Food and flesh

The Last BanquetThe Last Banquet by Jonathan Grimwood
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Jonathan Grimwood is, of course, Jon Courtenay Grimwood, SF author of The End of the World Blues, among others. I must say I was quite ambivalent about this. It is intriguing and well written, but just did not take fire for me.

Grimwood falls into the common trap of historical fiction (and certain SF, coming to think of it) of deploying his main protagonist more as a mouthpiece than a flesh-and-blood character, as a means to explore a world, in this case pre-Revolution France, and in particular Versailles and the King’s court. The world-building is the strongest aspect here, with Grimwood having a painterly eye for detail, imagery and sensuous description.

Unfortunately, throughout it all Jean-Marie remains much of a cipher, more an onlooker in his own incredible journey from orphan to epicurean than a vital participant. It would also have added much-needed period heft to the novel if historical personages such as Voltaire and Marquis de Sade were not name-dropped, but appeared as flesh-and-blood characters.

This reminded me strongly of Pure by Andrew Miller. I was curious as to how Grimwood would end the novel, and must say I was quite pleased at the blend of elegiac horror and nostalgia he achieves. It is only here, at the bitter end, where Jean-Marie truly becomes alive. Still, this is a great novel from one of the genre’s most talented writers and fearless experimenters.

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Annihilation: A NovelAnnihilation: A Novel by Jeff VanderMeer
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Strange geographies with mutable boundaries, characterised by inexplicable shifts of time, space and reality, and populated by even stranger fauna and flora: this is the rich territory mined by writers as diverse as Christopher Priest and J.G. Ballard.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy follows firmly in this tradition – so firmly, in fact, it is difficult to discern from the first instalment what, if anything, new is added to this sub-genre of speculative fiction.

What also left me scratching my head was how much this reminded me of the Lost television series by J.J. Abrams and Damon Lindeloff, from a bunch of people investigating strange phenomena on a mysterious island, to the Lighthouse and a massive creature roaming around that is heard but never seen.

I doubt if VanderMeer anticipated a reaction of ennui on this reader’s part, because if Lost was one thing above anything else, ‘irritating’ pretty much sums it up. VanderMeer also reminded me how much Lost was a product of its time, and how fundamentally flawed it actually was.

No respectable television show, let alone SF book series, nowadays will be able to get away with tying up its readers or viewers with enigmas and then smothering them with riddles.

This is not to say that Annihilation is totally ineffective. There is a genuine sense of creepiness, especially with the alien flora forming writing on the tower/tunnel (it’s complicated) walls. This fire-and-brimstone verses are akin to Old Testament admonitions, but the reader is none the wiser to their significance or origin.

Ultimately though this is quite a frustrating read, as VanderMeer is more concerned at laying his groundwork for the next instalment than engaging the reader or making any attempt at providing some foreshadowing of answers. The ending though is equally moving, grotesque and mysterious.

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A Horse Named Sorrow

A Horse Named SorrowA Horse Named Sorrow by Trebor Healey
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Writing about AIDS in a post-apocalypse gay society poses a particular trap for a gay writer, in that by reliving the past he could be accused of ignoring the exigencies of the present, which has its own immediate and pressing problems. The past is dead and buried.

Yet there is a distinct danger in forgetting the past, and the sacrifices and hardships endured by those in firing the crucible that shaped our modern gay world. We can never take any form of liberty for granted, for then we will never appreciate its true value. Especially if it is taken away again.

Of course, the AIDS crisis is of specific significance to the gay community in the US, which is vastly different to that in the Middle East and elsewhere in Africa, for example (where people are still dying and suffering for what many First World, European gay people take so for granted).

What I loved about A Horse Named Sorrow is that Trebor Healey tells a story about the mythical gay utopia of San Francisco, and the black pall that falls upon it, and turns this into a universal tale of love found and lost.

I defy anyone, straight or gay, to read this dry-eyed, and not to fall in love with Seamus Blake and Jimmy Keane (and not to be turned on by their wild love). To qualify this last comment: I happened to be reading The Lost Library by Tom Cardamone at the same time, in which Michael Graves comments that “amply described blowjobs and anal scenes may stigmatise gay writers”.

Healey has written a deeply gay novel, drenched in gay aesthetic, and all sorts of other fluids, both bodily and spiritual, but at the same time it can be read quite comfortably by non-gay people, particularly those who are squeamish about the mechanics of gay-male sexuality.

Healey is deliberately vague in the ample sex scenes, but imbues them with copious amounts of love and masculinity. (There is also a deeply subversive riff on Christianity, and how the pure love shown by Christ can be an exemplar for the pure love between two people – of whatever gender or orientation. Love, compassion and humanity are all that matter).

This is basically an anthem to love and loss. Seamus meets the love of his life, and loses him too soon to AIDS. Jimmy’s dying wish was to return to from whence he came, and Seamus vows to retrace his soul mate’s journey from Buffalo to San Francisco, via bicycle, with Jimmy’s ashes in a bag on the handlebars.

Yes, it sounds as quixotic and as faintly ridiculous as David Lynch’s The Straight Story (only a much gayer version), but Healey uses this simple framework to build a deeply affecting and unforgetting story.

The writing here is luminous. At one point Healey deliberately references Tom Spanbauer, and I think this is very much a homage to the lushness of Spanbauer’s ‘dangerous writing’. What is important about this novel though is that it goes far beyond an account of dealing with the grief of losing a loved one.

Seamus meets Eugene on the road, and falls in love with him because he reminds him of Jimmy. Seamus, of course, is ashamed at his body’s needs, and conflicted by the love he felt for Jimmy, which he thought precluded feeling anything for anyone ever again. His journey towards final redemption, and the end of his epic quest to see Jimmy safely home again, is both heart-breaking and deeply spiritual.

The weird commingling of pain and joy of reading this was so intense and contradictory at times that I had to put the book down at several points. I am so glad I persevered though, for this is a truly great novel that deserves to be embraced and loved back by a much wider audience.

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Goldfish, ascendant

How to Get Filthy Rich in Rising AsiaHow to Get Filthy Rich in Rising Asia by Mohsin Hamid
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What a lovely surprise, such a different book to The Reluctant Fundamentalist, at first seeming to eschew radical politics and East vs. West cultural imperialism. Then while reading it, it struck me that this is probably the most radical book that Mohsin Hamid has ever written. Just what it means to live a good life is one of the most politically-loaded questions ever.

The best books always seem so effortless. This one in particular is quite slight and can be read in a single sitting. I was totally unprepared for the emotional wallop it dealt me; it is one of those books that linger with you for days afterwards, and then stay with you forever, like a good memory.

It is good that Hamid’s publisher pays such attention to the text, because the goldfish on the brilliant cover design appears only once, towards the end. There is so much to like here: the superb use of second person, Hamid’s eye for extraneous detail, his sense of humour, his deep and abiding affection for his characters, his love for readers and reading – there is a lot of fascinating by-the-way discussion about books and the relationship between author and reader.

And then there is the wonderful framing device, with the nameless narrator recounting his life, of getting filthy rich in rising Asia, as if it were the subject of a self-help manual or guide book. There is nothing arch or twee about any of this post-modernist stuff either. This can be read as a solid rags-to-riches love story, with digressions.

Ineffably sad, but brimming over with the wonder of life. Hugely recommended.

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Enter, Night

Enter, NightEnter, Night by Michael Rowe
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is an ambitious homage to Stephen King’s Salem’s Lot, with some effectively gruesome setpieces. Michael Rowe does a Game of Thrones on his large, varied cast. The fact that so many of the main characters’ fates conclude in the wings of the story was very frustrating, as it negates the reader’s emotional investment.

I was also quite alarmed at the particularly diabolical treatment of the two lonely gay characters in the novel, which read uncomfortably like some kind of infernal judgement of their sexuality, seen as being as abnormal as vampirism. But that is probably my own interpretation.

Apart from the gay storyline, Rowe has gone out of his way to write as ploddingly conventional a vampire novel as he could, with none of the tricks or inversions so beloved of modern horror. The entire Bram Stoker checklist is resolutely signposted, from the aversion to crosses and holy water to the nest and changing into bats.

There is a lot of Stephen King in here, from the quite gorgeous nature writing to the presence of saintlike children and animals, who get to save the day (but who survive as haunted adults, doomed to return to their loss of innocence).

For me, strangely enough, the best part of the book was one of the addenda, ‘Being the Last True Testament and Relation of Father Alphonse Nyon’, which is an effective (and affecting) pastiche of Black Robe by Brian Moore.

What puzzled me about this ending, which portrays the beginning of the story, as it were, is that Father Nyon clearly gets bitten by a vampire urchin, but does not become a vampire himself. Heck, even the family dog becomes a vampire, so this seems a strange lapse of Rowe’s strict logic.

Still, there is great potential here. I would love to see Rowe unfetter himself from the horror genre, which can be deeply formulaic and conservative, and write about what truly terrifies him, no holds barred. Now that would be a great tribute to Stephen King.

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Two Serpents Rise

Two Serpents RiseTwo Serpents Rise by Max Gladstone
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It seems as if fantasy in general, and the New Weird in particular, has finally caught up with the trend in contemporary SF to riff, tongue firmly in cheek, about things like economics, urbanism, social planning and the web of interrelated issues that make the modern world turn (just think Charles Stross and Iain Banks).

Max Gladstone’s vastly superior follow-up to Three Part Deads is about the desert city of Dresediell Lex, and what happens when its main fresh-water supply is contaminated, followed by suspected sabotage at its only desalination plant.

If this sounds boring, the contaminant in question is a melange of demons and the remnants of gods, killed during the so-called God Wars when the city bloodedly freed itself from the shackles of its deities.

Allied to this plot strand is the corporate merger between Red King Consolidated and Heartstone, which results in a titanic struggle for the heart and soul of the city (literally, as it turns out).

This is a much more confident book than Gladstone’s debut. The world-building is more sustained and convincing, the characters are believable, and the plot crackles along towards quite an eye-popping climax.

I enjoyed the fact that the Red King himself, besides being reduced to a bare skeleton due to the puissance of his thaumaturgic capability, is gay, and in protracted mourning for a lover killed during the madness of the God Wars. Another key protagonist is a fiery lesbian, who can ride dragons and drink people under the table.

Definitely one of the more intriguing and fascinating series out there at the moment.

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OrfeoOrfeo by Richard Powers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

This is an exceedingly well-written book … to the point where the poor reader feels bludgeoned by the author’s prodigious erudition. Thank heavens for the built-in dictionary on the Kindle, because there was at least one word on every page I had to look up. I also found myself trawling YouTube for videos of the many pieces of music referenced by Richard Powers, from Mahler to Shostakovich and Messiaen.

While I learnt a lot from this highly knowledgeable book, I have to add I did not enjoy it that much (this poses a particular conundrum for a reviewer, as the Goodreads rating system favours reader enjoyment over authorial skill).

When I began reading this I actually thought it would turn out to be a literary SF novel, especially with the first paragraph locating the narrative “in the tenth year of the altered world”. The reviews and publicity material made much of the fact that the main protagonist is a garage gene splicer who goes on the lam after a misunderstanding over a 911 call involving the death of a much-loved pet dog. This sets in motion a series of tragic and gradually escalating events, culminating unfortunately in a bit of a bombastic ending (but maybe this bombast was the point; I am still unsure).

I was also unclear as to what Peter Clement Els actually does, to the extent I had not figured it out by the time I had finished the book. There are some opaque references to him coding musical snippets into DNA … but the exact how or why eluded this reader (and perhaps the author as well). The book kind of reminded me of Blood Music by Greg Bear, but with music theory replacing the science.

In fact, the music theory in Orfeo totally overwhelms the science, to the point where it becomes increasingly irrelevant to the story. There are pages and pages of descriptions of various pieces of music: listening to some snippets, I was amazed to discover just how subjective musical interpretation can be …

Yes, the science stuff is trotted out for the pseudo-apocalyptic ending, but the reader is none the wiser as to Powers’s stance on gene splicing, or scientific endeavour in general for that matter. What this is about on a broad level is the battle for artistic integrity, and the impact of and responsibility entailed by adhering to free choice – especially if you make the wrong choices.

Els is a pretty unlikeable and ineffectual character, and Powers does not do much to endear him to the reader. This made it very hard for me to side with him, particularly at the end, where an emotional catharsis for the reader was clearly signposted. Instead I just thought his final act was supremely selfish.

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