Finally, after not getting useful answers out of Pan, Wendi asked him where he lived. Pan’s eyes glittered as they always did when he talked about NevFinally, after not getting useful answers out of Pan, Wendi asked him where he lived. Pan’s eyes glittered as they always did when he talked about Neverland, about us bois. He told her that we had our own warehouse, a paradise we were always working on, patching the shot-out windows, hanging swings and slings, and about the day we added hammocks for each of us to sleep in amongst the rafters with our pigeons. Pan told Wendi he had a pack of bois who jumped at his command, who had sworn themselves to him and wore his cuff. He told her we too loved stories.
I don’t know exactly what Pan promised Wendi in that little pink bed. Probably nothing more than adventure, with his crooked grin and the way his eyes twinkled when he talked about the things they could do together, but he locked a leather cuff around her wrist that night. It had been enough for me; there was no reason to think it wouldn’t have been enough for her. Later, Wendi said that he told her about grrrls, how there weren’t any of them in Neverland ,and how lonely that made him, us. How there was something special about a grrrl like her, something she could give him, us. Pan talked of how we would cherish and worship her, how she would always care for and feed her bois. “I love the way you talk about grrrls,” Wendi whispered through glossed lips, placing her hand on Pan’s denim thigh. She tried for a kiss, but Pan was already distracted, looking out the window to check on Erebos. Pan didn’t want a grrrlfriend, he wanted a Mommy to tuck him in and put him in his place, but he would never had said that last part.
With leather daddies substituting for pirates and loyal carrier pigeons in place fairies, Sassafras Lowrey’s Lost Boi is a trans/genderqueer punk interpretation of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that, while at times interesting and quite well written, is more a transposition than a subversion of the text.
The book, narrated by Pan’s “best boi” Tootles, follows the introduction of Wendi and John Michael, who Pan convinces to abandon their security at the Darling’s halfway house for girls in order to follow him to his industrial warehouse paradise of Neverland. Once there, John Michael, an acknowledged tomboy, is inducted into the “Lost Bois,” Pan’s loyal, battle-hardened followers. Wendi, meanwhile, becomes a Mommy not just to the bois but to Pan as well—an ideal of a grrrl elevated to a position of authority amongst the bois, to fill a void they deny needs filling by the absence of their “true” mothers, and their pasts represented therein.
Pan himself is described in the pages of Wendi’s journal as being genderless, with baggy sweatshirts, work pants, and red hair. He’s the “street” to her coifed, educated demeanour; when she enters Neverland, she immediately helps clean up the Lost Bois’ act, so to speak, encouraging tidiness and responsibility as she attempts to disperse her love to the entire group, and to Tootles in particular.
But Pan isn’t interested in a Mommy who wants to upend the status quo. Originally, he appears to envision Wendi slipping into the established narrative as an addition to their cast, not a director unto herself, which is exactly what she reveals herself to be—someone who lusts after Pan and the freedom Neverland represents, but is also unable to divest herself from the outside world and the presence of time always ticking by, aging the lot of them whether or not they are willing to admit to its effects.
For Pan, though, Neverland’s stability hinges on two things: loyalty, and the power of make-believe: “When you became Pan’s, you swore an oath that you would never doubt or question him. That’s what kept the magic alive.” As such, when a boi decides for one reason or another to grow up, Pan acts as if he forgets their very existence. It’s as if they’re pawns knocked off a chessboard, never to be played or battled with again.
There’s much to like in Lowrey’s interpretation of Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology: Hook’s obsession with good form even as his leather daddy pirates do “battle” with the Lost Bois; the crocodile reimagined as heroin, fairy dust as cocaine; the mermaids as a group of fucking tough femmes living on a boat they’ve named the Lagoon. However, it’s the reimagining of the Pan character himself that I found most intriguing.
The original story is a children’s fantasy, with Pan representing a child’s fear of aging, of growing up and being foisted into the adult world of responsibilities, careers, finances, and mortgages. The Pan in Lowrey’s novel, however, is no fantasy; this Pan is a sad, almost tragic figure that hasn’t managed to avoid growing up so much as he’s managed to separate himself entirely from the world outside Neverland’s walls. When Pan appears near the novel’s end, long after Wendi, Tootles, and the other Lost Bois had departed Neverland to grow up and re-enter the world they’d run from or been abandoned by in the first place, his hair is wisped with grey—he has clearly aged, even as he propositions another young woman to come away with him and join him in Neverland. There’s a distance to Lowrey’s Pan—a lack of willingness to accept the world for what it is. This is at once beautiful and unsettling. His life is his and his alone; it exists in a bubble limiting exposure, and more critically, growth.
While occasionally lacking in subtlety (every now and then Lowrey takes an extra, unnecessary step to explain the process of transposing original facets of the Peter Pan story with hir own—“Fairy? Pigeon? There is magic everywhere around you, but most people are too busy being grownup to notice it.”), Lost Boi is an oftentimes intelligent, well-crafted inversion of a classic tale. But perhaps its greatest achievement is also one of its simplest and most straightforward—the repurposing of Neverland, from a fantasyland apart from the world to an abandoned warehouse very much within it. In doing so, Lowrey strips Pan and the Lost Bois of some of their power—their agency remains intact, but the glamour they’ve placed upon the world, the illusion that helps them to see the safe confines of the world Pan has helped construct for them, is forever threatened by the mere fact that it exists within the greater, gentrifying world that can at any point encroach upon their safe haven. Theirs is a fantasy in the sense that it’s a bandage curling up at the edges—it hasn’t yet lost its stickiness, but it might one day, and when that day comes all their wounds, Pan’s especially, will be displayed for the rest of the world to see....more
Sadly, there's just nothing here that hasn't been done before, and better, by other authors. Perhaps Station Eleven stole this book's thunder (now THASadly, there's just nothing here that hasn't been done before, and better, by other authors. Perhaps Station Eleven stole this book's thunder (now THAT is how you do a post-apocalyptic narrative), but in the end I'm left feeling as if I never knew enough to care about either Cal, Frida, or Micah; feeling as if I never knew enough about what the lives or personalities of those in the Land were to understand how and why they behave as they do, especially in the end; and feeling as if there simply isn't enough presented throughout to give any sort of weight or gravitas to any of the events of this book. Its characters are uniformly thin (personality wise) and unlikable, the world both before and after the apocalypse so limply sketched as to feel alien as it tries to present itself as relatable.
While I didn't hate this book, not by any stretch, the mountains of praise heaped on it feels grossly out of step with what's inside - it's as if those who blurbed the book had never read another post-apocalyptic narrative. This is an airport read or a summer blockbuster movie - quick, accessible, fun in the moment, and entirely forgettable about five minutes after the last page is turned.
... Okay, so maybe by the end I did hate it a little, but that's only because it starts strong and has so much promise - promise, I feel, that it never capitalizes on....more
‘Ah, the mist. A good name for it. Who knows how much truth there is in what we hear, Mistress Beatrice? I suppose I was speaking of the stranger ridi‘Ah, the mist. A good name for it. Who knows how much truth there is in what we hear, Mistress Beatrice? I suppose I was speaking of the stranger riding through our country last year and sheltered here. He was from the fens, much like our brave visitor tonight, though speaking a dialect often hard to understand. I offered him use of this poor house, as I’ve done you, and we talked on many matters through the evening, among them this mist, as you so aptly call it. Our strange affliction interested him greatly, and he questioned me again and again on the matter. And then he ventured something I dismissed at the time, but have since much pondered. The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?’
Beatrice stared at him. ‘Can such a thing be possible, Ivor? We’re each of us his dear child. Would God really forget what we have done and what’s happened to us?’
‘My question exactly, Mistress Beatrice, and the stranger could offer no answer. But since that time, I’ve found myself thinking more and more of his words. Perhaps it’s as good an explanation as any for what you name the mist. Now forgive me, friends, I must take some rest while I can.’
Upon finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, I found myself pondering the litany of poor-to-“meh” reviews that populated the Internet right around the time of the novel’s release, not to mention that whole kerfuffle over whether or not it’s genre—the author claims it falls squarely to the “lit” side of things. (And while I do see Ishiguro’s point in making that distinction, I really do believe this to be fantasy—it’s just very light fantasy with, given its propensity toward overarching metaphor, a strong, market-friendly literary undercoating.) Pondering because, to be frank, I thoroughly, unexpectedly enjoyed my time with this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I loved it, but, well, it’s pleasant, all the way through.
That’s it. Pleasant. Non-offensive and elegant in its presentation. This is not a case of a heavyweight literary author deciding to venture into uncharted territory and upend the genre status quo; no, it feels a little like an experiment in tone—as if Ishiguro had been searching for a new venue in which to toy with the ramifications of memory and obfuscation. It just so happened he found said venue in Arthurian times, where following a war between the Britons and the Saxons a strange amnesia-causing mist has descended upon the countryside like an obscuring veil draped over an entire land mass.
The story follows an older couple—Axl and Beatrice—as they decide to depart the small community in which they live, to journey to a neighbouring village to find their son, whom they’ve not seen for years. Though Axl and Beatrice have been together for quite some time, their shared history is full of holes perforated by the aforementioned mist. Along the way, they encounter a Saxon warrior named Wistan and his charge Edwin, a young boy exiled for having been bitten, supposedly, by an ogre. Additionally, they are met by Sir Gawain, an Arthurian knight who, along with his faithful steed Horace, seeks to rid the land of the she-dragon Querig—the beast responsible for the mist clouding the thoughts and minds of all in the land.
There is conflict, however, as Wistan has also been charged with ending the she-dragon’s reign. And both men being so prideful, their shared goal, of which only one of them can complete (for the sake of honour, or something equally pointless and hubristic), causes their brief union to splinter, revealing, in doing so, Sir Gawain’s ulterior motives.
The she-dragon’s breath, however, is merely the device that sets in motion the novel’s more interesting and important narrative—the slow realization that Axl and Beatrice’s past, hidden from them for so long, might not be as they imagined, bringing to the foreground the question of whether or not they are who they think they are, and whether their true selves will stay together once all is revealed.
There’s nothing in any of the above description that screams “new” or “ground-breaking,” and that’s all right. The Buried Giant walks very familiar fantasy territory, but it does so with a light touch that, as I’ve stated, worked quite well to evoke a sense of place—not so much one’s place in the world as among this small group of characters. It effortlessly inserts the reader into Axl and Beatrice’s relationship. Their quest is, on paper, a simple one; however, it’s how and when Ishiguro slowly, deliberately extracts pieces from within the gaps in their memories that provides the narrative with its heft, soft-spoken though it is. To this end, the novel’s final revelation—that of their son’s fate—while not especially surprising, is handled gracefully and forms a tight thematic bow around the entire piece.
Simplicity of detail is this novel’s strength—it plays with fantasy as if the genre is a colour in an overall palette and not a type of paint altogether. As a reader who seldom reads fantasy, I liked the light dipping of the toes into genre conventions without diving right into the deep end of the pool. I can understand why it might have frustrated some, but The Buried Giant certainly worked for me. As stated, this is a tone piece, more than anything else, and to that end it succeeds....more
Loved the premise and the first two-thirds of this book, which set a pretty pitch-perfect tone, but I have to say it fell apart for me in the end—espeLoved the premise and the first two-thirds of this book, which set a pretty pitch-perfect tone, but I have to say it fell apart for me in the end—especially its final part, which I felt jettisoned much of the book's initial promise by resorting to the tired idea of "there are powerful forces at work directing your lives to a specific end," which I've really had enough of in my fiction.
And side note: I don't care if it's fiction, but if a dog dies in your book, odds are I'm going to want to put it down and walk away—and I very nearly did as a result. It's about the one thing that will get me to leave a book unfinished (short of crappy writing, which was not the case here—Cutter/Davidson is a spectacular writer). Were I not such a fan of the author's other work (both as Cutter and as Davidson), I might not have stuck it out through to the end, as what happens to LB throughout... it struck a chord I don't need struck.
In the end, this book felt more like an exercise and less realized/populated than the author's other works—especially his previous horror title, The Troop, which excelled at turning my stomach. It isn't bad, but neither is it exceptional in any way with respect to character, plot, or just the moment to moment writing, which is functional but missing much of the author's usual punch. ...more
If only she were Istvan’s true apprentice! or even Puggy’s, she could do a better job with the stagecraft than Jonathan, as willing as he is to fetchIf only she were Istvan’s true apprentice! or even Puggy’s, she could do a better job with the stagecraft than Jonathan, as willing as he is to fetch and build, he has no eye for it; he is an ear…. The idea makes her grin. Jonathan the ear of the Poppy, yes, as Puggy is the hands, as Omar is the fist, as Velma is the cooking pot. As Decca is the purse, as she and Laddie and the girls are, what, the holes…. And Mr. Rupert is the mind. An anxious mind, truly, see those furrows dug between his brows, even worse since Istvan came—and yet he is far more alive, now, his movements swifter, his eyes troubled and alight. Those two strike sparks from one another, anyone who looks can see that—
—though Decca is quick to deny it, quick and fierce and perhaps she, Lucy, ought not have said what she said yesterday, though everyone has a snapping point and the Lord knows Decca has trod hers times past counting. But still… She and Velma and Vera in the downstairs kitchen, sifting through the daily oatmeal for weevils, Vera complaining about the soldiers, they are too rough, too quick, not quick enough—until Decca, counting coal, flew down her throat: You’ll take what walks through the door and there’s an end to it! Or try your chances on the road! Vera crumpled into silence, Lucy flicked a weevil to the floor and, consolingly, Oh the road’s not so bad, with an eye to Decca, Mr. Istvan’s told me all about it. May be he’s on his way soon anyway, and he’ll take you along if you ask him nice.
Set in 1870s Brussels, right around the time of the Franco-Prussian war, Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy is like an amorphous trip through time, politics, and the bed sheets of its many characters. It’s lyrical, at times stunningly beautiful, and only occasionally baffling—but not for reasons of narrative inconsistencies or decisions made within the confines of its story.
The titular Under the Poppy is a popular and somewhat successful brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. The two present themselves as siblings, though in reality Decca is very much in love with Rupert. Rupert’s love, however, is Decca’s true brother, Istvan, a man whose myriad names are matched only by his talents as a puppeteer. When Istvan rolls into town with his puppets—mecs, as they are called—his arrival sets off a chain of events that threaten to upset the Poppy’s station as a fulcrum around which soldiers and the slow start of war revolve. And as old loves are rekindled—and the potential for others outright extinguished—both Istvan and Rupert find they are at great risk of being used by those more powerful and affluent than they.
As admitted near the start of this review, I found myself at times confounded by the goings-on in Koja’s narrative. This was not, as I mentioned, due to problems with the plot, or even with the many relationships and dalliances that sometimes seemed to erupt from nothing more than a flirtatious glance. No, my confusion had to do specifically with Koja’s writing style, which can best be described as “labyrinthine.”
Make no mistake, Under the Poppy is gorgeously written, and there were moments where I felt utterly swept up in the effortlessness with which this world exists. However, the very precise rhythm and flow that Koja has crafted (which can be seen, to some small extent, in the section quoted at the start of this review), wherein multiple characters speak without paragraph or even sentence breaks, having entire conversations without ever breaking stride, has a tendency to overwhelm, sometimes requiring the re-reading of certain scenes. It’s a little like strolling through a hedge maze and being struck by the quality of the trim and the density of the growth, but finding oneself entirely lost as to one’s position within the whole, or even how much time has passed. As a result, while I adored my time with the book, its technical merits to some extent overshadowed its characters, whose moment-to-moment machinations I felt only partially invested in, and as such they seemed more loosely drawn than I’d have liked—products of style over substance.
There were some additional, smaller technical aspects that I found lessened my experience to some degree, such as the flagrant overuse of EM-dashes when segueing from paragraph to paragraph. It builds a certain amount of almost filmic tension, causing things to flow together almost without breaking thought, but after a while the tactic felt diluted, losing its impact as a result of simply being used too often.
But if I were to point a finger to my single largest complaint, it would be in how the novel jettisons the Poppy in its second half. Presented merely as a structure in which the characters all congregated, the brothel itself was in actuality a character, and a strong one, too, filled with a colour all its own. When in the second half of the book the narrative splinters to follow the lives of Lucy, Istvan, and Rupert, it loses some of what made it so compelling in the first place. And while the change in scenery is necessary for the aforementioned characters to grow, the Poppy’s loss—and the absence of Decca as well, a force in her own right—was most certainly felt.
In the second half, though, the character of Lucy grows considerably, becoming one of the standouts of the entire narrative. While in Istvan Decca saw trouble, and Rupert conflict (both internal and external), Lucy saw providence, opportunity to learn and become more than she was under the Poppy’s influence, and under Decca’s watchful eye.
And while the love triangle between Benjamin, Istvan, and Rupert never totally landed for me (because Benjamin was such a pale, almost two-dimensional character when compared to Istvan), I appreciated the organic manner in which Istvan and Rupert were once more brought together in the end. It was, however, appreciably simplistic when drawn against the love pentagon of the novel’s first half, with Decca being in love with Rupert, Rupert with Istvan, Istvan with his mecs, and Lucy with both Istvan and his puppets—and the possibilities represented therein.
For one reason or another I don’t tend to devote that much time to historical fiction. However, Under the Poppy was, from beginning to end, an enticing, incredibly well composed and enjoyable read, even if at times I felt as if I needed a road map through its characters’ individual plots, betrayals, and objects of affection. Truthfully, I don’t know if the strength of the narrative alone would be enough for me to recommend this book, but Koja’s writing is an experience in and of itself, and is certainly worth the price of admission. It elevates as it confounds....more
Short and sweet: This did not connect with me on any level. The writing is such that it feels deliberately truncated, with interactions between characShort and sweet: This did not connect with me on any level. The writing is such that it feels deliberately truncated, with interactions between characters often feeling semi-random and tangential — and to that end, so much of this book could have been left on the cutting room floor, and to its benefit (it's easily 100 pages too long for what it is). I imagine this is done in an attempt to be funny, but there's no inherent rhythm to Schroeder's sarcasm, and the characters and parody fall flat. ...more
At the top are those guys who are practically shrink-wrapped in the flag. They get it! And no matter how hard I try to be like them, I never get thereAt the top are those guys who are practically shrink-wrapped in the flag. They get it! And no matter how hard I try to be like them, I never get there. Cast from some alloy of history and patriotism, they know exactly why they’re risking the package. They’re the guys who look you right in the eye as they coat you with a thick layer of geopolitical goo beginning with September 11 and working back to some wormhole in your convictions as they remind you how you’d damn well better atone by charging into the great machine gun of history. These guys never blink. I envy them. I love having them in my platoon. But I sure as hell won’t be hanging out with them telling war stories years from now.
In the vast middle are the guys who are over here because they can’t stand mortgage payments, PTA meetings, malls, marriage counseling, plumbing courses, and all the other avatars of two thousand years of testosterone drilled into a single drop of present-day ambivalence. Over here in the war, that one little drop gets re-distilled into a hundred-proof buzz that comes out shooting flames. These guys cling to war because they’ve peered into the abyss and seen themselves punching a time clock for the rest of their lives.
And then there’s me and Danny. I now know it was no accident we found each other in this maelstrom.
Right from the moment he asked about us being in the same unit with the psychic I knew each of us was there because of a woman.
I can’t think of another book that goes to war with Liberace as both good luck charm and weapon. This is to author Martyn Burke’s credit: through a psychic, identical twin Playboy Bunnies, a divergence into madcap Hollywood insanity, and the aforementioned man for whom no fashion cow was sacred enough, Music for Love or War manages to effortlessly sidestep predictability in a war-based narrative.
The story follows two men: Hank and Danny. Hank is a Californian; Danny is from Toronto. Besides enlisting to fight in post-9/11 Afghanistan, the two men share a unique bond: the women they love have been taken from them. In Hank’s case, it’s Annie Boo—Ann Boudreau—who along with her sister Susan jumped/fell into the fame spiral, becoming two of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy harem.
Danny’s story of love and loss, meanwhile, is quite different and far more tragic. Ariana, the woman he fell in love with when they were just teenagers, is the daughter of a man named Sayyid Shah, who we learn (through Ariana’s brother Omar) managed funds for bin Laden in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks. As we experience more of Danny and Ariana’s story, which is interspersed with Hank’s, it becomes clear that not only is their love elicit—were Sayyid to find out there would be no end to the hell Ariana would pay—but it was, from minute one, destined to end badly. And so it does when, years after they first met, became friends, and subsequently lost contact, Omar, having imbibed in his father’s Kool-Aid, sold his sister to an Afghani warlord named Zadran for weapons, ammunition, and fake passports.
So what are two lovelorn souls to do when faced with such loneliness? Enlist, naturally. Except their reasons for doing so were very different from one another: while Hank enlisted to escape the twenty-four-hour “paparasshole” news cycle guaranteed to splash images and video Annie and her sister and their very old and very creepy lover across every magazine and website available, Danny enlisted for the noble purpose of finding Ariana and bringing her home again. As such, while Hank is the voice through which we view the narrative as it unfolds in the present, it’s Danny who gives this book its heart.
There’s a lot to love in Music for Love or War. Split between time periods and locations—Hollywood, Toronto, and “The Mountains,” referring to the mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan—the narrative moves at a brisk clip. The connection between the two men is also well realized, with Hank, either directly or indirectly, assuming the role of Danny’s protector. And while Danny’s unwavering conviction is in stark contrast to Hank, whose personality errs a little more on the practical side of things, one never gets the sense that Hank looks down on or dismisses Danny’s belief in what he’s doing. If anything, it feels sometimes like Hank envy’s what he sees as Danny’s drive and sense of nobility.
While I felt deeply invested in Danny’s story, I can’t quite say the same for Hank’s, or for that matter the subplot involving the psychic Constance Amonte, who both men lean on for advice on how to handle their troubled love lives. Initially I was intrigued by the Hollywood side of things and all its accompanying craziness; however, the section of the book that takes place in Hollywood, about two-thirds of the way through (the longest section, incidentally), feels as if it was pulled from a different story altogether, with its ridiculous pace of events and equally ridiculous and over-the-top personalities. I’m not saying the sorts of people and situations depicted don’t exist, because they most certainly do, only that the section seemed to diverge enough from the more compelling narrative—Danny’s quest to save Ariana—to be distracting. It was kind of like the bureaucracy scene in Jupiter Ascending, which felt less like something directed by the Wachowski siblings and more like a scene from a lost Terry Gilliam film. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t fit.
Actually that ludicrous scene was the best part of that film, but I digress.
Overall, I quite enjoyed my time with Music for Love or War. Burke’s narrative has a lot of heart to it, and Danny and Ariana’s troubled history felt real—lived in. I almost wish the book had been only their story. That’s not to say Hank’s had no merit, as he is I think a necessary counterpoint for Danny. But when all was said and done, it was Ariana and Danny, and to a lesser extent Omar, who made this story sing....more
I don’t want to blame everything bad that happened on the Great Baldification as it came to be known. But it was the beginning of a lot of social chanI don’t want to blame everything bad that happened on the Great Baldification as it came to be known. But it was the beginning of a lot of social change in the world. Marriages broke up at ten times the normal rate and my parents ended up getting divorced two months after the Baldification. Maybe it was strain from endless fights or that they never liked each other much to begin with. I never heard from my biological father after the divorce. My biological mother dropped me off permanently with Cousin Baochai so that she could pursue her dream of being a travel blogger. My sister, Kelly, going against the trend, married her rap star wanna-be boyfriend and I rarely saw her again after that.
Our economy regressed from disastrous to beyond redemption. Accelerated resource depletion forced countries into a war over Africa even though we were technically all part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. Unemployment rates were at 56% in the States (though official reports had it at 5.5%), so soldiering was the only chance for a career most of our generation had. I signed up for the army and was assigned to the media department because of my passions for cameras despite all the combat training they gave me.
With a title that evokes Huxley’s science fiction classic, Liu’s debut novel Bald New World is aiming for a high bar right out of the gate. Whether it comes close to that bar or sails painfully under will depend largely on one’s own tastes and whether or not you like to have your stories told to you from a distance, or whether you prefer to actually feel involved in the narrative. Personally, this book didn’t even get off the ground before tripping over its feet and crashing face-first into the dirt. But let’s try and pull this apart anyway.
The story follows Nicholas Guan, a thirty-six-year-old Chinese-Korean man raised in the United States, whose job is “photographing—or beautifying—baldness.” As we meet Nicholas, it was been twenty-five years since the Great Baldification—when one night, as if an intervention from God itself, every man, woman, and child on the planet lost their hair. And not only did they lose their hair, but no new hair is grown, either. It’s a little like Children of Men in that the explanation as to why or how this has happened runs a distant second to simply examining the ways in which this event changed and continues to change the world, creating new industries, indeed new dynasties out of the world’s largest wig manufacturers. Because hair, naturally, has become one of society’s greatest luxuries.
Nicholas’s best friend is Larry Chao. As the owner of one such wig manufacturer, Larry is one of the wealthiest men in the world. And how does he spend his money and free time? Making “pointless movies throughout China about tragically dumb characters” with his good pal Nicholas. But when Larry is killed one night, Nicholas is forced down a dark path, along which he will discover what makes his hairless world tick.
Conceptually, this sounds right up my alley; taken as just its jacket copy, Bald New World sounds both engaging and unique. Its problems rest not with ideas, however, but with how they’re executed. At the top level, this book suffers from one of my largest pet peeves—it tells you its world rather than showing it. We’re given snippets of content here or there, like how it’s too dangerous to even go outside in Los Angeles without wearing body armour, but at no point do we really experience this ourselves. We’re told about how fish used to be fresh as if it’s a recent news article rather than just discussing the state of farm-raised fish. We’re given details about the shit world economy, but never does it feel like an impediment to Nicholas or anyone around him. These are but small examples; however, there are enough throughout the novel that I finished with the feeling that I’d been given an outline for a world, filled with some fairly interesting ideas, but had them dictated to me point-form rather than actually experiencing them as just another element existing within the author’s creation.
Shit, I think Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha has spoiled me forever on this. It’s not enough for me now to be told of a world; I need to experience it, to feel as if my characters are experiencing it as well, and not standing there remarking on it as if to a tourist accompanying them on their journey. Otherwise, the world isn’t a world; it’s an academic exercise.
The novel suffers equally from a narrative standpoint. Its chapters feel strung together with bland prose like an exquisite corpse of literary prompts—from filmmaking to North Korean spies to religious extremism and captivity and mind-control cricket fights. In short, there’s no real through-line to anything that happens in Liu’s narrative. On some level there’s an examination going on of shifting beauty standards and the world evolving around them, but without interesting characters with adequate depth/growth—of which there isn’t much—its overarching thesis falls flat.
I did appreciate some of the smaller aesthetic elements throughout, such as how video game music is treated as a mainstream pleasure and not merely an affectation of a small subculture, but in general I found Bald New World to be an unsatisfying slog that took me far longer to read than it should have. A lot happens on a conceptual level, but none of it sticks—there’s nothing human anchoring the characters or whatever ideology the author hoped to instil. In the end, I’m left thinking this would have made a fantastic short story, but there just isn’t enough content here to satisfy....more
“Since your time with us, you’ve confessed to a lot of make-believe crimes that you remember doing,” Nurse Hamilton says.
“They seem so real to you,” E“Since your time with us, you’ve confessed to a lot of make-believe crimes that you remember doing,” Nurse Hamilton says.
“They seem so real to you,” Eric says.
“Two days ago we were in the garden and you told me a story,” Nurse Hamilton says, and she glances at the photo, and Jerry knows what she’s about to say—the same way he always used to be able to predict how TV shows and movies would end one quarter of the way through. Is that where they are now? One quarter of the way through his madness? And the Madness Journal? Just where in the hell is it?
“You told me about a girl you had killed. You said you knew her, but you didn’t say how. Do you remember this?”
He doesn’t remember that at all, and he tries to remember. Hard. He knows that’s a thing people probably tell him, to try and think harder or try and remember better, as if he can tighten his brain muscles and put in the extra effort. But it is what it is, and in this case what it is is a whole lot of nothing. “I remember the garden,” he says. “And… there was a rabbit. Wally.”
“You stabbed her,” Mayor says.
“Belinda Murray. You murdered her in cold blood.”
Jerry Grey—better known by his pseudonym Henry Cutter—is the best-selling forty-nine-year-old author of thirteen crime novels, and all told he’s having a pretty shit year. He’s been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, a detail he should’ve seen earlier, when his editor first noticed the decline in his work. But it’s going to be okay, because he’s got his loving wife Sandra and daughter Eva by his side, and they’re going to bump up the date on Eva’s wedding to ensure her father gets to walk her down the aisle.
Which would be great, if not for the fact that he’s actually fifty, alone, confined (mostly) to a nursing home, and struggling to remember what year it is. Or why a pair of detectives insist on questioning him about the death of a woman he can’t even remember—and why they don’t seem as interested in the woman he claims he did kill, many years before. Problem with that last part is that the woman he thinks he killed—Suzan with a z—was just a character in one of his early books. But Belinda Murray, she was real, and Jerry’s the prime suspect in her murder. The difficulty, though, rests not just in proving Jerry’s innocence, but doing so while he’s slipping between both time and realities.
Trust No One is Paul Cleave’s eighth crime thriller, and he’s certainly got the formula down to a science. The writing is tight and to the point, if not especially colourful. The mystery itself, with its odd twist and turn at the necessary intervals, is enjoyable right up until the end—save a bit of confusion between who was responsible for what, and some unfortunate predictability, followed by the requisite moustache twirling as the main bad guy proceeds at the climax to reveal his inner asshole like any good movie villain should.
What separates Trust No One from other thrillers, beyond it being set in idyllic Christchurch, New Zealand, is the structure derived from the novel’s central conceit. Due to the Alzheimer’s, Jerry keeps what he calls a “Madness Journal” to document the illness’s progress and how it affects both his life and his relationships with his wife and daughter. Cleave uses this to split his narrative in two—half the book takes place in the present, as Jerry slips more and more out of his reality while trying to figure out whether or not he’s actually a killer, while the other half takes place in the past, written on pages culled from the Madness Journal as Jerry reveals just what the disease is stealing from him. Later on, the Madness Journal becomes integral to the central mystery, and the two halves of the narrative sync up in a quite satisfying way.
There’s much more I could say about the narrative, but I’m hesitant to spoil too much, as naturally, the mystery is everything in this sort of book. And while I enjoyed the story, I do have some issues with it. First, the detectives. From the moment they appear their actions and mannerisms feel stereotypical, their prejudices well telegraphed. Both are content playing the bad cop, though to differing degrees. They hate that Jerry’s a crime writer, that he’s made his living off of the bile they fight day in and day out. While this makes sense, it’s handled in a very two-dimensional way, accentuated by the realization that they just don’t play all that important a role in the story—they’re there to antagonize Jerry, and to be there when he falters, but not to investigate things with any greater depth than that. And I found that lack of external possibility on their part to be rather frustrating.
Second, I was disappointed there wasn’t more done to blur the line between what was real and what was fiction within the scope of Jerry’s world. A couple of scenes from Jerry’s novels are touched upon and clearly filter into the larger narrative, but the narrative’s initial promise hinted at something greater—at a mind broken and unable to find its way out from the myriad worlds he himself created. For the most part, Jerry’s Alzheimer’s causes temporal confusion—he’s often not sure what day or month or even year it is, and as a result where Sandra or Eva are and why Eva won’t call him “Dad” anymore. But given his confusion regarding Suzan, the woman he was convinced he did murder, I expected the novel to go much further in that department, really blurring that line between realities. There was far more gold in those mines than what was brought to the surface…
Despite all this, I enjoyed my time with Trust No One. It doesn’t do anything especially new, and the split-narrative approach works to mask some of its more obvious shortcomings. However, what it does it does well enough, and I nevertheless remained engaged throughout. I suspect it would make a pretty excellent beach read, or something to chew through in short order while on a flight, but its depth is limited. Ironically, its characters feel a little too much like they’ve been cut from a thriller’s cloth, like individuals that could easily have come from any one of Jerry’s books—they just don’t stand well enough on their own....more