain face by avoiding explicitly addressing the subject in public, but what’s perhaps most curious about this is that the status quo that has extended for the past seven years has been maintained. Peter, after all, made little secret about the fact that he took mistresses, and both Bridget and Frances were aware, to at least some degree, of the existence of the other.
This may seem horribly anti-feminist, but I’m not entirely sure that it is. As the book unfolds, the reader sees that while Peter sees himself as playing a major role in the lives of his wife and mistress, neither woman considers him in such a light. Both are independent and successful in their own right, and while they partake of his company, there is little sense of their giving themselves over to him. Peter fills a gap or sorts, but whether this gap is one that needs filling is questionable. Indeed, the complex relationship that the two women develop is less about wishing to keep Peter alive in some sense, but more about examining their own selves through the lens of the other–something that is possible largely because Bridget and Frances are so curiously different.
Peter, then, despite being to some degree the theme of the novel, is rather less of a character (although he does crop up, Hamlet-like, in ghostly form every now and then). While the reader is guided to look towards trilogies, triptychs, and triads throughout the novel–at the levels of character, symbol, and theme–I found personally that Bridget and Frances are rather more of a binary, and that while Peter is omnipresent, his role is certainly not that of a third party within their relationship. Peter, indeed, fades as the others move on with their lives, and additional binaries take over instead: Frances’s pregnancy, for example, linking her to her child, but curiously helping to break her bond with Peter; and Bridget’s relationship with unsubtly named and alarmingly well-read chimney sweep Stanley Godwit, which of course has a severing force. Of course, love triangles abound throughout the book almost to the point of absurdity, but in my mind rather than highlighting the famous strength of the three-sided bond, there’s a certain unevenness in these relationships: two parts of the three unfailingly dominate the third.
Vickers’s work famously draws on literary and artistic allusion, and Instances of the Number 3 is no different, although its approach is slightly less heavy-handed than those in works such as The Other Side of You, which uses a Caravaggio painting as an anchor point, and Miss Garnet’s Angel, which rather heavy-handedly integrates an historic, Biblical narrative into the main story. Poetry and performance are caught up in the novel (and indeed, are quoted at length, which is not an approach that quite works for me), and we are given myriad works against which to consider Peter’s ethical self, and indeed those of his surviving lovers. Dante gets a nod, and so does Shakespeare–and let’s not forget Yeats, whose When You Are Old gets more than a look-in. The issue of godly punishment and religious self-flagellation is also raised: Peter, a closet Catholic, after all, dies on his way to visit another lover, and it is his mistress, not his wife, who ends up carrying his child.
As always, Vickers provides enough food for thought to feed the metaphysical souls of an army, and while Instances of the Number 3 does occasionally overstep the mark in the coincidences and twists it throws up, for the most part it’s a fascinating, absorbing read–perhaps in part because of the author’s sober, uninvolved style, which allows these characters to indulge their flights of fancy without it coming across as such.
It’s a simple fact of young adult literature that if you want to get things moving right off of the bat, you need a prophecy. Better yet, an ambiguous prophecy. Better still? An ambiguous prophecy that applies to twins. Series such as Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and myriad others have rested firmly on the narrative possibilities opened by a prophecy, and Michael Scott’s The Alchemyst happily walks these well-trodden pathways with portents, sybils, and oracles galore. One of the great things, after all, about a prophecy is that it has the fabulous ability to suddenly turn a nondescript everyman character into a kung-fu-fighting, sabre-wielding, me-against-the-world hero. Prophecies force the character in question to suddenly make a 180 degree turn, and ensure that they can’t simply opt out of the narrative. After all, if Harry had said something along the lines of ”Voldemort? Can’t the police deal with him instead?” the famous series might not have been quite so thrilling.
Sophie and Josh Newman are your everyday fifteen-year-olds. They’re welded to their iPods, suffer through tiresome part time jobs in order to save up for clothes, cars, and other goodies and, well, actually, that’s pretty much it. But all of that’s about to change. When a creepy, bearded (no, not Rasputin) decides to visit the bookshop in which Josh works, Josh finds that he’s in for something a little more challenging than trying to find a book based only on a description of its cover. The man, John Dee–yes, that much-maligned John Dee–it turns out, is indeed after a book, but one that’s not your usual trashy thriller. Rather, he’s after The Codex (note capitalisation), an ancient volume full of all sorts of magical boons, including a spell for immortality. Problem is, Josh’s boss (who turns out to be that reasonably well-known alchemist chap Nicholas Flamel) doesn’t particularly want to give up this book. Magical shenanigans and plenty of butt-kicking ensues, and Josh and his sister Sophie, along with Nick and a martial artist vampire named Scathach or, affectionately, Scatty, are on the run. Eventually finding asylum in Yggdrasil, the famed World Tree of Norse mythology (as you do), the bewildered teens are told of the role that they are to play in saving the world. Or perhaps destroying it.
Superficially The Alchemyst reminds me of the fabulous Percy Jackson series (see our reviews), perhaps because its narrative draws very similarly on the approach of “Main character walks into a room. AND THEN THERE WERE MONSTERS!” But while the action in Riordan’s work is famously non-stop, The Alchemyst seems to suffer from pacing exhaustion mid-way through, resulting in a few chapters that seem to consist of little more than narrative panting. Moreover, it lacks the neat self-contained arc of each of the Percy books, ending as it does with not so much a cliffhanger as just a general sense of incompleteness. It may start out Meatloaf-like (ie, like a bat out of Hell), but then sits back on its haunches for a bit while it gets into the nitty gritty of each adult character’s history. And given that we’re dealing with immortals here, this takes a bit of time, resulting in plenty of the book taking place in the form of flashbacks or of soliloquy. The result is a read that can feel somewhat unfocused, particularly given that a YA should ostensibly focus on the teen characters rather than the adult ones.
In fact, while we get to hear all about the histories of each of the major adult characters, all of whom are famous beings from various world mythologies–Hecate, The Morrigan, the Bastet cat, and plenty of others make an appearance–we learn very little about our supposed protagonists, Josh and Sophie. One has the sneaking suspicion, in fact, that there’s very little about them to learn. Indeed, Josh’s main concern when being hunted down by various supernatural forces is for his iPod, while Sophie seems to rejoice in taking every available opportunity for witty banter. (Words may be cutting, but they’re not exactly the best weapon against the forces of darkness.) Scott attempts to work in their ambivalence about whole prophecy thing, but rather than adding a sense of believability or depth of characterisation to the novel, this simply serves to slow things down, and we’re treated to several slow chapters wherein the twins try to work out where Nick’s loyalties lie or go about looking for hidden cameras just in case they’re unwitting guest stars on Punk’d. Things further slow down when we switch over to the viewpoints of Nick’s wife, Perry, who spends most of the book chained up in a cell–yep, fascinating reading, that–or those of John Dee, who prefers to spend his days indulging in flights of fancy.
Another issue that I struggled with is the writing level in this one. Our characters are almost sixteen, but the novel itself feels written for the MG crowd rather than the YA one, and I found myself constantly thinking of Josh and Sophie as much younger than they actually are. (Indeed, every time Josh started up his car, I wondered whether he’d need a booster seat in order to see over the dashboard.) A little bit of humour wouldn’t have gone astray, either.
On the plus side, The Alchemyst is wonderfully creative, pulling in all sorts of critters and creatures from mythology, and young readers will have a field day picking out the various allusions and references. Scott is a dab hand at world building, and he creates an interesting wider mythology upon which all of this rests that makes for some fascinating reading. Moreover, as a plus, the ecology of magic use is well thought-out and interesting. But there’s something about his world that, like the characterisation, just feels a little superficial. Throughout the book, various nasties blow stuff up, destroy stuff, and generally cause all manner of mischief, but no one in the real world ever seems to be affected by any of it. In addition, the fact that the twins’ family members (which I have to note include a pair of obligatorily absent archaeologist parents) are so remote that they might as well not exist at all, makes the twins’ efforts seem sort of futile. What are they fighting for, if neither the world, nor their loved ones at the very least, seem to be affected by any of this?
The Alchemyst is an intriguing start to a new series, and while it suffers a little from some pacing issues and a lack of focus, it has plenty of good things to its name: strong female characters, all sorts of mythical creatures and legendary tales, and monsters galore. I wouldn’t shout its name from the rooftops, but I’ll certainly be giving the next in the series a go.(less)
Oh, Philip Reeve, I do apologise for taking so long to get to this book. Mortal Engines has been lurking on my shelves for years now, and only just now have I become acquainted with its charms. For really, how can one not fall in love with a book that begins thusly:
It was a dark, blustery afternoon in spring, and the city of London was chasing a small mining town across the dried-out bed of the old North Sea
In this astonishingly creative and eminently memorable debut, Reeve undertakes the most exquisite narrative romp through a world that at its crux is all about metropolistical imperialism or, as Reeve himself puts it, municipal Darwinism. It is a novel that nods towards James Blish’s Cities In Flight, and towards such steampunkish creations as China Mieville’s Iron Council and floating city of Armada, or perhaps Stephen Hunt’s Court of the Air (although I do suspect that it predates all but the Blish). It’s the sort of thing that might result from a tea party between Diana Wynne Jones and Alex Keller: a mix of whimsy, horror, and all manner of fabulous shenanigans.
Mortal Engines is a post-apocalyptic tale occurring some few thousand years in the future, long after the Doomsday clock struck midnight and humanity managed to blow itself to smithereens. As the dust from this grim holocaust settled, those who remained alive became scavengers, picking out anything that might help them remain afloat. The result? A sort of turtle-like nomadism, where hordes of citizens travel together with rather more than a rucksack. Instead, they travel with all of their belongings–in some cases, whole cities. But cities, especially mobile cities, are demanding things, and require all manner of fuel and resources to remain afloat. Reeve’s cities do so by preying on other, smaller towns, villages, and shanty-towns, chasing them across the earth’s surfaces and quite literally devouring.
But as our 21st sensibilities will tell us, resources are never finite, and the cities in question can only do so much Hungry Hungry Hippo-like devouring before there’s nothing left to scavenge–hence the Shakespearean title of this volume. Not to mention the fact that the larger a city grows, and more resources it requires to sustain itself. (Goodness, that’s rather a familiar notion, isn’t it?) But Thaddeus Valentine, big-chinned hero and braggart, is working with the Mayor of the reconstructed city of London to increase the resources available to them. The key? The mysterious Medusa device, a piece of pre-war technology whose existence must be kept top-secret at all costs.
But young Tom Natsworthy, a lowly historian whose days are spent cataloguing rather more benign pieces of old-tech, the sort of stuff pooh-poohed by the engineer crew, a group whose technological prowess is seen as far more essential to society than any sort of knowledge of the past (yes, a certain adage regarding the need to know and understand history in order to avoid past mistakes does come to mind), suddenly finds himself privy to information about the Medusa device, and his life is at risk as a result. Tom is unceremoniously thrown from the city’s lofty heights, and finds himself trapped on, of all things, the ground. His only companion? The hideously disfigured Hester Shaw, a butt-kicking young lass who is hell-bent on murdering Thaddeus Valentine. And who, incidentally, is being stalked by a relentless Terminator-like creature known as Shrike. Their goal? To get back to London and prevent Valentine from using this Medusa device to evil ends. And all without dying or being turned into slaves–something rather easier said than done. The two friends thus undertake a Verne-esque journey around the world as they seek to return to the smokestacks of London, and encounter all number of colourful folks and societies along the way.
Admittedly there are points where the story bloats a little, or becomes a touch repetitive, but these gripes are minor given the sublime narrative landscape Reeve allows us to traverse. Fascinating themes abound, with notions of colonialism and imperialism perhaps two of the most salient, and Reeve carefully addresses issues relating to both the colonisers and the colonised, as well as the problems associated with superimposing a given set of values on to a particular context with a view to decrying it as barbarous or primitive. Reeve explores the ethics of revenge and motivated violence, and takes us through some challenging, morally ambiguous situations as a result. One idea that I particularly seized on was that of our life’s actions following us through into the next life, an allusion to a multi-generational karmic continuance that has ostensibly been ongoing since prior to the 60 Minute War. Environmentalism is another notion that is at the forefront of the novel, although not in a didactic manner, and there is also the weighing of the value of arts and culture vis that of technology, and of the value of the past in directing the future. Reeve also addresses notions of class, deservedness, and of the value of human life on a variety of different levels and within a variety of contexts, something that I think is extremely ambitious given the relative youth of his target audience. I could continue on merrily like this, but for once I’ll attempt at least a pretence of brevity. Ah, coffee-table conversations and book club discussions, here I come.
Mortal Engines is a superb read on so many levels, and is full of clever witticisms (eg the winsome pun of Airsperanto being the common language of the air), larger-than-life but still winsomely believable characters, and breathtaking vistas. The only good thing about my having waited for so long to read this fabulous little book is that in the meantime Reeve has been busy churning out its numerous sequels.(less)
The other night I was discussing with my boyfriend, a Buddhist, about how being reincarnated as a dog really wouldn’t be so bad. Endless pats, walks, and cheese snuck under the table? Okay, so you’d have to become accustomed to lumpy dog food and bottom sniffing, but those issues are fairly small in the wider schemes of things.
For Sandy Portman, though, a wealthy executive who likes to strut his stuff and splash his wealth before anyone who’ll put up with his obnoxious ways, Pal Meatybites and tail-end investigations are about to become the norm. On his way home to tell his wife Emily that he wants to leave her to pursue various soulless shenanigans, Sandy meets his maker–literally. The upshot? To get into those pearly gates, Sandy has to repent his ways. As a dog.
What follows is an often hilarious, but frequently poignant examination of not only grief and loss, but also of self-reflection and growth. The story is told in alternating perspectives: through Sandy’s newly canine eyes, and through Emily’s rather more human ones. As “Einstein”, his doggy moniker, Sandy finds himself offering far more support to his wife than he ever managed during his two-legged existence, and his newly taciturn company allows Emily the space she needs to overcome the challenges she faces upon Sandy’s death–a home ownership battle, for one, and a rather pressing career advancement issue, as well as a series of recently aired issues relating to her own identity and her relationship with her mother and sister.
I picked up Emily and Einstein expecting a throwaway read heavy on the situational humour and light on content. And while it’s true that the book brims with larger than life characters who make Anna Wintour look mousy, and Sandy/Einstein does partake in rather a good deal of doggy mischief–an unfortunate cereal-bingeing incident and some wilful destruction of property come to mind–the novel for the most part transcends the maudlin midday movie feel into which it could so easily slump.
A good deal of this is due to the fact the author does an admirable job of creating characters with whom it’s so easy to empathise. Admittedly, Sandy is frequently an ill-mannered git who should probably spend a bit more time in the laundry as part of a “time out” punishment than he does, but Linda Francis Lee manages to draw him in such a way that he falls just this side of unconscionable. Part of this can be attributed to her careful delineation of Sandy’s backstory and motivations, all of which paint him in more of a pathetic light than a cruel and selfish one. Sandy may have presented himself as a large and formidable presence, but in reality, he is vanishingly small, with his sense of self-worth frequently under attack by the fact that he was born into wealth–and thus his success has been created for him. Sandy has spent his life feeling impotent and emasculated, and his typical response is to drag down others with him: it seems that this is the only ability he is able to wield with any efficacy. But worse, while Sandy’s success and wealth are the result of someone else’s skills and acumen, we come to find out that the basis for much of this is a lie. Not only is Sandy little more than a puppet in the greater scheme of things, but all of this rests on fraudulent foundations.
Curiously, while Sandy’s reincarnation as Einstein is ostensibly to help him become a better person by acting with largesse rather than as an emotional miser, his actions are heavily shepherded by a guardian angel figure who threatens to have Sandy cross over for good if he doesn’t improve his doggy ways. Sandy is thus effectively powerless throughout his entire existence–in life, in life mark II (where being a dog rather limits his capacity to exercise control over much at all), and no doubt in whatever follows after that blinding white light. Moreover, not only is Sandy’s agency more limited as a result of his reincarnation, but the sphere over which he can exert influence is drastically limited, too: Sandy is confined to Emily’s apartment save for when he behaves himself and is taken out for a walk. This situation, then, only adds to the challenges Sandy faces in his reconciliation, highlighting that one’s actions can result in a slippery slope down into hell, and highlighting the need to act generously and beneficently from the beginning, when our agency is at its greatest. It’s an interesting rumination on agency and predestination, and one that my boyfriend would argue is the cumulative result of Sandy’s past life actions–larger, wider, karmic forces and responses.
In contrast to Sandy’s diminishing efficacy, Emily finds her own sphere of influence massively expanded as a result of Sandy’s death. Pressing external forces–threats of eviction and demotion, as well as a visit from her sister that brings certain personal issues to the fore–force her to act in order to guide her life back on track, and she does so with admirable strength and passion. Sandy’s death becomes a catalyst for self-examination and development, and while Emily suffers from her fair share of setbacks and insecurities, her pragmatism and big-heartedness see her gradually turning her situation into one of opportunities. Admittedly, the explicit contrast between Sandy’s habit of turning opportunities into negatives and Emily’s opposite approach is not especially subtle, and there are moments where the book slumps into a crevasse of didacticism, but the material is generally light-hearted and neatly-written enough that these sections aren’t too painful to read. Interestingly, Emily finds herself acting more and more to help those who can’t help themselves–Einstin and Sandy, for example–but over time becomes less inclined to try to act for those with whose behaviour she disagrees, such as her sister. The author, however, does paint Emily’s grieving process–both that associated with Sandy’s death, and also for her pained relationship with her mother and sister–beautifully, and there are sections that are quite moving in their raw honesty.
Perhaps the main area in which the book doesn’t quite his the mark is in its predictability, and also occasionally in terms of its believability. Sandy of course eventually redeems himself, and the subsequent few scenes are somewhat dull in their paint-by-numbers approach. Emily’s journey towards self-fulfilment results in her every dream coming true, and then some, and the way in which the various threads tie together can be fairly easily predicted from a mere few chapters in. Indeed, there’s a sense of wish-fulfilment going on here, and the way in which Emily’s pleasant nature and series of good deeds results in her getting everything she’d ever desired feels a little icky to me. In terms of believability, my major issues were in terms of Einstein’s ability to communicate so easily with Emily and her family, and also their bizarre predilection to accept his decidedly undoggy actions as quite normal. Einstein’s barking is taken as an effort to communicate; while any meaningful look or gesture on his behalf is treated with an odd sort of reverence. Narrative-wise, there are a few elements that struggle a little to work: the first chapter could be excised without much issue, Emily’s romance with Max could be either cut entirely or properly fleshed out, and some of the Einstein chapters could be guttered without much being lost. Indeed, I’d be curious to see if this book could work without the Einstein chapters at all, although the result would no doubt be a much more challenging, darker read.
Far more than the light and fluffy read I was expecting, Emily and Einstein is a thoughtful and moving read that examines issues of agency, karma, and self-concept and self-efficacy against a backdrop of grief and loss. It’s a charming read, and one that would work well as the subject of a book discussion.(less)
Melissa O'Ballivan is Stone Creek's prosecutor, and prides herself on her commitment to the law, her health, her family. In fact, the only area where Melissa struggles with commitment is with those of the male persuasion. Diamond rings? Children? The very thought makes Melissa run a mile--and that's in addition to the two she runs every morning. Even the thought of looking after a pet makes her break out in hives (literally). So when defence lawyer Stephen Creed strides into town--and with kid and dog in tow, no less--Melissa's first instinct is to make like an ostrich and stick her head very firmly in the sand. But Stone Creek is your quintessential small town, and it's hard to avoid a newcomer, particularly when you share friends, family, and even a court case.
Regular readers of RIASS will know that I'm not an avid romance reader; in fact, I'm scarcely more than a dabbler, with only a handful of romance reads to my name. But some quixotic, parochial inner part of me has a thing for small towns and the American South, and if you wave such a book in front of my nose, I'm all but guaranteed to pick it up. And let me say that A Creed in Stone Creek has all things southern and small-town in spades. In fact, this small-town mentality is so evident that I think a disclaimer is required at this point: this is the kind of book where you'll need to check feminist and progressive attitudes at the door (a hard thing for me to do, admittedly). The book very much has a 1950s aesthetic to it, and with a feel not unlike something out of The Stepford Wives or Pleasantville. Delightful, chirpy families abound, all of them with doe-eyed children, cheerful pups, and attentive grandmothers in tow. The women dress in polka-dot dresses complete with ruffles (except for the octogenarian nudists, of course, but we won't go there!), and are fabulous cooks, exemplary cleaners, and have spectacular gardens, while the men are utterly adoring of their spouses and children, boast huge arm muscles, and have respectable manly careers. There's certainly an end goal in this book, and given the ubiquitous references to pregnancy, children, and all things related to breeding, it's something along the lines of "go forth and multiply".
One of the major foibles of our heroine, of course, is that she tries to avoid letting her uterus be her guiding force in life. But because of this, she has a job that, while fulfilling her desire to have an impressive qualification and a smart-sounding role, is generally less than inspiring; her culinary skills are limited to microwaving a frozen Weight Watchers dish; and her clothes contain things such as darts and tailoring, rather than ruffly goodness. It's a bit of a painful contrast, and it's hard not to take issue with the contrast between the hard-working spinster and the brownie-baking housewife. But this is a romance, after all, and I set aside my misgivings as best as possible (until the final chapter, but we'll get to that in a bit).
Curiously, A Creed in Stone Creek is less a romance than a mainstream novel that contains some romantic elements. Steven Creed is for the most part more interested in renovating his newly purchased ranch and looking after his adopted (and Children of the Corn-like creepily precocious) son than he is in engaging in a romance. Besides that, his heart was once broken by a lawyer, so it's pointless to go there again. It's a slightly bizarre motivation, and one that brings to mind plenty of pouting and petulant expressions, but weirdly it's the sort of motivation that's rife throughout this book. While most of the characters are pleasant enough archetypes--the sort that you'd see on a daytime soap--our hero and heroine are wildly vascillating in their motivations, reasoning, and actions. They're more up and down than a sine graph, and it's hard not to be confused by the childish, nonsensical ways in which they act around each other. There's a weird mix of the chaste and the promiscuous, and the rather out-of-the-blue raunchy scene in which they get down and do the dirty seems a touch odd after all of the ruffles and blueberry pies we've been reading about to this point. Moreover, while I accept that a romance necessarily has a scene in which the hero and heroine have to fight before getting back together again, the background for this in this book lacks believability, and the severity of the characters' reactions (Melissa's in particular) just seems bizarre. Refusing to talk to a man because he's agreed to take on a court case as part of his job? Hmm.
While I managed to suspend my feminist leanings throughout Melissa's existential and career-related struggles, I have to say that the ending of this book did manage to elicit a snort of indignation (or perhaps despair) from me, and resulted in a bit of a drop in my flashy little star rating below. While a happily-ever-after ending is requisite for this genre, the saccharine nature of this one has to be seen to be believed--and even then it's hard to understand. Our man-loathing, career-oriented, culinarily-impaired, canine-allergic heroine suddenly switches to the dark side, quitting her job to work in a pet shelter, becoming a domestic goddess, eschewing her tailored slacks in favour of peasant dresses, and getting engaged right off the bat (and pregnant with, of course, twins, since one bun in the oven isn't enough). All of this happens in the last five pages, making it all a touch difficult to fathom (and resulting in a slightly bilious taste in the reader's mouth).
Still, on the whole, the novel flows well, and is comfortingly familiar. It doesn't pack any punches, and you won't find yourself struck by any narrative twists or complexities, but you'll be able immerse yourself in the sweet-as-pie town of Stone Creek--complete with parade floats, diners, baking, and pet shelters--for a good few hours, and it's all pleasant and aww-inducing enough. There are a few minor plotlines, such as that involving a teenaged recidivist and his slimy friends, that seem a little forced, and there's a mystery element that would probably have been better left alone. In addition to that, there are quite a few scenes involving tiresomely mundane activities such as baking, getting dressed, going for a job, and putting petrol in the car that could have done with a bit of editorial excision, but overall, the novel is solid enough if very much reliant on cliches and archetypes. Oh, and the hero isn't an alpha male, which is a relief!
For a warm and friendly read that doesn't push the boundaries, but rather tries to take you back in time to a land of white picket fences and smiling wholesomeness, A Creed in Stone Creek is a solid read. Expect small-town shenanigans, all of your favourite archetypes, and plenty of lurve and family-oriented elements, but don't expect a plot that will knock your socks off or in-depth characterisation. This is the kind of book you read while sitting at home on a Friday night with a family sized packet of Maltesers in your lap. (less)
She may live in a town with a population that could almost be counted on two hands, but the drama just doesn't let up for Sookie Stackhouse. Of course, being a night-shift waitress in one of the only bars in town is guaranteed to bring its fair share of challenges, and the whole pesky issue of being able to read minds doesn't help matters. Nor does dating a vampire. Still, despite her rather unfortunate moniker, Sookie's not one to sook, and when Lafayette, the cook at the bar where she works, winds up dead, Sookie puts herself on the case. (Actually, to be honest, Sookie puts herself on everyone's case--there's nary a soul in Bon Temps who doesn't fall victim to her lashing tongue and terrible fashion sense, but I digress). But Lafayette isn't the only dead guy around, and Sookie finds herself whisked off to do some perp-bustin' in Dallas, where she somehow ends up at the mercy of an anti-vampire Christian fundamentalist group, and then in the midst of a swingers' party, and then doing battle with a misandric maenid. Or something. These threads do eventually tie together, but I can't for the life of me figure out how, or why.
My thoughts The stack of books beside my bed is so unreasonably high that I'm well behind on the various bookish trends, and I'm a touch embarrassed to admit that my first Sookie experience occurred only a few months ago (see my review). While admittedly I wasn't entirely enamoured of our minx-like protagonist and her willingness to throw herself in bed with perhaps one of the most horrid alpha males I've come across in the paranormal romance genre, I thought I'd give Ms Stackhouse a second try. Unfortunately, having slogged through the second in Harris's best-selling series, I'm even more underwhelmed. These books come so close to being good, but time and time again they just fall short. I feel as though Sookie's working her little waitress butt off attempting to follow in the footsteps of feminista Buffy, but there's just something about her, and about this series more generally, that just doesn't work for me.
Dead Until Dark, the first in the Sookie Stackhouse series, had some solid moments, and I picked up Living Dead in Dallas expecting a work that surpassed its predecessor by building on this base. Unfortunately, it turns out that the Sookie series has foundations roughly as stable as those of the leaning tower of Pisa, and I'm afraid that this book would fail even the most cursory examination at the hands of a structural engineer. The novel suffers terribly from kitchen sink syndrome, with myriad unrelated plot lines running through it like the veins through a wall of sedimentary rock (did that sentence confuse you? I hope so, because that's how I felt reading this book). Structurally, Living Dead in Dallas reminds me of China Mieville's Iron Council, which is essentially two distinct narratives, the second of which is little more than cut-and-pasted into the first. While Sookie ostensibly sets out to determine the shenanigans that lead to Lafayette's death (an event that oddly doesn't perturb her in the least--is Sookie a sociopath along the lines of Dexter?) the plot, which is as crooked as a dog's hind leg, suddenly sees her jetsetting off to Texas to solve a mystery regarding a vampire no one really cares about this. What this has to do with Sookie, or with the main narrative arc, I have no idea, but it turns into a several hundred page long narrative detour that's about as concise and purposeful as the writings of notoriously rambly philosopher Ulrich Beck.
As part of this detour, we're subjected to all manner of distasteful and, frankly, dull exposition regarding born-again Christians who are manic in their godly professions and apparently mentally unsound in their beliefs, and a section where Harris attempts to challenge the reader's ethics by setting up numerous morally ambiguous situations that demand our readerly judgement. In the hands of a more subtle or confident writer this could all be quite interesting, but Harris's approach is so over the top that it all veers towards absurdism. I understand that we're meant to draw parallels between the entrenched racism in the deep south and the treatment of the newly equal vampires, but the narrative approach is just so painfully blatant that it's difficult to stomach--and the narrator's habit of attempting to find humour (or something sexual) in what should be serious or challenging situations is all a bit discomforting. Needless to say, I wouldn't trust Sookie to comport herself appropriately at a funeral.
While the whole middle section of the book is problematic in a wealth of ways--thematically, narratively and, well, in terms of making any sort of sense--things scarcely improve once we return to Bon Temps, and Sookie decides that the only way to solve Lafayette's murder is to pose as a sultry minx and get frisky at a swingers' party. First, I cannot fathom how a town with a population of about ten people can support the swinging lifestyle without word getting out, and second, how on earth is dressing up in a miniskirt and soliciting for sex the most reasonable way to solve a murder investigation? While Sookie likes to up the sass, she has some serious issues when it comes to basic cognitive reasoning. Anyway, after a series of nonsensical events that I don't quite understand myself, things come to an, erm, climax, and everyone rolls over and goes to sleep. Until a man-hating maenid turns up and other weird events ensue. At this point my poor beleagured mind couldn't take much more, and I admit to skipping a few chapters while the narrative dice were rolled by the great D&D player in the sky, and stuff randomly happened.
Needless to say, the narrative of this one left a touch to be desired for me, and I'm no stranger to narrative weirdness. In fact, I happily eschew plot and sense whenever appropriate. I appreciate dadaism. I'll happily read William S Burroughs. I think that Malevich's paintings are exquisite. But this? No. Sorry.
I've touched briefly on the thematic elements that bothered me in this novel, and should note that the Sookie books continue to make me feel uncomfortable in the way that they depict minorities. The power differentials between the various groups in these novels are quite challenging, and there's a painful sense of conservatism running through this series that I find deeply problematic. There's a definite sense of subjugation and oppression, and the assumed powerlessness of minorities--including women--is something that I find immensely frustrating. It's something that is evident in every element of these books, however, and perhaps it's largely because of this that I find them so unpalatable. Sookie's apparent "strength", for example, manifests as little more than a smart mouth--in every other way she prostrates herself before her frighteningly dominant and passive-aggressive vampire partner. These hugely problematic power binaries occur time and time again (as they often seem to do in paranormal romance novels), and are rarely addressed. Conclusions While I can see the appeal of this Buffy-in-the-deep-s0uth series, the Sookie books lack a sense of cohesion, and exhibit evident weaknesses in plotting, characterisation, and theme, and while they may well improve as the series progresses, the confronting conservatism and problematic gender binaries will likely preclude me from continuing with this series. I don't doubt, however, that others will get a lot out of these books--the sales figures speak for themselves, after all--and if you treat them as nothing more than a quick read, you'll do fine.(less)