Dec 06

Hystopia by David Means

“Hystopia” is the name Eugene Allen gives to his war novel, an attempt to work through the trauma he experienced during the Vietnam War. But before we even begin “Hystopia”, the reader is provided with a lengthy note from an editor that puts Allen’s book into historical context. In fact the editor, in the opening paragraph of their introduction, is at pains to tell us that Eugene Allen’s account of the seventh assassination attempt on President Kennedy isn’t entirely accurate. Specifically, in Allen’s narrative JFK was shot in August when in actual fact (as we all know) this seventh attempt on Kennedy’s life took place a month later in the September of 1969.

In other words David Means’ Hystopia is the account of two alternative histories. The alternative history of the editor, pointing out factual errors in Eugene Allen’s narrative and the alternative history presented by Allen himself in his novel “Hystopia” where he imagines an America very similar to the one he lives in – the Vietnam War is ongoing, JFK is dodging assassination attempts – but where a treatment has been devised to deal with those veterans that come back from the war. Allen calls the treatment enfolding and it essentially involves the patient reliving – as in acting out – a version of their greatest trauma from the war while under the influence of a newly discovered narcotic that has the ability to wipe that trauma from the patients mind.

Confused? You don’t need to be. As James Bradley says in his excellent review of the novel in The Australian, the book is very grounded. The alternative histories, while central to the novel, are essentially a framing device so that Allen (and Means) can tackle the difficult issue of trauma. What’s striking about the novel is how for a book that features both the Vietnam War and a psychopath who kills for the sheer pleasure this isn’t an overly graphic novel. Violence occurs, but often off stage or through a hazy, opaque lens. The actual descriptions of death and violence, the blood and the gore, are muted. Just as it would be for those who are enfolded. And yet this is an unsettling novel. The tone fluctuates – jagged and spiky, punctuated with these prolonged bursts of intense, burning hot prose. If the concept of enfoldment reminded me of Philip K. Dick, the prose often gave me flashbacks to David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest.

Having said all that, the plot of Eugene Allen’s (or David Mean’s) novel is straightforward. Two agents of an organisation much like the FBI set up to deal with people whose enfoldment hasn’t stuck are on the hunt for a serial killer named Rake. One of the agents, Singleton, is also enfolded and somehow his back-history, which he doesn’t remember (though orgasmic sex can unfold a person…) is connected to Rake. The novel progresses much as you expect it to, and the interest stems not from the search for Rake but how each character deals with their trauma. Because that’s what this book is – a profound exploration of trauma, of grief, of memory and identity. In a sense it’s an attack on trigger warnings, a book that certainly settles on the view that facing trauma is far better than avoidance. But even here, there’s an acknowledgment that facing your pain provides no easy solutions, as Eugene Allen discovers. If “Hystopia” is his way of working through his own demons then it doesn’t entirely succeed.

While I do think the book is a tad too long and loses puff toward the end – which is deliberately anti-climactic – this is still the sort of bold, confronting literature that’s stimulating to read.

Dec 05

I Am Providence by Nick Mamatas

I am Providence is a terrific novel.  It’s a murder mystery set at a Lovecraft convention.  This might sound cringeworthy at first, the sort of book open to all sorts of shitty stereotypes, but works beautifully because the novel has been written by someone who (a) has experienced the muck and guts of the fannish trenches and (b) has a clear love for Lovecraft and his influence on the field, even if Lovecraft the man was a bit of an arse.

Our protagonists are a decomposing corpse – shit stirring author and victim number one, Panos Panossian – and a newbie attendee at the convention, Colleen Danzig, who happens to be rooming with Panossian. Colleen, disturbed that no-one seems to give a shit that Panossian is dead, decides to Nancy Drew the murder herself. In the meantime Panossian’s steadily decomposing brain ruminates over his life, over Lovecraft and who might have murdered him. I found it particularly amusing how the cops investigating the murder keep dragging people to the morgue to see Panossian’s mutilated body just so his disembodied thoughts can be part of the action.

If you’ve read the reviews you’ll know that Mamatas doesn’t hold back in his observations of this sub-niche of fandom. But unlike the media who waltz into a convention space and shove their cameras into the face of the weirdest cosplayer they can find, Mamatas insights – as I note above – come from a place of deep, grimy knowledge. He’s an embedded journalist in the frontline reporting factually about the current toxic state of fandom, both at conventions and online. And he does so in away that is laugh out loud funny – I loved the line about the Ku Klux Klan holding a kaffeeklatsch. (And the nod to Zod Wallop was cute as well).

But fuck all that. It’s just a sideshow. The real delight of this novel is how Mamatas contextualises Lovecraft both in terms of his profound influence on literature and weird fiction and in regard to Lovecraft’s character (his sexism, his anti-semitism and his racism) and the hagiographic attempts to paper over these troublesome aspects of his personality. This novel loves Lovecraft and despises him in equal measure and if anything shows that ignoring what’s “problematic”, rather than confronting and dividing the good from the bad, is unhelpful and harmful.

Oh, and it’s a good murder mystery as well.

If you want to hear me ramble about the book for two minutes (and babble on about a bunch of novel I loved in 2016, with James Bradley, Jonathan Strahan and Gary K Wolfe) then have a listen to this episode of the Coode Street podcast.

Dec 03

Hot Milk by Deborah Levy

Sofia is a twenty-something who works as a Barista in the UK and spends most of her free time looking after her ailing mother Rose. They’ve headed to Spain, the setting for 90% of the novel, so Rose can visit the clinic of Doctor Gomez a man who she believes will discover why her legs are always numb.

Hot Milk is short but the prose is dense and layered and crammed with symbolism – much of which went over my head. This is because Sofia studied – though failed to finish – anthropology at University and so she views her mother and the people she meets in Spain as part of a larger ethnographic study. But really Sofia is aimless and without purpose. Shackled to her mother and her illness (is it hypochondria or is there something physically wrong with Rose?) Sofia struggles to make sense of who she is. Levy’s character work is fantastic, Sofia is a fully developed, but spending time with her – especially when she’s in the vicinity of her mother – makes for a painful reading experience.

Unlike a number of reviewers who were hypnotised and beguiled by Levy’s prose – and it is fantastic – the bare skeleton of a story meant that there was nothing beyond Sofia’s doubt to hang onto. Yes, she gets into a sort of love triangle, though it never really goes anywhere and her trip to Greece halfway through the novel to meet her Dad (she hasn’t seen him in 11 years) and his twenty something wife and baby sister only reinforces that Sofia comes from a broken place – a sick mother and father who no longer cares about his daughter. It’s sad and terrible and while I wasn’t expecting a happy ending, the lack of plot means that the book essentially stops without the feeling that there’s been any sense of progression.  Yes, we find out what’s ailing Rose, but Sofia continues to stare the status quo straight in the face.  She’s no closer to coming to terms with who she is or what her future holds.

This lack of forward momentum is undoubtedly deliberate.  And there is something a bit exciting about a book that is this formless, especially when the prose is so good.  But while the book is short, I couldn’t help but find my attention wandering.  There are times when the prose, as gorgeous as it might be, can’t elevate what seems like a study in navel gazing.

Dec 02

The North Water by Ian McGuire

I’ve just found Quentin Tarantino’s next movie project once he’s finished with whatever he’s working on right now.* The North Water by Ian McGuire, described by someone on Goodreads as Jack London on steroids, is a hyper violent, grimy, potty-mouth thriller set on a whaling ship and the icy waters of the Arctic Circle. If you ever wanted to know how to eviscerate a bear, gut a seal or flense a whale in graphic detail then this is the book for you. And that’s not to mention the violent murders, rape, anal sores and starvation on the icy tundra.

I was entertained but then I’m a gore hound from way back. It also helped that North Water is a competent, albeit predictable, thriller where our main protagonist, a disgraced surgeon named Sumner, is pitted against the Arctic environment and a savage killer. The books moves at a steady pace and among all the innards and spurts of blood McGuire does a decent job describing the freezing cold environment.

This is a penny dreadful but gussied up with some thematic hand waving concerning loneliness and man’s kill or be killed nature. (And I say “man” deliberately, barely a woman features in the whole novel). It’s enjoyable, if you’re not squeamish, but buggered if I know why the novel’s featured on the Man Booker longlist.

*Or maybe not given he’s said he’s only got two more movies left in him.

Dec 01

Savages by K. J. Parker

K J Parker’s Savages is escapist fun about the fall and the rise and the fall and the rise (maybe) of Empire told with a wry sense of humour. As this is my first taste of Parker at novel length (I read one of his award nominated novellas a couple of years back) I can’t say whether the novel’s almost self deprecatory tone is consistent with his previous work or whether there’s a dash of Tom Holt in the mix. Whatever the case it makes for an entertaining, enjoyable read.

The novel’s major drawback is that every point of view character is a man. Whether they’re a master strategist, or a pacifist cum arms merchant or a guilt ridden Emperor or a teenage King this is a novel that mostly ignores woman. The one woman who does have agency – an expert forger – does play an important role in the narrative but she never gets her own voice. For some this will be a deal breaker. Personally I found it to be a frustrating hole in a mostly clever and enjoyable fantasy novel about the waxing and waning nature of power.

Nov 29

The Chimes by Anna Smaill

The Chimes is a beautifully written book – it came as no surprise to read in the author bio that Anna Smaill is a poet – with a post apocalyptic setting that is imaginative and ambitious in concept but makes only a modicum of sense in execution.

Smaill conceives of a post-disaster London where the written word is banned and where people mostly communicate through tunes and songs. This London is ruled by the Magisters who every morning and night blast out the Chimes across the city and countryside, a symphonic expression of order and perfection. So powerful are the Chimes that they have the unhappy knack of (a) degrading people’s memories – or at least the lower castes that live outside the Citadel in Oxford – and (b) eventually leading to chime-sickness, a neurological disorder that results in a painful death.

The novel’s main problem – apart from an abrupt, blink and you’ll miss it climax – is that Smaill never makes clear as to how London or the Earth in general – not that we’re told about the rest of the world – reached this point. There’s some handwavium about a discovery before the collapse of the effects certain sounds can have on the human body and it’s clear that at some moment in the past music was weaponised by the Magisters. But how they were formed and what led to their ascendancy is never explained. It’s also not explained why some people, like our main protagonist Simon, have the psychic ability to generate detailed memories from objects they’ve touched. Is it a mutation brought about by the Chimes? Is it magic?

Of course not everyone is going to care about the world building or why Simon can access other people’s memories. They will be wowed by the prose because disappointing climax aside at a sentence level The Chimes is truly a delight with a story that does build like a symphony. Smaill’s deep and abiding passion for all things musical – she’s a violinist – shines through. Also the key relationship in the story – Simon and Lucien – is well realised. So while I found the lack of clarity around the world building frustrating, I can see why the novel was longlisted last year for the Booker and this year was nominated and won the World Fantasy Award.

Nov 24

The Buried Giant by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant is my first taste of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work and on reflection possibly not the best place to start.  Intellectually I enjoyed the novel, especially the second half, but some uneven character work made the beginning section a real slog.  In particular, the first third of the novel is mostly focussed on the tiresome adventures of two octogenarians – Beatrice and Axl – as they sally forth from their small village to visit their estranged son who lives in a nearby town. Or so they think. One of the running threads throughout the novel, and about the only thing that makes the first third palatable, is the idea that people’s long and medium term memories are fading, that some sort of mist is erasing their past.

The book is set around the 5th Century in Britain during a small window of time, post the death of King Arthur, where Britons and Saxons live an uneasy peace. The supernatural is still a thing with ogres and dragons, while not prevalent, remaining a threat for those who wander outside the safe surrounds of their village.  So, this is a fantasy novel, but one where the magic is muted and fading just like the memories of Axl and Beatrice and those they meet on their journey.

It’s when Axl and Beatrice come across Master Wistan (a master swordsman with a secret mission) and Sir Gawain and his horse Horace that the book becomes a more enjoyable reading experience. But it’s only in the last third, and especially the final fifty pages or so when the novel truly kicks into high gear, where truths become apparent and where Ishiguro explores the theme – hidden for so much of the novel – of hatred begetting hatred and violence begetting violence. There’s a beautiful, subtle tragedy to those final pages that nearly, but not quite, makes the first third a worthwhile slog.

Maybe I would have got more out of The Buried Giant if King Arthur and his mythology was part of my cultural heritage.

Sep 04

The Museum of You by Carys Bray

One of the best books I read in 2014 was The Song for Issy Bradley, Carys Bray’s Costa winning début novel.  My expectations, therefore, were a tad on the high side when I picked up her latest (and second) novel The Museum of You. And while it doesn’t deliver the same emotional punch as her first novel, The Museum of You is still a very smart, very compassionate and very well written novel.

12-year-old Clover Quinn has always struggled to get any information from her father, or her father’s friends or the delightful and hard of hearing next door neighbour about her mother, Rebecca, who died when Clover was only six weeks old.  Now on summer holidays she has decided to search through her mother’s belongings, shoved away in the spare bedroom, with the intent of creating a museum display that will start to fill in some of the gaps as to the sort of person her mother was.  As the novel alternates between Clover’s archaeological dive into her mother’s past and flashbacks to her parent’s (Bec and Darren) first meeting and early relationship a picture emerges that’s difficult and tragic and yet ultimately hopeful.

Where this novel wins – aside from Bray’s ability to write sympathetic characters that you enjoy spending time with – is how she sensitively handles the issues of mental illness and postpartum depression.  There is darkness to the novel and just like she did with The Song for Issy Bradley, Bray never cuts away from the unfolding tragedy to comfort the reader.  But she doesn’t dwell either.  The truth about what happened to Clover’s mother is something we learn gradually.  As a consequence when the truth does emerge into light it does so with a great deal of tenderness and compassion.  Her tragic death is not sensationalised.  Fingers are not pointed and blame is not apportioned.  That doesn’t mean, though, that characters, especially Darren, don’t feel a great deal of culpability for what transpired with Rebecca.  The great strength of the novel is Darren’s journey to accept his innocence through the eyes of his daughter.

This could have been a sentimental and mawkish book, but Bray’s dry sense of humour and passion for life and people sings through. I especially loved the octogenarian next door neighbour Margaret who generates a great deal of comedy in the novel, but also plays a pivotal role in how this small neighborhood of characters deal with the tragedy that, for so long, has defined them – whether directly or indirectly as in the case of Clover.

I’ve read a good chunk of the Man Booker longlisted novels for this year – reviews forthcoming – and when I compare the quiet power of The Museum of You to the dull, flaccid, uninspired entries that form the bulk of this year’s longlist I can’t help but be annoyed.  But great fiction isn’t only defined by awards recognition and whether The Museum of You picks up nominations from other literary circles is less of a concern than the fact that this is another strong novel from Carys Bray, a writer most certainly worth following.

Helen Dunmore is absolutely correct when she says, in her review for The Guardian that “Bray’s fluid, engaging style and humour mask the novel’s complexity, just as Clover’s cheerful, easy demeanour conceals the depth of her inner life.”  This is a book with layers.  Katy Goodwin-Bates also notes the novel’s subtlety and that while there is a deep sadness at the core of The Museum of You this is not a mawkish or depressing read.  In other words everyone agrees with me!  Or I more precisely I agree with them.  

 

Aug 29

My Best Friend’s Exorcism by Grady Hendrix

I first became aware of Grady Hendrix when he began writing the Great Stephen King Reread column on Tor.com. He’s since followed up that with Freaky Friday, a choice selection of some of the worst offending mass market horror paperbacks that were published in the 80s. A number of which I’ve read. In both cases, Hendrix writes with great wit and charm and a clear love for the horror genre.

Given my adoration for his non-fiction you’d think I would have purchased Hendrix’s first novel “Horrorstor” (an IKEA / Zombie mashup). But with my whole recent hankering to read award nominated novels – an obsession that’s thankfully in decline – his début novel passed me by. I wasn’t going to make the same mistake with Hendrix’s second book, the wonderfully titled My Best Friend’s Exorcism.

The novel, set in the 1980s – with most of the action taking place in 1988/89 – tells the story of Abby and Gretchen the best of friends since fifth grade. Now 16 years old and attending a prestigious private school they’re closer than ever, happily fending off boys while also experimenting with drugs. On one particular night Gretchen, after taking a tab of LSD, gets lost in the local woods. When she’s found a few hours later she’s in a state of shock. Something horrible has happened to Gretchen, something that will cut through her deep friendship with Abby, something that may require the help of an exorcist.

This is a fun novel. Not laugh a minute – in fact I congratulate Hendrix on declining to drag out every 80’s cliché – but the sort of book that’s a delight to read. Hendrix has chosen the 80s not because he wants to focus on the big hair and the popularity of Phil Collins (though Genesis gets more than one mention) but because of the whole anti-drug / fear of Satan and Satanic cults phenomena that pervaded American media at the time. Dotted throughout the narrative are pamphlets and Public Service Announcements informing parents of the tell-tale signs that indicate your child is on drugs or possibly a follower of Satan. These minor interruptions to the story only reinforce the 80’s vibe and highlight how shit-scared and irrational we’ve always been about our children, especially when the hormones kick in. Hendrix also explores class and social status, an important factor given that Abby is only attending private school because she’s earned a scholarship. It means that, as her world turns upside down, she often feels powerless because she’s from the wrong side of the street.

The relationship between Abby and Gretchen is the heart and soul of the novel. Their first meeting at Abby’s birthday party, which no-one but Gretchen attends, is a beautiful bittersweet moment that sets the tone for the rest of the book. And even when things turn to shit, and my God do they ever, this relationship – or at least its significance – remains front and centre.

The title of the novel promises an exorcism and we certainly get one and while I don’t want to spoil what transpires the last third of the novel is intense and disturbing.  Satan and demon possession aside this is a fantastic novel about friendship and love. It’s the only book about demon possession that’s made me cry.

Highly recommended.

Stephanie Hunt of The Post and Courier also loved the book, noting that aside from the wackiness and gore it’s also full of truth and tenderness.  Yes.  It is.  Ken Raymond – reviewing the book for The Oklahomanalso liked the novel arguing that despite the 80s setting it has wide range appeal – Millennials and Baby Boomers. 

Aug 24

Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals by Jesse Armstrong

Well, what a disappointment that was. I blame Mike Pesca’s interview with Jesse Armstrong on The Gist which made Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals sound a shitload more interesting and funnier than it turned out to be. Armstrong is a comedy writer known for his work on shows like Peep Show, The Thick of It and Fresh Meat.  In other words a person who has written some of my favorite TV. That knowledge and the lively interview with Mike Pesca created expectations (possibly of the unrealistic variety) that were dashed against the rocks of mediocrity. Or maybe I simply didn’t get the jokes.

In the novel a group of activists head off to the former Yugoslavia during the height of the Bosnian War smitten with the idea that their theatrical production about peace will save lives in the region. Our narrator, Andrew, while somewhat knowledgeable in the conflict is really only going along so he can be closer to Penny, one of the activist and the author of the play. To ensure he gets a place on the “peace bus” Andrew has lied to the group telling them that (a) his grandfather was born in the region and (b) he can speak the language.

Andrew is as hapless and annoying as he sounds. Yes, Armstrong generates comedy from Andrew’s fear of being found out – there’s one very funny scene where he attempts to communicate with a Serbian soldier at a border crossing mostly through gibberish – but overall he’s the Woody Allen noodnik with a distinct creepy streak. He’s constantly unsure of himself and yet he’s quite happy to manipulate events so he can be closer to Penny. It’s all very off-putting and it’s not helped by the fact that the rest of the cast is so broadly characterized – the drug addled brother, the idealistic group leader, the old hippie, the in your face lesbian – that it’s hard to see any of them as real people.

Armstrong has clearly done his research and there’s a level of sensitivity and awareness in how he describes the War with its complex internal conflicts and internecine battles. But for a book that is meant to be funny, poking fun at the idealistic hippie type trying to save the world through poetry and song, Love, Sex & Other Foreign Policy Goals is horribly short on laughs.

Mike Pesca’s interview with Jesse Armstrong can be found here.  Differing tastes aside, The Gist is great – I listen to Pesca everyday.  And if you’re looking for a second opinion, Zoe Williams from The Guardian clearly liked the book a shit load more than I did.  She describes one scene – involving our hapless narrator and a land mine – as achieving ‘structural perfection’ and got a kick from Armstrong’s ‘mordant wit’ that’s sustained even when the narrative gets a bit dark and violent. 

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