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“I know what you can do, I’ve seen it. You hold no mysteries, Thaddeus Blaklok.” Kultus, by Richard Ford

2011; Solaris Books

288 pages; ~$9.99.

A friend bought Kultus from the estimable Pulp Fiction Books based purely on its ridiculous cover and blurb (its ridiculosity). I borrowed it afterwards and read it as part of the Literary Exploration 2013 challenge for my Steampunk genre selection.

Needless to say, neither of us were disappointed with Kultus‘s ridiculosity.

Protagonist Thaddeus Blaklok is an occultist mercenary and all-round badass who operates in the grimy steampunk city of Manufactory. The story starts with a gory demonic murder and pretty much stays on that level for the rest of the book. During his quest to get a hold of the Key of Lunos, Blaklok punches and shouts his way through waves of cultists, street rats, and demons. There’s a few hints at some kind of backstory for Blaklok; he seems to have been an important member of ‘the Community’ of occultists in Manufactory, and there are a few references to a tortured past. For the most part, though, Thaddeus is a one-trick pony. He sees no avenues of social interaction beyond hitting and shouting; to him, everyone is either a hapless authority figure (who get in the way, and so must be avoided) or an idiot (who can safely be hit until they stop moving).

So, in all, it’s dumb fun. Dumb – because the characters are one-dimensional at best – but fun nevertheless. There’s demons, “snappy” one-liners, and plenty of steam-powered violence. Manufactory is a pretty standard dirty, zeppelin-dotted steampunk city, although there are a few nods to imagination (the Spires, certain radioactive wastelands). I’m led to believe that demons are fairly standard in steampunk, but Kultus adds angels as well, which stirred things up a little. There’s also the requisite cast of simpering gutter-dwellers, cowardly slumlords, and even a team of hilariously-named superpowered assassins.

The writing itself is… dreadful. I know I’m used to literary fiction (whatever that is); I know I’m a snob when it comes to this kind of thing. In genre fiction, the writing doesn’t have to be groundbreaking. It’s the strength of the ideas which can carry the story. However, not only is Kultus pretty bog-standard in its ideas, the writing is really, really bad. As in ‘I’m not sure how this got published’ bad. I counted three – three! – instances of confused pairs (peel/peal; brake/break; breech/breach), any one of which would be painful enough, but three? Anyway. I think the best way to demonstrate the quality of writing is with a quote.

“Any advantage he could get might give him the edge he needed, and he was sorely in need of an edge.”

Says it all, really.

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“And there are never really endings, happy or otherwise.” The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

2011; Harvill Secker.

387 pages.

 

Note: A few minor spoilers below.

I chose The Night Circus  as my Magical Realism book for the Literary Exploration challenge. Magical realism is traditionally the genre which I enjoy the most. By nature it’s difficult to define, but essentially the ‘magical realism’ tag can be applied to stories which are generally realistic, but which contain fantastical elements. The archetypal One Hundred Years of Solitude blends magic and reality perfectly. Or, for a more recent example, look to Life of Pi, which contains scenarios unlikely enough to count as magic, though from a distance the world appears to be the same as ours. As it turns out, I probably wouldn’t count The Night Circus as part of this genre, though such categorisations are nebulous at best. Better to take the book on its own merits.

The story of The Night Circus jumps around in the decade surrounding 1896, and I enjoyed the novel’s use of nonlinear time. The titular Circus appears without warning, is open only at night, and disappears just as suddenly. It’s a magical, monochrome realm, where everything is always perfect – quite the opposite of a real circus. In the Night Circus, there are wondrous, impossible displays, true magicians, and all manner of subtle sorcery which ensure a wonderful evening. I found this infinitely preferable to my experience of real circuses, which involve a lot of noise, impolite crowds, and, not to put too fine a point on it, the smell of shit. This magical, dreamlike circus immediately drew me in. “This is the precise flavor the circus should be. Unusual yet beautiful. Provocative while remaining elegant.”

As always, all is not as it seems, and the Night Circus is actually just an arena for a contest. Two magicians, Marco and Celia, are bound to each other by their masters, and pushed into a competition. I was really excited by this – a magical duel, stretched over years, sounded awesome. Each master delights in being vague, and the rules of the contest even more so. In fact, for two thirds of the novel, one of the contestants is not even aware who they are up against. Sadly, a game which nobody is sure how to play – not the contestants themselves, and certainly not the reader – is not a good recipe for conflict.

So let’s talk about conflict.

The two main characters, Celia and Marco, are magicians, able to influence reality in a number of impossible ways. They’re pitted against one another from a young age, and quickly dedicate their lives to the contest. However, the stakes are never clear, and each magician spends a lot of time trying to find out for themselves. It’s nearly impossible to engage with the contest or the players within it, because there’s no clear goal or rules. Naturally, the two young magicians fall in love. Even this felt arbitrary and unconvincing, despite the surface beauty and wonder of their blossoming relationship (such as it is). The love subplot is also intended to increase the conflict between the magicians and their masters. However, with the stakes so low, there was never the sense of rebellious desperation you might expect. Each sinister master remains quietly benevolent, in action if not speech.

The closest thing The Night Circus has to an antagonist is Marco’s trainer and father figure, the shadowy Alexander. His motivations are generally unclear, beyond his desire for Marco to win the contest (although, again, this desire doesn’t stretch to actually telling Marco what constitutes winning). He’s sinister, apparently omniscient, and appears to contribute to the death of a character – but it’s a minor, undeveloped character, so even this fails to increase the tension or sense of urgency.

There’s also a number of subplots involving other people connected with the circus, especially Bailey, who is torn between his family’s pressure to stay home, and his own desire to leave and be part of the circus. The story visits him at various stages of his child- and young adulthood, where he becomes enamoured with one of the circus performers and is eventually called upon to save the Circus. However, even this subplot lacks much tension, because in the Circus, everything is perfect.

Bear with me here. The biggest draw of the circus setting is its difference to a real circus – that is, it’s clean, beautiful, and fun. Visitors experience events and displays which could only occur in dreams. Despite the wonder this implies, this is where The Night Circus falls down. In the real world, nothing is utterly flawless. The Circus is – and so becomes unreal. Things are unusual, certainly, and of course the reality-warping conjuration is obviously not just sleight of hand. I couldn’t help feeling that if only the Circus had gone further one way or the other – been more real, or more fantastical – it could have worked. It’s beautiful, yes, but when every setting and feature is perfect, it becomes oddly drab. Everything feels constructed, the conclusions foregone. With no character conflict to speak of, and a one-dimensional setting, the story quickly dropped into tedium.

I did my best to focus on the wonder. I tried to open my mind to awe and surprise. I wanted something magical, but still real; fantastic, but subtle. The Night Circus had some wonderful imagery, likable characters, and an interesting structure – but in the end, it felt shallow and cold.

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“I would absolutely, positively, freeze my head.” Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan

2012; Text Publishing.

224 pages; $28.99.

 

Gasp! A book that’s not part of my Literary Exploration thing!

…Anyway.

There was a fair bit of buzz around Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore after it came out last year. It was recommended to me a few times; I’m interested in the debates around paper versus electronic reading. When I learned that the novel was about a twenty-something semi-deadbeat who works in a musty bookshop, well. I can resist only so much vicarious seduction.

There may be a spoiler or two below, but not much more than is revealed in the blurb. You are warned. 

Mr Penumbra was a pure, vicarious joy to read. It’s no secret that I love crusty old books, and working a night shift in a place which, in my mind looked like Archive in Brisbane, with only myself and the occasional odd night person for company… well, it sounded like heaven. Read into that what you will.

The book tells the story of Clay Jannon, a recently-unemployed Silicon Valley tech nerd. After the economy crashes, there’s not much work around for wunderkind graphic designers; he stumbles into the titular bookstore and begins working the graveyard shift. The store has a few new and second-hand books at the front (much being made of Dashiell Hammett), and towering, shadowy shelves of mysterious tomes at the back. Naturally, Clay is forbidden from opening these. Mysterious!

To begin with, nothing much happens (as to be expected – 3am is not traditionally a good time for book sales) except that, occasionally, strange old people will come in, return one of the mysterious tomes, and withdraw a new one. Clay is, naturally, quite curious, and being a Millennial tech nerd, starts using his computer to look for patterns. He meets Kat, who works for Google, who quickly becomes involved in the pattern search. From here, Mr Penumbra becomes a treasure hunt. Clay and his friends use computers, programs, and Google to try to break an ancient code, earning the ire of a traditionally-minded secret society.

Which brings us to the theme of Mr Penumbra: old versus new. Clay uses modern methods – data visualisation, book scanning, and the like – while the society prefers to use the old methods, citing it as the only way to stay in the spirit of the hunt. It’s an old battle – the fun of solving the puzzle versus the satisfaction of having the answer. Of course, even using the power of Google (did I mention Google yet?), the puzzle is not so easy to solve, and… well, anyway. I was always a strong proponent of paper books. I vowed I’d never buy a Kindle. Ebooks have no heart, no soul, I said. The convenience of carrying a zillion books in one device does not outweigh the feel of paper under your fingers. And the smell! New or old, books smell great.

‘”The smell!” Penumbra repeats. “You know you are finished when people start talking about the smell.”

Hm. Never mind, then. I got a Kindle as a gift, later, and was immediately converted. There’s something about the feel of that in your hand, too – not to mention the whole ‘magic word-displaying rectangle’ thing. Sometimes I forget that we’re in the future. Mr Penumbra talks about Kindle a lot; Mr Penumbra himself is a member of the traditionally-minded secret society, but is also curious about new book-related technology. He’s also interested in Google (I can’t remember if I mentioned Google yet) and how it can help solve the puzzle.

The theme is interesting and timely – a lot of people seem to swear by paper or electronic books, and many happily embrace both. Beyond reading, it also opens up questions about whether technology can take the fun out of things. It reminded me of solved games, where the outcome can be predicted at any point. Or how an online journalist hunted down the human behind everybody’s favourite twitter spambot, horse_ebooks. Mr Penumbra argues that sometimes, there’s value in observing something mysterious and beautiful without trying to figure out how it works. Sometimes the value is in the doing, not in the solution. Or, at least, in working things out yourself, rather than just Googling it.

Did I mention Google? Mr Penumbra does. A lot. I mean, one of the main characters works there, and there’s plenty of other tech-brand namedropping (I was especially pleased to note references to Mario and xkcd), but it got a little bit out of hand. It might just be an offshoot of the other thing that dragged me out of Mr Penumbra‘s world – the coincidences. Or serendipity, whatever you want to call it. My point is that, when Clay has a problem, he also knows someone who has the exact set of skills to solve that problem. The first few times I thought, sure! He lives near Silicon Valley, makes sense he’d meet someone who works at Google. He needs to make an exact replica of something, and he knows someone who works at Industrial Light and Magic as a genius prop-builder. But then, later, he needs to track down an antique artifact  lost for a century. And… he knows someone who has access to the Secret Museum Artifact-Finding Database.

These are nitpicks. I loved this book – first, because it let me imagine I was working night shifts at a second-hand bookshop, and later because I love old-fashioned puzzle quests. The rafts of pop culture references, the most I’ve seen since Ready Player One, were fun and generally unintrusive (as references should be). I could say that Mr Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore will appeal to anyone has an opinion in the paper vs ebook debate, but really it will appeal to anyone who loves books, or even just a good contemporary adventure story.

Do you love your bookshelves, or prefer Kindle-y simplicity? Do you think Google is going to take over the world? Has it already? Drop me a comment!

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“The world is a strange and various place.” Triptych, by Krissy Kneen

2011; Text Publishing.

272 pages;  $29.95.

 

I bought Triptych at the 2012 Brisbane Writers Festival after hearing author Krissy Kneen on a panel about erotica, pornography, and censorship. In a world where discussing sex and pornography in public is usually frowned upon, it was a refreshing hour of discussion.

I was intrigued, and also enjoyed the idea of literary pornography (who was it who said ‘”erotica” just means “porn that works for me”‘?). Generally speaking, my only reactions to sex scenes in books before had been detached curiosity (for sexy plot points to keep the story going) or giggles (for the really bad ones – we’ve all read one of those).

Triptych contains a lot of sex; in fact, it’s mostly sex. Overall, though, it’s something more than just smut, despite the conspicuously NSFW cover (a slightly chastened image of Hokusai’s 1814 painting The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, which you should not Google at work).

The first novella, Susanna, follows a beautiful, but isolated, woman as she discovers an outlet for her sexual urges: Chatroulette. The titular character gets off on watching anonymous men do the same (which, in my brief experience, is pretty much all that happens on Chatroulette). Eventually, though, she strikes up a fairly one-sided relationship with one of her ‘onanistic torsos’, who she gradually comes to realise lives in the same apartment building as she.

This novella introduces the reader to the world of Triptych, where (fairly) well-adjusted characters are revealed to have sexual tastes which could be described as ‘kinky’, or perhaps even ‘deviant’. Susanna comes across companionship, acceptance, and possibly love – through essentially masturbating with strangers online.

The second novella, The Dream of the Fisherman’s Wife, is the one the author warned me about when I was getting my copy signed. It follows Leda as she goes through puberty and a sexual awakening, eventually becoming the lover of Paul, her lifelong companion. Paul, it is soon revealed, is a German shepherd.

Stepping back for a moment, the first part of the Fisherman’s Wife follows fairly common themes. A girl is growing up into a young woman; she is innocent and naive; she falls into a sexual relationship with a knowing male. It’s almost secondary that the male in this case is a dog. Though Kneen describes the carnality thoroughly, for Leda herself, it’s all about love.

Leda meets a girl who shares her tastes in lovers, and together they experiment with horses, and, yes, an octopus. One of my favourite parts of Triptych is when Leda’s new friend Rachel expresses a desire to have sex with Paul. Suddenly, it’s a teenage love triangle, with the familiar themes of jealousy, resentment, and revenge. It reminded me of stories where Girl 1 steals Girl 2’s boyfriend. I always wondered – what does the boyfriend think about this? Kneen cleverly sidesteps that: the boyfriend is a dog, and doesn’t think about it. Again, beyond the confronting bestiality aspect, it’s quite a tender and heartfelt coming of age story.

As the novella goes on, the sex scenes become increasingly bizarre and, probably, physically impossible. Leda’s foray into the octopus’s rockpools was particularly surreal. I really liked that the reader is drawn in by Kneen’s beautiful and well-executed prose. There is an atmosphere of peace, through the familiarity of the underlying stories and the realism of the characters. Then, almost without warning, we’re in Bestiality Town.

The ending, however, reminds us that despite the backdrop, the real theme here is human connection. Leda and Rachel become friends and lovers, connecting through their shared desires. It’s squicky, sure, but it’s also Kneen’s quiet reminder not to judge people too harshly by their sexual preferences.

Speaking of people, the third and, perhaps, weakest novella, Romulus and Remus, is from the point of view of one of Susanna’s ‘torsos’: Aaron. He’s been married for thirty years, and his sex life is not what it once was (which is why he spends his evenings on Chatroulette). The reader is only occasionally reminded that Aaron and his wife are also brother and sister.

This is another familiar story – a marriage becomes sexless and cold – complicated by the addition of some taboo arrangement. The sister, also dissatisfied with the relationship, has sex with a coworker in an alley, in some of Triptych‘s more vanilla sex scenes. I felt like Romulus and Remus is Kneen’s nod to straight-up pornography; with the incest angle played down (when it comes to physical sex, anyway), it’s just no-strings fucking. Either way, the sex, as well as the incest angle, is an aside to the theme of this novella, and of Triptych as a whole.

It’s all about love.

Triptych reminds us that sex is not an unusual act. Animals do it all the time. Humans are animals too, after all, and we all do it in our own ways. Triptych describes (in sticky detail) some of the unusual – or unnatural – ways to have sex; but it also shows that, for humans, sex can be a part of love. On the surface, Triptych seems to be a simple, gross-out exploration of unnatural sex. But it’s actually about what brings people together: we have empathy, consideration, acceptance. The capacity to build a life together, to feel happiness, to feel love.

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I will lock you in a room much like your own until it begins to fill with water, or, uncertainty as a method for making things interesting

Threats, a novel, by Amelia GrayThreats.

Amelia Gray.

Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2012.

Amelia Gray’s first novel-length work deals in loss, grief, shock… uncertainty. David’s wife, Franny, is dead. Maybe. Now he’s finding vaguely threatening messages around his house (carved into the side of an old television; on a scrap of paper in the sugar bowl). The police are questioning him. What happened? What’s happening? Good question.

The lack of certainty even with such a central plot point (Franny is dead) spreads throughout the narrative like ripples on a pond. David is not sure of this fact, or of much else, for that matter. The narrator’s voice is stolid and gentle, peacefully recounting the horrors, bizarre scenes and events, and above all, the massively fractured mind of David.

From the outset, it seems like we’re looking at a murder mystery. It quickly becomes an exploration of grief, of the shock and pain following a sudden loss. Maybe. The titular question, of course, is where the threats are coming from, and ironically, this is one of the few questions that gets a sort of answer. The threads of everything else, all the surreal sheds of wasps, surprise hypnotist boarders, and of course Franny’s death, are there, but they’re tangled, hazy. In true plotless, postmodern style, it may all be a symbol. Or a metaphor. Or maybe (likely?) it just went over my head.

I should say: it’s a great read. I finished it in a day, lying wide-eyed in a Melbourne hotel bed at 3.30am, and it stayed with me for days after. The language is evocative, and there’s a sense of crushing, inevitable dread; a creeping doom that began long before David met Franny, and has no end in sight. The uncertainty that pervades, though, eventually became more frustrating than tension-building. The thoroughly unreliable protagonist meant I was never sure what’s real. I’m all for ambiguity and uncertainty, but here there’s very few places to touch a toe and push yourself up. Perhaps this is one of those novels you need to be ‘in the mood for’; maybe it’s just not my style. Anyway.

The most frustrating for me was that occasionally, we are shown a glimpse of what David used to be like, glimpses that unfortunately make him seem like a much more interesting character. Inevitably, though, he descends back into bleary-eyed, memory-questioning wandering. I had to work quite hard, in the end, to care about him. Right from the start, he’s having out-of-body experiences, dissociation events… These are all unremarkable responses to trauma, but mixed with the surreal stuff (especially in the book’s last third) I felt like there wasn’t enough here to chew on, to worry at. No answers forthcoming. If you go into this novel with traditional genre expectations, you’ll likely be disappointed. Even after consciously restructuring my expectations, I felt that ambiguity (uncertainty, interest) lost out to vagueness here. I was gripped at first; at last, I just wanted to see how it would end.

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