The Flesh Sutra

The Flesh SutraThe Flesh Sutra by Tim W. Burke

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

Truly disappointing. The cover blurb turns out to be far more exciting than the book itself, which singularly fails to live up to the potential of the premise.

The Flesh Sutra starts out promisingly enough: Olivia Spaulding and Alecsandri Keresh are caught in flagrante delicto by the former’s husband.

Alecsandri dies but is resurrected at the (rather horrible) expense of Thomas. The latter, however, continues to haunt the story, with disastrous consequences for all concerned.

Olivia becomes involved with the Society of the Radiant, using Alecsandri’s preternatural capabilities to her own ends and also to try and restore Alecsandri from the homunculus he is transformed into upon his resurrection.

The story hints at HP Lovecraft and Clive Barker, but never quite catches fire. There is some sloppy writing: the reader only learns that Thomas has a gun when he pulls the trigger on Alecsandri at the beginning; not to mention numerous typos and other errors.

View all my reviews

The Lord Won’t Mind

The Lord Won't MindThe Lord Won’t Mind by Gordon Merrick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The writing is purpler than an enflamed sunset, but one can see why Gordon Merrick’s lurid, sex-and-histrionic soaked gay potboiler spent months on The New York Times bestseller list when unleashed on an unsuspecting world in 1970.

I read this reissue from Open Road Media with guilty pleasure, furtively in instalments over an extended period, as it is such a heady concoction of heightened lust and drama that the book threatens to overwhelm one’s sensibilities. (How different this is compared to contemporary, post-AIDS, gender and socio-politically-correct gay lit).

Some Goodreads readers have commented on the illicit joy of discovering Merrick in their schooldays. Well, if I had got my grimy paws on this book while in my teens, I would have bolted out of the closet as if attached to a springboard.

Tucked away among the melodramatic excesses of the plot is a careful account of a young gay man’s sexual edification. There is even straight sex, interestingly told from the (rather squeamish) point of a gay man. And cock-biting. But let’s not dwell on that too much.

While Merrick’s racial and gender politics leave a lot to be desired, Peter does has a fling with a black man (“ooee white boy”) he meets in a den of inquity in Harlem. It is especially interesting that even in this pre-gay rights era, Merrick almost instinctively links gay equality to universal equality in terms of both race and gender.

Such lofty ambitions aside, this is probably the closest we will ever get to a gay version of a Jackie Collins novel. I think a lot of readers will share in poor Peter’s cock-struck introduction to the vicissitudes of gay life.

What also struck me is that, despite the novel’s innocence, a lot of the relationship problems that Charlie and Peter bump into are as relevant today as they were in the 1970s. In particular, the character of Walter is beautifully evoked, lurking behind his paintings and his wealth, living vicariously through the twinks and tricks he surrounds himself with.

Some critics have argued that Merrick (perhaps unwittingly) instigated the cult of narcissism that continues to plague gay identity to this very day. While it is perhaps true that Charlie and Peter are too much of a perfect poster couple, it is so refreshing to read about such a couple, and to root for them through all their, er, ups and downs. And to have a happy ending! Golly, as Peter would say.

View all my reviews

SF 101

Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985 – 2010Science Fiction: The 101 Best Novels 1985 – 2010 by Damien Broderick

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Any authors who dare to compile a list of ‘best’ SF novels do so at their peril. If there is anything more divisive to SF fans than what constitutes the genre itself, then it is what novels or authors are most representative of that genre. (For a genre supposedly based on inclusivity and universalism, SF is renowned for its rivalries and schisms, some petty and others quite epic; this book will no doubt fan some of those fires.)

Kudos then to Damien Broderick and Paul Di Filippo for defusing the critical minefield by making two very bold statements in their introduction: firstly, that SF is a mode of reading and, secondly, that the term itself is more of a marketing distinction than it is a literary one.

The latter point is best underlined by some notable inclusions in this list, namely The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Plot Against America by Philip Roth, Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers, The Yiddish Policeman’s Union by Michael Chabon and Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. These are authors not normally associated with SF, even though their books highlighted here share many of the techniques and tropes of the genre.

This, of course, is the 2012 sequel to David Pringle’s Science Fiction: The 100 Best Novels: 1949-1984, published in 1985. This means that the next instalment is due in 2035, which is a scary thought, given the momentous social, political and technological changes that the world has undergone in this 25-year period – as encapsulated by the SF genre itself.

Indeed, Pringle comments that “the world is different, but science fiction carries on vigorously, reflecting our times back to us in imaginative form.” Broderick and Di Filipo pick up on this point in their introduction: “Science fiction is the tool that allows us to master such change.”

Science fiction is the one type of literature that promotes, to use the phrase pioneered by the bloggers at Boing Boing, the creation of ‘happy mutants’. It’s the literature of cultural Darwinism, the sieve through which we pan for ideational gold.

The authors provide a sobering snapshot of the world (way back) in 1985, when a state-of-the-art cellphone was the Motorola DynaTAC and a state-of-the-art computer was the Commodore 64, cyberpunk was the ‘in’ thing (Bladerunner was released in 1982), and Ronald Reagan took up the reins for his second term as US president.

What is remarkable about this book, and which makes it such fun to read, is how diverse SF is as a genre (and perhaps even moreso as a socio-political and cultural movement). This is very much the sort of book you dip in and out of when the mood takes you. For seasoned SF readers such as myself, it offers some surprises – I have not read Linda Nagata, Jamil Nasir, William Barton, Raphael Carter, Rosemary Kirstein or Howard Hendrix, for example.

On the other hand, there are some baffling inclusions, such as Suzanne Collins and Audrey Niffenger, but I think this has more to do with illustrating the zeitgeist of the times than literary merit (one hopes).

Equally, there are notable exclusions: Samuel R. Delany’s Nova is in the Pringle book, but not Dhalgren. And Stars in my Pocket Like Grains of Sand (1984) is not, and neither is it squeezed into this second compendium. Let us hope that Delany’s Through the Valley of the Nest of Spiders (2012) makes the third volume at least.

Some prominent critics like Michael Moorcock have already referred to the lack of women writers and writers of colour on this list. However, given recent developments in the genre, the 2035 instalment will likely make for very interesting, and very different, reading. Here is to the next 25 years.

View all my reviews


Outline: A NovelOutline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

What a curious, odd and elliptical novel. I am unsure if the word ‘novel’ even applies in this instance. Anti-novel seems more like it; we only learn the name of the mysterious narrator at 84% of the ebook, who is solely defined by the conversations and interactions she has with those around her, from a man she sits next to on a plane to students in a writing class in Greece.

In Chapter X, the writing teacher who supplants the narrator recounts her own conversation with a plane passenger: “The longer she listened to his answers, the more she felt that something fundamental was being delineated, something not about him but about her.”

This ‘anti-description’ clarifies a fundamental truth for her: “While he talked she began to see herself as a shape, an outline, with all the detail filled in around it while the shape itself remained blank.”

This quivering blankness, shimmering in its lack of definition yet burgeoning with possibility, is at the heart of this novel, which is acutely observed.

The contrivance of having students recount stories at a writing class is more than a showcase for Cusk’s finely balanced sense of pathos and minutiae: it is a fundamental reflection of the concept of the ‘outline’, of the processes of definition and invisibility that shape the world around us, giving meaning to the stories of our lives on one level, and shaping the larger historical context on the other.

The problem with this ‘outline’ though is that its absence necessarily distances the reader; we are creatures of emotions more than we are of signs and meanings, at the end of the day.

View all my reviews

Here there be dragons

The Great Zoo of ChinaThe Great Zoo of China by Matthew Reilly

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In an interview with Matthew Reilly at the end of The Great Zoo of China (which you should definitely only read after you have finished the book), he says he was “very aware that my story of a dragon zoo would inevitably draw comparisons with the dinosaur theme park of Jurassic Park.”

Indeed, Hamish makes a wise-ass crack early on that “It’s all pretty cool and impressive … if you never saw fucking Jurassic Park.”

This postmodern nod towards Michael Crichton (and Steven Spielberg’s indelible movie adaptation) paves the way for Reilly to take the idea of a dragon theme park and fly with it.

What also struck me was Reilly’s comment in the same interview that “One of the things I have come up against time and again in my career is the notion that because a book is easy to read it was somehow easy to write.”

I gulped The Great Zoo of China down in a few sittings. The narrative is so fast-paced that it is addictive … perhaps like McDonalds fries? Is it derogatory to compare Reilly’s book to the literary equivalent of fast food?

I am in two minds about this. There is an awful amount of technical skill in this book, in the way that Reilly represents essential information and makes it integral to the plot. There is no info-dumping here or clumsy exposition, which is quite a feat all by itself.

The ‘origin’ story of the dragons is highly plausible, and combined with Reilly’s explication of Chinese and American realpolitik, makes for a high-octane book that riffs superbly on our contemporary zeistgeist.

Above all else, this is grin-inducing fun. The reader just knows that the VIP/press tour to the Great (Dragon) Zoo of China is going to go tits-up … and Reilly does not disappoint in how early on this happens.

What astounds following this turning point is how he manages to ratchet up the tension and set-pieces, without sacrificing credibility or inducing reader fatigue at any stage.

Yes, the characterisation is a bit perfunctory, and a lot of bit players (pun definitely intended) are mere dragon fodder. Plus I had a problem with the motivation behind the character of Lucky (which Reilly admits was based on his dog Dido, of all things).

Still; fun, fun, fun. The body count is more wince-inducing than a Schwarzenegger movie (minus the lame wisecracks, thankfully). The science and set-up are believable and superbly extrapolated. This is a first-class popcorn novel.

View all my reviews

The Green Man

The Green Man (Vintage Classics)The Green Man by Kingsley Amis

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It is a great pity that Michael Dirda’s illuminating introduction to The Green Man is not included in the Vintage Amis digital edition. Here Dirda points out that Amis’s ghost story preceded the coming horror boom, with Rosemary’s Baby appearing in 1967, The Exorcist and The Other in 1971, Carrie in 1974 and Ghost Story in 1979.

It is highly unlikely that The Green Man preceded this horror renaissance, because it is a resounding failure as a horror novel. Its legacy lies more perhaps in stirring memories of Fawlty Towers (1975), only with much more sex and shenanigans.

Amis’s misstep here is especially surprising because he is no stranger to genre: New Maps of Hell: A Survey of Science Fiction was published in 1960, and he also edited the 1981 anthology The Golden Age of Science Fiction.

I got the feeling in The Green Man that Amis was so enamoured with the character of Maurice Allington he forgot he was writing a ghost story.

The ‘threesome’ between Maurice, his wife Juliet and his best friend’s wife Diana may be the most infamous scene in the book, but bear in mind the other goings-on, such as desecrating Underhill’s grave and the chinwag with a ghostly character clearly meant to represent God.

Maurice may be a misogynistic, homophobic, unfaithful cad, but Amis nevertheless positions him (pun intended) just on the right side of immorality that the reader is meant to empathise with him. Clearly, Amis identifies quite a bit with Maurice himself.

The gender politics here are laughingly anachronistic, including such ideas as women becoming lesbians due to bad husbands. The line between satire and polemic is especially blurred when Maurice waxes lyrical about the prowess of man and the (numerous) failings of the fairer sex (including their lack of a penis).

This is a pretty conventional ghost story, replete with a mysterious tome in which Maurice learns all sorts of dark secrets about the history of The Green Man Inn. The genre bits feel sandwiched in-between the numerous sex scenes and ruminative speculations on fate, destiny and the search for the perfect orgasm (which seems to be Maurice’s interpretation of enlightenment).

Part of the problem here is that Amis’s flimsy pretext of a ghost story is totally overwhelmed by the character of Maurice, who could have easily carried the book all by himself. Alas, the final confrontation with the unruly revenants is a total anti-climax, and is in stark contrast to the sombre reflection on mortality that Amis chooses to end the book with.

View all my reviews

Pacific Rimming

Pacific RimmingPacific Rimming by Tom Cardamone

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

The things you learn: Sticky rice are Asians who are into Asians; potato queens are Asians who like white guys; won ton Chinese guys; sushi Japanese; kim chi Korean.

Our nameless narrator is a dissolute rice queen who yearns for meaning in an endless spiral of drugs and anonymous encounters. He stakes out his nightly turf in an array of gay clubs in New York like a predator prowling around a water hole, waiting for pliable game.

Eventually he falls for Shinobu – though perhaps ‘fall’ is the wrong word. What the week-long encounter with Shinobu achieves is no less than open the narrator up to himself. Which is a view of darkness and mirrors that threatens to tumble the reader into Nietzsche’s abyss.

(One of the most erotic scenes in this novella, which is as slim as the hips of the Asians our eponymous narrator likes to fuck, is when he asks Shinobu to write on him…)

Tom Cardamone is an incredibly gifted writer, from Green Thumb to The Lost Library. He finds his stride in Pacific Rimming, a tour de force of a young man’s descent into ennui and dissolution.

This is much more than a cautionary tale about obsession, though. Cardamone subtly weaves in ideas about cultural assimilation and expropriation, against a background of polymorphous desire and perversity.

The writing is as sharp as a razor blade used to cut lines of cocaine in the men’s toilet of the Next Bardo. Cardamone’s particular achievement here is to make the reader empathise with a pretty unlikeable character, and to share some of his pain and his awakening. Splendid, repellent, erotic.

View all my reviews

The Wanderer in Unknown Realms

The Wanderer in Unknown RealmsThe Wanderer in Unknown Realms by John Connolly

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

John Connolly’s Charlie Parker series has become increasingly anaemic of late, evidence perhaps of a publisher unwilling to slaughter the proverbial cash cow.

More is the pity because this brief novella, published around the time of The Wrath of Angels, shows what a fine horror writer Connolly is. (Everything Dead Thing remains one of the best novels I have ever read).

Unknown Realms is a glorious homage to Lovecraft, replete with mysterious tomes and weird malformed creatures from distant universes.

Connolly clearly had fun here: there is a Dickensian attention to detail, and he inexorably ratchets up the tension to a truly apocalyptic ending that would have made the Master proud.

I think Connolly’s last short fiction collection was Nocturnes. Interestingly, like most horror writers, he really seems to excel in the shorter format. Let us hope he writes many more.

(And here is also to the larger hope that he finally, mercifully, gives Charlie Parker his own well-deserved sojourn in the unknown realms).

View all my reviews

The Kills

The Kills: Sutler, The Massive, The Kill, and The HitThe Kills: Sutler, The Massive, The Kill, and The Hit by Richard House

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Note: Minus one star for the inordinate number of typos and missing words. Evidence of sloppy copy editing, it is highly irritating in a novel of such length and complexity. Having said that, this is the fastest I have ever burned through a novel of over 1 000 pages. The Kills is simply incendiary. Once you begin reading, it is nigh impossible to stop.

I gave a grim little smile and heaved a huge sigh of relief when I reached the end (well, what counts for the ending in a meta-novel that constitutes four separate, but devilishly intertwined, short novels).

Richard House has written a fiendish anti-thriller that is essentially a serpentine, languorous meditation on cause and effect. Devotees of writers like Jeffrey Deaver and Jonathan Kellerman are likely to be befuddled at the lack of resolution here, despite the overall length.

It all begins in the Iraq desert, where the monolithic HOSCO (a pseudonym for Halliburton?) is siphoning off funds from the US government for infrastructure projects that exist only on paper. Sutler (which, of course, is not his real name) becomes the fall guy in a massive fraud, and flees for his life after a mysterious explosion destroys critical records.

That flight sets in motion a series of events and repercussions that reverberate throughout The Kills, becoming ever more complicated and byzantine. Volume three, ‘The Kill’, takes in a grisly murder in Naples (the link to volume one, ‘Sutler’, is a fictional account of that murder read by a student on a bus that Sutler bumps into).

Reviews from Out and Lambda Literary have made much of the fact that Richard House is a ‘gay’ writer operating in the very macho, black-and-white thriller genre. Author Philip Hensher, a judge for the 2013 Man Booker price (and who himself is gay), urged readers to embrace The Kills. Yes, there are gay characters here. However, House performs a rather sly conjuring trick by making their orientation incidental, but the consequences of their actions critical to the plot.

My favourite novel of the four is ‘The Massive’, a jaw-dropping account of the men who operate the ‘burn pits’ at Camp Liberty in Iraq. Following this almost over-the-top apocalypse, ‘The Kill’, about the Naples murder, is a much quieter interlude that seems to bleed all the momentum from the narrative, but it quickly segues into outright horror. ‘The Hit’ brings together and resolves many of the plot strands, but raises as many questions as it answers.

I must say I found the ‘extra’ digital content included on the Pan Macmillan website to be more of a distraction than it was worth. I actually gave up following the e-book links after the first two volumes, as I was anxious for the story to unfold as quickly as possible. I think the key to such ‘extra’ content is to make it indispensable to the narrative itself; here, as with Marissa Peshl’s recent Night Film, the added bits-and-pieces are decorative as opposed to being structural.

House’s deliberate strategy here of leaving characters and plot strands dangling, and refracting events constantly through a prism of disinformation and paranoia, could prove too alienating for many readers. I was fascinated by how far he could logically take this. House goes so much further than I could have imagined; the novel slowly accretes a kind of grim mythic power that stays with the reader long after the last page is turned.

View all my reviews

Ajax Penumbra 1969

Ajax Penumbra 1969Ajax Penumbra 1969 by Robin Sloan

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I stumbled across this slim novella in hardcover in a bookshop, and immediately recognised the bright yellow cover and handwritten font.

It was a great surprise and felt like being greeted by an old friend, as I had no idea that Robin Sloan had penned a prequel to his wonderful novel.

Given the surfeit of books about magical books, libraries, schools of magic and arcana, Sloan is still a breath of fresh air. This is largely due to the charmingly eccentric character of Ajax Penumbra, and all the other hangers-on of Mo’s bookshop.

This is such a gift to those who fell in love with Mr Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore (we know why you set the prequel in the Summer of Love in San Francisco of 1969, oh yes we do).

And now we wait. For the next book, story, anything, so we can fall in love all over again.

View all my reviews