Bird Box

Bird BoxBird Box by Josh Malerman

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The amazing thing about good literature is you can write about anything and make people believe in it. A terrible epidemic strikes the US and renders the sound of children’s speech lethal? Check. This was the premise of The Flame Alphabet by Ben Marcus.

Bird Box by Josh Malerman has no less bizarre a premise: an unspecified apocalypse has struck the world, whereby people are forced to huddle in their homes and not venture outside without blindfolds, or they go mad and kill themselves and anyone in the immediate vicinity.

Usually in the throes of horrible despair; there are some highly effective set pieces in this regard, with one particularly brutal and heart rending incident involving a dog.

There is also a transcendental scene near the end where one victim opens her eyes and is overcome with the awe and beauty of what she sees … the reader is left wondering if it is simply the ordinary world that dazzles her after her long period of self imposed blindness, or is it the grandeur and majesty of the apocalypse itself afflicting the world?

I think Malerman makes a fatal and irretrievable mistake early on in his novel by referring to some kind of trans-dimensional or alien ‘creatures’ as the root cause of his apocalypse.

I immediately began to think of everything from Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Happening and Whitley Streiber’s The Greys and Blindness by José Saramago. This inter-texuality siphons off much of the potency of Malerman’s premise and developing narrative.

Another mistake is the ending. I would simply have swopped the last two chapters around, for the simple fact that the actual ending reads rather flat and forced after the terror and horror that has gone before. The sudden injection of hope and surcease into this bleak nightmare just seems too much like a placebo. If only Malerman had had the balls to end the book at the exact point where Malorie thinks she is finally safe and has saved her children, and opens her eyes …

Having said all this, there is much to admire in this brave, unflinching and generally well written novel. I particularly liked the way that Malerman weaves two different narratives together: we start with Malorie holed up in a house, its windows and doors blocked with blackout material and wood, desperately trying to raise her boy and girl (they are simply called Boy and Girl, perhaps in homage to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road).

She has been doing this for four years. (Exactly why the children have to keep their eyes closed when they wake up inside the house itself is never made clear, as the house is supposed to be a ‘safe zone’. This is an example of some of the niggling logical inconsistencies that bothered me).

There are mysterious, old blood stains on the walls and also scattered throughout the house. Malorie then decides that the time has come to venture out in a boat on the river behind the house in order to try and reach a place of sanctuary she has heard about. This journey is contrasted with the story of how she came to the house originally, what happened up to the point when her children were born, and the precise origin of all that spilled blood.

I would have liked to have learned more about the character of Gary, who is an outcast invited into the house as Malorie is, but who quickly begins to spread dissent and discontent. It would have been interesting if Malerman had included lengthier extracts from Frank’s journal, for example, or used Gary as an alternative point of view character. The view of the apocalypse presented here is just a touch too parochial and limited in order to achieve the kind of epic grimness of The Reapers are the Angels by Alden Bell, for example.

Writing a High Concept horror novel like this is always a fine balancing act between incredulity and suspension of disbelief. Much of the horror and terror here is inferred; Bird Box is very much a ‘modern’ take on the logical extremes of existentialism.

This is also a brave choice given the surfeit of twinkly vampire and cosy apocalypse fiction that so dominates the horror/dystopian genre at the moment, which not only means that readers have perhaps become lazy, but that they do not exercise their imaginations anymore and are unwilling to experiment with or diversify their staple reading to boot.

I think that readers in general will have a lot of varied opinions and theories about this novel. That Malerman is able to generate so strong a debate with such an intriguing novel shows he is an author to watch.

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Ancillary Sword

Ancillary Sword (Imperial Radch, #2)Ancillary Sword by Ann Leckie

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This reads more like a footnote to Ancillary Justice than a fully fledged sequel. The best way to think of this book is to compare the Star Trek movies Insurrection and Wrath of Khan. While the former is quietly contemplative and penetratingly speculative in the best tradition of Star Trek, it simply cannot hold a candle up to the visceral intensity of Wrath of Khan.

Here, the same. It is as if Leckie has deliberately, if not perversely, written as low-key a sequel as possible. Of course, it is highly likely she envisaged the broader totality of this sequence long before Ancillary justice became such a hit in the SF community. Still, it is a curiously muted follow-up that tells such a small story so obliquely that I was left feeling very frustrated.

The lack of plot and the overall focus on ‘justice, propriety and benefit’ as the underlying principles of Radchaai civilisation means that Leckie could easily have swopped the titles of these books around. The comparison with Star Trek is quite apt, given the tone and slant of an investigation into cultural dynamics and the lingering effects of colonialism. (There is even a character called ‘Medic’ that grumpily disapproves of the antics of the crew and how they ignore ‘her’ medical advice, much like Bones in Star Trek).

Perhaps my biggest problem with both novels is Leckie’s supposed answer to the gender bias of the English language by using female pronouns exclusively, and without any consideration of gender. Here and there she does drop hints to let the reader know if a particular character is male or female, but I simply found myself thinking of everyone as female regardless. I do not think this is a particularly successful strategy, and also that it raises far more questions than it attempts to answer. But maybe that is the point after all.

Still, Leckie represents an interesting modernisation of the sort of sociological SF pioneered by Samuel R. Delany and Ursula Le Guin. That she is not nearly as radical as either of these seminal writers is a telling reflection of how conservative and politically correct we are in today’s fractured and divisive world.

Does Leckie’s phenomenal success imply a hankering in the SF community for the sort of politically astute SF of yore? I find it curious that while Leckie is lauded left, right and centre, a writer like Kameron Hurley – whose incendiary God’s War is far rougher and in your face than Ancillary Justice, and which tackles both gender issues and fundamentalism – is not nearly as successful. Could this mean that the SF community is as conservative as broader society itself?

This is not to suggest that Leckie’s success is either derivative or undeserved. Her first salvo remains one of the more interesting SF novels of recent times. It is such a pity therefore that it is not done justice by its sequel.

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Mea culpa

Rapture (Bel Dame Apocrypha, #3)Rapture by Kameron Hurley

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I put off reading this for a long time as I knew it was the final volume in the Bel Dame trilogy, and I was full of trepidation as to how Kameron Hurley would end Nyx’s story. Suffice it to say the ending is note perfect. “She’d been hoping for a storm.”

The cover of Rapture shows a demented looking woman facing off with a weird giant centipede earwig kind of thing, which sort of reminded me of Dune. There is a much more forcible reminder of this comparison with the introduction of the mauta kita towards the end. Indeed, in many respects this trilogy is really a weaponised, feminised version of the Frank Herbert saga.

It is quite astonishing how topical Rapture is in terms of the current debate about religious fundamentalism and the role that ongoing global conflict plays in propping up capitalist Western economies.

Rapture begins smoothly – in many respects perhaps too smoothly, reminding me of a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster following hot on the heels of an independent shoestring-budget movie. But Hurley has lost none of her genre or street smarts with this final instalment, which is definitely the best written and most plot driven of the three. It also extends the SF basis of the series is some fascinating ways.

Given the fickle nature of genre dynamics, a lot of attention of late has focused on Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, while God’s War is in many respects a much more radical and successful inversion of religious and gender stereotypes.

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Bears and badgers

King of the BadgersKing of the Badgers by Philip Hensher

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This novel is one of those guilty pleasures one is reluctant to admitting how much you enjoyed it, as Philip Hensher spares no sacred cows, pieties, scruples or morals in this often grotesque and lurid, but extremely funny, skewering of middle-class society. Even the reader has his or her pretensions examined ruthlessly at one point … and found to be sorely wanting, of course, as is everyone else under Hensher’s ferociously intelligent gaze.

In the fictional English town of Hanmouth, on the Bristol Channel, a young girl by the name of China goes missing, presumably kidnapped. That her family is from the wrong side of the tracks, so to speak, is cause for much grievance among the upstanding citizens of Hanmouth proper, as the sadly unwarranted event gives undue publicity to the less than savoury aspects of this semi-rural idyll.

However, Hensher is little interested in solving the mystery of China’s disappearance, and simply uses this as a pretext to delve behind the curtains and closed doors of Hanmouth, to peer into its darkest nooks, crannies, desires, fears and hopes.

The irony of this, of course, is that the book is ostensibly about the invasion of privacy and the encroachment on human rights, as the stick-in-the-ass John Calvin of the local Neighbourhood Watch launches a one-horse campaign to increase the number of surveillance cameras in Hanmouth (‘If you are not doing anything wrong you will not be afraid to be caught out’, is the overall motto of this Big Brother benevolence).

Perhaps the highlight of the book is a bravua sequence contrasting a dinner party at one family, while a few houses down the local bears (fat, hairy and happy gay men) are getting down and dirty.

What I loved is that the book ends on such a sweetly domesticated note between the two lead gay characters, Sam and Lord What A Waste Harry, that the reader is totally wrong-footed by Hensher’s loving adoration for this doting couple, symbol of the true love, friendship and fealty that a proper community should be built upon.

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The Snow Queen

The Snow Queen: A NovelThe Snow Queen: A Novel by Michael Cunningham

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Some books ravish you with their beauty and their truth. This is one of those books.

Firstly, a note on the effortless technical mastery eschewed here: a lot of Goodreads reviewers have commented unfavourably on the (extensive) use of parentheses and commas. Cunningham references both Henry James and Flaubert, and these are obvious influences on the style of this novel. It is interesting how pared down and distilled Cunningham’s writing style has become since early novels like Flesh and Blood, resulting in one of the most singular voices in contemporary (gay?) fiction.

There is not a single word out of place here. This is a fairly short novel, but I found myself lingering over it as I often wanted to read whole chunks out loud, simply to feel and breathe the words. The cadences, the rhythms, the scene setting and descriptions (especially of New York in all of its grimy and quotidian splendour), the quirky details that jolt the reader into a particular state of awareness, Cunningham’s sly use of the omniscient narrator, the heartbreaking individuality and sheer aliveness of the characters … This is quite simply an extraordinary novel.

Secondly, it was fascinating to read this in the context of Cunningham’s recent comments in the Chicago Tribune about a ‘post-gay fiction era’, where both sex and sexuality are merely facets of the lives of characters. The era of gay fiction focused exclusively on gay (male) protagonists, written for and read by a very limited audience, is not only no longer fashionable (or desirable?), but no longer reflects the lived reality of the gay majority.

Indeed, while Barrett Meeks is gay, I do not recall him so much as kissing another man in this book. The single, intense sex scene is resolutely heterosexual (but linked to a larger truth that only becomes apparent much later). So is Cunningham perhaps being too defiantly ‘post-gay’? I really do not think so. Cunningham’s specialism (how can one resist such a delicious phrase?) is polymorphous perversity: there is a definite erotic undertone to this story of two brothers and a girlfriend (and their mutual female sidekick). It is a sense of lived, breathed intimacy that goes so far beyond sex itself.

My only quibble with the book is the smattering of political diatribe. It starts with the election of Reagan and ends with Palin, as I recall (Obama gets an aside as that black leftfielder), with characters remarking on the pending political apocalypse at various points. I understand this is meant to bookmark the narrative in terms of chronology, but it does not add much to the story other than signposting Cunningham’s (gay?) liberal bent. However, I feel it means this book will become dated very quickly and actually robs it of the timelessness that accrued to The Hours – which is a great pity, for this is in many respects a much braver novel.

And then there are Cunningham’s extraordinary female characters, in particular the middle-aged Liz and her hankering for younger men, even though she knows that they will all inevitably leave her. One of Cunningham’s (perhaps unique) problems as a writer catapulted into the limelight after the acclaim that followed The Hours is that one cannot but help see the author himself in his characters, particularly the middle-aged ones.

There is a strong sense of ‘authorial drag’, of Cunningham trying on various masks and roles like Glenn Close in Dangerous Liaisons (it just struck me writing this that, perhaps, Glenn Close and Michael Cunningham are one and the same person …)

I actually think Cunningham acknowledges this and plays with the idea with the ‘celestial light’ (or ‘cosmic wink’, as it is later referred to) that sets the novel in motion. What better way to describe the role of the author himself and his impact on his characters’ lives and world?

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Cry wolf

Wolf in White VanWolf in White Van by John Darnielle

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The problem with this book is summed up in the title: it is a pretty-sounding phrase, with a tentative meaning only tangentially alluded to in the plot, with the result that the reader has a sneaky feeling that the author chose it simply because it is rather baffling.

This is well written, even over written at times – particularly the end, which should have been the emotional crescendo of this origami-like tale, but instead we get this:

And so I thought about what was important to me: about how I would want to be remembered, about the totality of my vision realising itself now under the heavy pressure of the moment but remaining true, still true, to the impermeable solitude of its origins.

Sean is a pretty unlikeable character, to the extent where I found it difficult to sympathise with him (the people I felt most sorry for in this sorry tale were his parents; I am sure readers of different ages will have different reactions).

While this book frustrated me, it also left me feeling uncomfortable and weirded out, which I suspect is a conscious strategy of the author to signpost the general incomprehensibility of life and people, particularly those alien creatures known as adolescents. Who knows why anyone does anything?

Having said that, all the clues (the swords, the musing on Conan as some kind of a sage) points to the fact that Sean simply and desperately emulates the death of Robert E. Howard, his hero. Thus Trace Italian becomes a homage to the Hyborian Age.

This is so depressing though that the reader does not want to believe such a prosaic and devastating conclusion, which I suspect is why other reviewers have attached words like ‘transcendent’ to this book. But for me that fetishises suicide.

I know nothing about the Mountain Goats and so came to this book cold, which left me cold and feeling rather soiled by this reading experience, which is eye-wateringly bleak .

Being forced to sift the clues about Sean’s fate from the fragmented narrative, I felt strangely implicated in keeping him alive somehow, but at the same time harbouring this relentless curiosity about his downfall. It is a difficult balance to maintain, particularly in such a relatively short book.

This makes for grim but compelling reading, but at the end I do not think it coheres sufficiently to become something more than the sum of its parts (like the pieces of Sean’s face, like all the envelopes containing all the clues of the Trace Italian).

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Give them rope

Hang WireHang Wire by Adam Christopher

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

I was rather underwhelmed by this, my first Adam Christopher, but I am curious enough to want to read The Burning Dark to see how this obviously talented and adventurous author fares in a different genre.

This book reminded me of so many other authors: Nalo Hopkinson (Sister Mine), Neil Gaiman (American Gods), Robert Jackson Bennett (American Elsewhere), Erin Morgenstern (The Night Circus) and, of course, Ray Bradbury (Something Wicked This Way Comes) and the eponymous HP Lovecraft.

Thus it is clear that Christopher is working within the boundaries of a particular (sub) genre of urban fantasy; the question is how, or even whether or not, he manages to map out a little bit of the territory for himself.

Hang Wire begins confusingly, with a plethora of characters and timeframes that are difficult to keep track of or even place in any meaningful sequence or chronology. Being a regular SF/horror reader, I suppose my curiosity level, and resistance to writerly obfuscation, is probably higher than average.

However, I suspect that a lot of people will abandon this fairly quickly out of sheer frustration – which is a pity, because the story does begin to, er, hang together after a while and builds up nicely to a fairly rousing climax.

Tighter editing would have helped to focus the story a lot more, which feels padded out in places. The characterisation is patchy, with main protagonists like Ted and even the serial killer coming across as mere ciphers.

Coming to think of it, Christopher does not make nearly enough of his mysterious serial killer figure. There are a lot of great ideas in this melting pot of an urban fantasy novel, but not nearly enough ‘weirdness’, with a lot of the action bits reading like annotated movie scenes instead of taking on a life of their own.

The best bit: I adored the character of Bob the ex God, who has given up being a deity and instead devotes his retirement to giving impromptu and free dance lessons for tourists on a San Francisco beach.

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Sturm und Drang

The Coming StormThe Coming Storm by Paul Russell

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I am amazed at how topical and incendiary this novel remains 15 years after its publication in 1999. Paul Russell went on to win the Ferro-Grumley Award for The Coming Storm in 2000 (and for a second time in 2012 for The Unreal Life of Sergey Nabokov, a much different novel that marks the true skill and depth of this remarkable writer).

I was a bit leery about reading this as I kept on thinking of a gay version of Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov. However, Russell’s classically simple story of a 25-year-old teacher at a New York prep school having an affair with a 15-year-old student is remarkably free of both cliché and melodrama.

It is written with a clarity and a tenderness that must render this one of the pivotal texts of gay literature. Just as the ‘coming out’ novel is associated automatically with A Boy’s Own Story by Edmund White, so is the ‘under-age romance’ indelibly linked with The Coming Storm.

The novel speaks volumes about free will, love and desire and the long shadows that parents cast over their children’s lives. This is largely due to the immense technical skill and insight of Russell as author, whose finely wrought characters range from the ageing head master and his wife to his younger protégé and his various lovers and acquaintances, to crucially the character of the young Noah himself, whose vulnerability and volatility are heartbreaking to behold.

The reader may think he or she knows how this is going to end, but Russell manages to eke out superlative nuances from what is ultimately such a hackneyed plot. Yes, the resolution is morally problematic, especially in the light of Arthur’s admonition to Tracy to hold onto this beautiful love and never, ever to reject or abandon Noah, which would be a betrayal of the uncompromising nature of their love itself.

There is a fascinating contrast and debate here between the young Tracy, who succumbs to his illicit passions, and the older Louis, who spends the bulk of his life closeted and unrequited. Is the one state of existence preferable to the other, or are both indeed equally morally compromised? And how thin is the divide between love and lust, sex and infatuation?

Russell’s depiction of Tracy’s first weekend away from the Forge School in the flesh pit that is New York City is deliciously lewd, and got me worrying how he was going to handle the inevitable sex scene between Tracy and Noah without it being titillating. Russell deals with this dilemma by having Noah experiencing gay anal sex for the first time with a fellow pupil, and having him reflect on the animal messiness of the act during a buffet hosted by his father:

Suddenly claustrophobic, and focusing on A.J.’s laden plate, Noah said, “Food. That looks like a good idea,” and fled for the buffet table that caterers had set up in the dining room. Shiny metal bins held spicy-smelling Indian food: yellow rice, mercurochrome chicken pieces, unidentifiable lumps in mustardy brown sauce, cheese cubes in spinach. Too many of the dishes looked like one kind of shit or another, and he thought back queasily to the dark matter on himself when he’d pulled out of Chris Tyler’s butt.

Contrast that with the following:

To speak a language that was as intimate and free as certain dreams, saying darkly, thrillingly, My cock inside of you. Your come in my mouth. Already in that dream he was easing his new friend out of those hip, baggy jeans, exposing smooth young flesh to the surprise of cool air. He focused on the boy’s slim, tight hips; with the tip of his tongue he tasted an asshole’s bitter, forbidden mystery.

Russell asks us to consider the separate fates of Tracy and Louis, the former giving in to desire and the latter never acknowledging the possibility within himself. Which is the stronger? Which is truer to his real self? There are no easy answers here, and everyone is culpable to some degree or other.

Is desire itself monstrous? Is love the true enemy of human happiness and achievement? While I was reading this the thought lurking at the back of my mind was: just how is Russell going to end a novel that transects such highs and lows? The end, when it does come, is of course just another bittersweet, exalted beginning.

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BlindsightBlindsight by Peter Watts

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Peter Watts himself intuits the main problem of this ambitious but uneven novel in his end notes when he ponders how “shitloads of essential theory threatened to overwhelm the story, not to mention the problem of generating reader investment in a cast of characters who were less cuddlesome than usual.”

That this “shitloads of essential theory” comes to a head in an ending that is part philosophical conundrum and part desperate space battle is quite staggering, not to mention that Watts achieves an impressively open cliffhanger that one can only hope is addressed in Echopraxia.

My biggest problem with Blindsight is the limited context of the mission to investigate the Roscharch. We get fascinating glimpses into how our world has fragmented and evolved as Siri in particular has flashbacks to his childhood, but this is not enough to ground the story.

Another major problem is that the novel takes a dip into icky Lovecraftian type horror at one point – a dip that just keeps on going until the reader cannot figure out if he or she is more grossed out or discomfited.

The most fun part of the book is the section at the end where Watts riffs on everything from putative vampire biology to the sentience versus intelligence debate. Here Watts is erudite, conversational and occasionally very funny, which reminded me how bleak and humourless Blindsight really is.

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Dull palette

Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of PilgrimageColorless Tsukuru Tazaki and his Years of Pilgrimage by Haruki Murakami

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Chapters 18 and 19, the final two, are by far the best. In fact they are rather incongruous and stand apart from the rest of the novel, like the silent birch trees in the closing images. While I was impressed by the enigmatic and poetically bleak ending, I suspect a lot of readers will be frustrated at Murakami’s apparent obtuseness in not providing any easy or final answers to the essential mystery of Tsukuru Tazaki.

As for the rest: this is so much more pared down than IQ84 that it reads like a Murakami checklist or primer than a fully fledged Murakami novel. I have no idea if this is perhaps an intentional play on the cult of Murakami, sort of akin to Don DeLillo releasing the fingernail paring of The Body Artist after the double fistful that was Underworld.

Aka the corporate guru comments: “Image is everything. You don’t spare any expense to create the right image. And word of mouth is critical. Once you get a good reputation, momentum will carry you.”

There is no doubt that Murakami has the “right image”, given that his latest novel reportedly sold a million copies in its first week of release in his native Japan. I do not know if that figure refers to a hardcover edition; still to a Western reader it represents an unprecedented level of interest and scrutiny in an author and his work.

There seems an emotional intensity and depth that Murakami is striving for here that is quite different to the studied obliqueness of IQ84. This may represent a new penchant for psychological realism, but for me it was constantly undermined by the frustratingly simplistic writing, which often felt child-like and under-developed. Then again this may be a problem of conveying the nuances of the Japanese language into English.

Murakami however himself cannot resist gnomic utterances about salmon, Star Wars and “bad elves” lurking in the forests of Finland, which definitely undermines the tone he opts for here, while his surprisingly stereotypical ideas about gender include such gems as: “There are some things, he concluded, that can only be expressed through a women’s form.”

The sex dream that underpins the novel psychologically, with its hints of fetishism and homosexuality, seems far more prosaic than what the author intended it to be, I suspect. This could simply be a case of me being far more jaded than Japanese readers, or the latter having rather more delicate cultural sensibilities when it comes to matters of the flesh.

Or maybe Murakami is just being plain coy; I do get the feeling he throws in the gay angle as a white flag for sexual equality, rather than out of genuine curiosity or experimentation on the part of the main protagonist.

I also thought that the Liszt piano music referenced by Murakami, from which the title is partially derived, is more an instance of name-dropping than genuine thematic integration (here I am thinking particularly of the song ‘Never Let Me Go’ from the titular Kazuo Ishiguro novel, or simply how Richard Powers writes about music and its emotional intensity).

The novel also wobbles dangerously when the main protagonist is suddenly transferred to Finland, mainly because Murakami fails to draw a sufficient contrast with Japan, resorting to stock images and character portrayals.

What did strike me was how ‘cinematic’ this felt to read, in the sense of a gorgeously photographed, hauntingly scored and sparsely worded ‘art movie’ that stays with you long after the experience, mainly due to the emptiness and lack of meaning beneath its shimmering beauty.

Ultimately this was a very disappointing read. I think Murakami should have let his story breathe for much longer. He also should have adopted a single tone throughout and scrupulously resisted all the Murakami-isms that it seems he could not resist squeezing in.

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