The Demonologist

The DemonologistThe Demonologist by Andrew Pyper

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I did not expect to read such an old-fashioned literate horror novel, especially after Dan Brown’s Robert Langdon books have emasculated this particular sub-genre into a series of tepid thrillers. Unfortunately, this probably means that The Demonologist is something of a curiosity, unlikely to appeal to the torture-porn crowd. While there is genuine suspense and outright creepiness here, there is hardly any gore or bloodshed.

It is ironic therefore that Andrew Pyper’s superbly paced novel plays out like a Hollywood blockbuster, with the story keeping the reader glued to the pages. Unfortunately, this is precisely the sort of novel that Hollywood is likely to fuck up, ignoring the literary pretensions and turning the character of the possessing demon into a stock horror trope. In the hands of Pyper, Belial becomes a frightening but curiously human monster, by turns vain, petulant and capable of startling malevolence.

At the beginning, this kind of reminded me of Song of Kali by Dan Simmons, set in New York and Venice instead of India. The problem with doing a lot of reading is that anything starts to seem like everything else after a while, especially with genre reading.

It is to the credit of Pyper therefore that this novel grabbed me from the first page, and I read it flat-out in a single day. There is nothing particularly original here: Professor David Ullman, a self-confessed “melancholy Miltonist” (wouldn’t that have made a much better title?) receives a visit from a mysterious gypsy-like woman who invites him to consult on a case in Venice.

Of course, the good professor immediately dismisses the woman as a crank, but events quickly conspire so that he takes her up on the offer, with his young daughter in tow … with predictably disastrous consequences, as befits a horror novel of this nature.

What makes this novel stand out is the quality of Pyper’s writing, particularly his deft characterisation – which immediately raises this head and shoulders above your average Robert Langdon potboiler. The ending, in particular, is heart-stopping and brilliantly executed. Superb.

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The Rabbit Back Literature Society

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyThe Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved the darkness of this novel. It presents terrors and wonders in a matter-of-fact way, as being contingent on reality like traffic jams or bad weather. The central mystery – the disappearance of the celebrated child author Laura White– is neither resolved nor explained by the end (indeed, it is replaced by the larger mystery of her near-death experience as a child when she fell through the ice in a lake).

In a novel full of such mysteries, it begins with Ella discovering that certain books at the local library have been afflicted with a mysterious condition whereby plot elements are changed. (Rabbit Back is the name of the town). This is later referred to as a ‘virus’ or ‘bacteria’, possibly stemming from a rare Laura White first edition that the librarian keeps under lock-and-key in the library.

The reader has barely gotten to terms with this initial weirdness – I felt a strong urge to call upon the literary detection services of Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next – when the novel truly begins, as it were, with Ella’s own introduction to the Rabbit Back Literature Society.

Here the novel takes a much darker, and decidedly more adult, turn. The Society’s members were hand-picked by Laura White as children and nurtured into literary prodigies themselves. Ella is rather overwhelmed to be chosen as the missing tenth member at the same function where Laura White disappears (in a blistering cloud of snow that miraculously appears indoors).

This feeling is quickly replaced by curiosity, and Ella begins a quest to unravel the origins of the Society and what makes it tick. Naturally (because this is a thriller), the original tenth member died under mysterious circumstances while still a child (a child whom everyone else envied and resented for his overflowing genius).

Ella’s quest quickly brings her to The Game, a version of truth-or-dare whereby Society members challenge each other to reveal their deepest and darkest secrets and desires. The process of doing this is called ‘Spilling’; the terms and conditions of a challenge are bound by the Society’s own ironclad rule book … including Rule 21, which permits members to use violence or force on each other.

It is in this way that the writers of the Society find fresh material for their own books and stories. By the time Ella arrives on the scene, innocent and unaware, they are all longing for fresh blood. Literally.

I hope I am not making this sound like a vampire novel, because it is not. It is, but it is also much else besides. Ella’s Challenge of Marrti Winter leads to a complicated erotic entanglement.

In a masterful counter-challenge, Martti compels Ella to describe her body when she looks at herself naked in a mirror: the point is to convey her vulnerability and phobia of her own flesh. Martti himself has long succumbed to a food fetish that has left him grossly overweight and house-bound. Their journey of sexual (re)discovery, trying to fit their very different bodies together, is both tender and hilarious.

There have been many books about writing and writers, but this has to be one of the strangest I have ever read. There is an undercurrent here of writing itself as a harmful or unhealthy activity, with authors preying on people’s weaknesses. When Ella joins the society, all its members have long since retreated into their own private wars and petty squabbles.

The irony is that they are totally oblivious to the glimpse of magic that attracts Ella to the Society in the first place. I particularly liked the ending, which is a kind of resolution on one level, but it is also quite unexpectedly sad. Jääskeläinen has written a near-perfect book for readers.

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Mature Themes

Mature ThemesMature Themes by Andrew Durbin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I loved this short book. It should not really work as well as it does, or at all, being a crazy hodgepodge of memoir, anecdotes, reflections, musings, random bits-and-bobs (no shopping lists though, thank God) … not to mention the dreaded ‘p’ word. Poetry. We all know that Real Men Do Not Read Poetry.

But the poems flow organically into, and out of, the main text. You cannot really skip them, as you would in a novel where poems have been inserted, for here they are part-and-parcel of the narrative itself. Indeed, they go a long way to crystallising the overarching narrative themes.

If this sounds dry and boring, fear not: Durbin’s mercurial eye covers everything from Justin Bieber to Adidas, Ducati and Tamagotchi virtual pets to Paul Schrader’s 2013 movie ‘The Canyons’ (which featured the straight-porn star James Deen) to Rimbaud and the true meaning of the Cloud. New York itself, gritty and resplendent, seedy and shadowy, yet shot through with brilliance (there is a fantastic riff on cloudscapes and light) is a major, moody character.

The poetry in and of itself is particularly significant in terms of the New Narrative literary movement, which was founded in San Francisco in the 1970s and early 1980s by (ironically) two poets in response to the so-called Language Poets. The New Narrative attempted to co-opt the techniques of poetry in the arena of the novel so as to give its ongoing transformation and evolution a kick in the ass.

Prior to reading Mature Themes, I knew nothing about the New Narrative. Reading about it further, however, has given me a whole new field of writers and poets to explore – for which I am infinitely grateful to Durbin. Apart from pointing the way forward for the form of the novel itself, he (fittingly) refers to the past and how we stand to learn from both our heritage and our forebears.

I am perennially fascinated by books that disrupt the novel’s perceived hermetic boundaries, and writers who interrogate the reader’s role in fiction’s discourse. Still, for me it remains lightning in a bottle: I found Satin Island by Tom McCarthy to be too contrived, while I loved the messiness and bleeding-edge nature of Mature Themes.

Interestingly, a recent Lambda Literary interview with Andrew Durbin makes more of the connection between Hurricane Sandy and the AIDS epidemic in New York in particular than there is in the book itself. We only learn of Durbin’s putative sexual orientation nearly towards the end (and even then it is unclear), while the AIDS epidemic itself is treated almost as an aside in the greater flow of socio-cultural flotsam and jetsam.

This is an important and brave novel though. Durbin strikes a balance between mapping one’s soul in a postmodern context, where irony and meta-textuality are paramount, to bearing your heart in such a way that the emotional heft of this act ruptures the very nature of the text itself.

P.S. This is probably a unique instance where Durbin highlights the tactile deficiencies of the ebook format: the cover features a painting by Alex Da Corte entitled ‘Body Without Organs’ … however, the front and back covers are flipped, with the title and author name actually appearing on the back. Of course, you only get the single cover in the ebook – which you are unaware is actually the back cover. A neat trick or a profound statement? Well, that is postmodernism in a nutshell, I suppose: seeing the world ass-backwards.

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Satin Island

Satin Island: A novelSatin Island: A novel by Tom McCarthy

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Satin Island is an exasperating novel that occasionally hints at being extraordinary, but the reader’s enjoyment of it is constantly thwarted by Tom McCarthy himself.

Perhaps that is the ultimate point: this is one of those eyebrow-arched postmodern treatises on the meaninglessness of meaning in our information-saturated (Dis)Information Age.

Oops: ‘Treatise’ is one of the words that are struck-through on the cover, along with Report, Confession, Essay and Manifesto. That leaves Novel … but the reader has no idea how this ranks in the pecking order.

Certainly the reader has no clearer idea at this novel’s end, which shares one of postmodernism’s most irritating attributes: the lack of satisfactory closure.

U. is an anthropologist working for The Company, tasked to compile The Great Report. His agonising over this insurmountable task, which is never clearly defined, serves as a narrative platform for McCarthy to riff on anything and everything, from Levi Strauss to the symbolism inherent in parachutes.

While this makes for interesting reading – McCarthy has a voracious, prodigious intellect – the reader is never able to engage with the book or characters emotionally.

It reads more like all of the struck-through terms on the cover than it does as a novel. But, perhaps, that is also the point.

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Alien: Out of the Shadows

Alien: Out of the ShadowsAlien: Out of the Shadows by Tim Lebbon

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I am usually leery of any movie novelisations or tie-ins. However, the recent announcement that South African director Neill Blomkamp (District 9, Chappie) had been given the green light by Fox to film his long-gestating Alien project coincided with my discovery of this Alien novel by Tim Lebbon, a respected fantasy and horror author. (There are two more in what is a loose trilogy, by James A. Moore and Christopher Golden). And being in the mood for a popcorn read, I thought, how bad can it be?

To my surprise, this was hugely enjoyable and accomplished – despite a half-assed marketing attempt by Titan Books to bill as this a direct sequel to Alien. Which I suppose means it is a prequel to Aliens. (Which also gives a wry nod to some of the more outré excesses of Prometheus, if you are not confused enough already).

Any fan of the movies knows, of course, that Ripley’s appearance in such a book is totally illogical: Lebbon’s answer to this dilemma is the only misstep in a generally assured and confident horror novel.

The 1979 movie by Ridley Scott – and let us not forget H.R Giger’s Alien design – is one of the greatest SF movies ever made, revelling in the genre’s gothic and pulp origins. Indeed, the Alien creature has become as iconic as Jaws, King Kong or E.T. The Extraterrestrial.

One of the greatest attributes of the Alien creature is its mystery and savagery, combined with its ability to evoke both awe and a weird sexual frisson – Scott masterfully introduced all these elements into his original movie.

Subsequent sequels tended to focus on a single element at the expense of all the others: action in Aliens, martyrdom in Alien 3, and who knows what-the-fuck in Alien Resurrection. Scott’s own Prometheus (2012) raised its nose disdainfully at the schlockier elements of his seminal original, and was a pretentious failure as a result.

Lebbon’s continuation of the original story – what happens to Ripley (and let us not forget Jonesy the ship’s cat, as well as the more-corporate-than-thou Weyland-Yutani) after they escape from the Nostromo in a shuttle craft is positioned somewhere between Aliens and Alien 3 in terms of tone and effect.

There is sufficient action to please even the most diehard movie fan, but the real achievement here is how nuanced the characters are, and what insight we get into Ripley. Surprisingly, Ripley herself has remained as much a cipher as the Alien creature itself: more a means to an end (elaborate death and destruction on a galactic scale) than a flesh-and-blood person.

Lebbon gives Ripley a nicely textured palette of pathos, anger and terror. In addition, he wisely resists the temptation to write a by-the-numbers book explaining the origin and evolution of the Alien culture: all we get are tantalising, and sometimes awe-inducing, glimpses.

Given how good this novel is – how it manages to tell a gripping, character-driven story in which a bunch of disparate characters have to deal with a terrifying manifestation of the Unknown – it remains one of the more perplexing mysteries of Hollywood as to how it has managed to fuck-up all the sequels from Alien 3 onwards. Let us hope Blomkamp and his team restore Ripley to her rightful place.

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Rock Hard

The Lava in My BonesThe Lava in My Bones by Barry Webster

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

What an extraordinary novel, a great shaggy dog (or, in this case, shaggy rock) story that mixes satire, melodrama and magic realism into an intoxicating brew. Bodily and geological fluids – semen and lava – drench these pages, which begin with the book-in-a-book called ‘Fairy Tales of Flesh’. The Mr. Potato Head people are able to swop body parts and organs, and are always experimenting with more and more outrageous configurations.

None so outrageous perhaps as Sam Masonty’s infatuation with Franz Niederberger, the former a blue-blooded male (or so he thought). The two meet at a geology conference in Zurich (Sam is a geologist) and soon embark on a torrid affair, the very intensity of which ultimately drives them apart.

Sam returns to his home town but ends up in a mental hospital (where he helps the two doctors treating him complete their mystical transformation into a Sonny and Cher lookalike – don’t ask; this is one of many such manic but utterly delightful and whimsical escapades in this wonderful book).

The viewpoint character switches to Sam’s sister Sue for one section, and her own battle with her out-of-control body (she perspires honey). Sam eventually escapes from the loony bin, hitches up with Sue, and they stow away on a ship bound for Zurich and a presumably ecstatic reunion with Franz.

However, en route they have to deal with their religion-crazed mother and Sam’s long-gestating change into a man-beast (with a super-long penis). Sue has an epiphany with bees and Sam eventually arrives at Franz’s doorstep … only to discover the most logical and incredible transformation of them all.

No simple plot description can do this gonzo novel any justice. You just have to read it and, er, go with the flow. What I loved is how Barry Webster transcends gay conventions, and how gender becomes a cause célèbre in these pages. None so than with that ending, which cockily thumbs its snoot at a legion of single-gender gay literature and activism. Let Sam himself explain (note that this is not the ending):

… he was gripped by a fear of death, all the more ridiculous because he’s just about to see Franz and fulfil his most profound desire, a desire that is itself ridiculous because Franz is ridiculous, and their relationship is ridiculous. All at once the ridiculousness of everything – his impending death, Franz, ships exploding, girls sweating honey, supernatural urine, the Dairy Queen, men loving mermaids, summertime snowstorms, skies full of bees, Pentecostals at sea bottoms, giant spinning wheels, steel dresses, earthquakes on the far side of the world, and this Earth spinning so blindly on an axis without oil – assaults him, and the wonderful illogicalness of Life stares him in the face like God.

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Love in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Love in the Age of Mechanical ReproductionLove in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction by Judd Trichter

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wow. What an incredible debut for Judd Trichter, who has written one of the best dystopian robot novels I have ever read. I gulped this down with the same keen sense of excitement I felt when I originally read Neuromancer by William Gibson and Altered Carbon by Richard Morgan. You just know that these once-in-a-blue-moon novels blaze a bad-ass trail across the literary firmament.

When we meet Eliot Lazar, he is in love with a C-900 android called Iris Matsuo. Iris goes missing in rather dramatic fashion, which propels Eliot on a madcap quest to recover Iris. The catch here is that in this particular iteration of the future, robots are definitely not more than the sum of their parts.

They are worth infinitely more when reduced to their individual components. So Eliot’s quest is akin to Dr Frankenstein assembling his creature. But Trichter also artfully weaves in elements of the Orpheus and Eurydice myth, for this is a great love story, after all, set in the Age of Mechanical (Re)Production.

Such a hackneyed plot is fraught with pitfalls for the first-time writer. Trichter’s execution is spot-on though, with sufficiently detailed (and highly plausible) world-building to give his story both depth and feeling. While there is a noirish edge here as well, it is definitely not a case of style trumping substance – which is so often the downfall of cyberpunk in general.

I suppose the logical question to be posed by a non-genre reader is why write about a fictitious world of oppressed robots when there are entire classes of humanity relegated to second-citizen status from Africa to the Middle East.

Well, this is an allegory after all, and a lot of the violence against (robot) women in this novel underscores the gender inequality still so prevalent today. At one point a character comments that every form of oppression has its own semantics. And that is exactly the point: there is so much violence, discrimination and inequality that is condoned (or even ordained) in the name of capitalism in particular and civilisation in general.

You can read this as a straight SF thriller; Trichter is a master at plotting, and the book rattles along faster than a robot on an assembly line. But under the hood there is a hell of a lot going on, driven largely by deft characterisation and a wonderful emotional core.

What I particularly liked about Eliot is how flawed a human being he is, and the slippery moral slope that his love (obsession?) with Iris places him on. A drug addict, and with a robot arm himself (we eventually learn what happened), Eliot’s quest is not as simple as tracking down all the missing bits and pieces (and at the same time solving the mystery of Iris’s disappearance).

Trichter prefaces the last third of the book or so with Eliot’s gradually diminishing chop-shop list of parts. Grisly, but supremely effective; and it underlines the fact that every stage of Eliot’s journey involves a moral (re)evaluation and, ultimately, a choice.

Sad and somewhat despicable, Eliot is often not a very likeable character, and he inhabits a very dark and messy world. But that is the nature of fearless SF: to show us the abyss of our own making, with nary a blink. Welcome to the pantheon of great SF writers, Mr Trichter.

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LagoonLagoon by Nnedi Okorafor

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor says she was so pissed-off at Neil Blomkamp’s depiction of Nigeria and its traditions in ‘District 9’ that Lagoon was the result, “a story about humanity at the crossroads between the past, present, and future.” The novel “touches on political and philosophical issues in the rich tradition of the very best science fiction.”

Apart from ‘District 9’, I think Lagoon can also be seen as a response to Zoo City by Lauren Beukes, which won the Arthur C. Clarke Award in 2011. Both novels engage in a dialogue with Amos Tutuola and D.O. Fagunwa, commonly referred to as “the fathers of African fantasy”.

So how successful is Okorafor? It took me a while to get into the rhythm of this novel, which is written in short chapters from multiple viewpoints (Okorafor has indeed said that the novel started out as a screenplay idea).

Yes, Okorafor does thrown a bit more light on the Yoruba religion, said to be one of the world’s oldest and most widely practised religions (its influence can be seen as far afield as Santería in Cuba and Candomblé in Brazil).

Unfortunately, this takes the form of some stock Yoruba figureheads such as Mami Wata – in a ‘deleted chapter’ included at the end, a character refers to “some X-Men shit in Africa”. However, the Yoruba mythology sits uncomfortably with the alien invasion of Lagos, where the Elders, replete with tentacles, reminded me of a half-assed Lovecraft pastiche.

Okorafor also does not know what to do with the more outlandish aspects of Nigerian society, such as the pervasive corruption, bad traffic and 419 scams. In the end she resorts to broad satire, with such scenes as a Yoruba spirit animating the Lagos-Benin Highway and an alien creature appearing to the Nigerian president in the form of Karl Marx.

Once you get past the episodic nature of the writing and the short shrift given to the SF elements, this does gel into quite an enjoyable and eccentric take on First Contact. Nigeria is such a conflation of the bizarre and the mundane, not to mention being such a perfect example of the worst stereotypical perceptions of Africa, that at the end Okorafor fails quite spectacularly in refuting Blomkamp. Still, an exciting and notable entry in the sub-genre of ‘Afro-futurism’.

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Scale-BrightScale-Bright by Benjanun Sriduangkaew

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lavie Tidhar, who won the World Fantasy Award in 2012 for his superlative novel Osama, has gone on record as saying that Benjanun Sriduangkaew may be “the most exciting new voice in speculative fiction today.”

Interestingly, Sriduangkaew thanks both Lavie Tidhar and Ann Leckie in her Acknowledgements – both these authors are singular genre voices themselves.

However, I do not think Sriduangkaew is as singular as either Tidhar or Leckie. Beyond the overwrought ornamentation of the writing itself, Scale Bright is a pretty standard urban fantasy, which reminded me a lot of S.P. Somtow (Sriduangkaew is also of Thai origin).

Sriduangkaew does not make nearly enough of her Hong Kong setting, so that it is actually difficult to distinguish between Hong Kong and Heaven, where part of the story is set. Due to the baroque writing style, the characters sound (unintentionally?) portentous, which made it difficult for me to get an emotional handle on the story.

Apart from the main novella itself, Scale Bright contains a handful of short stories featuring the same characters. At the end, I am unsure if the real Sriduangkaew is revealed here. That there is talent to burn is not in question; I think it is just a question of finding an authentic voice.

Having said that, one cannot avoid the recent controversy surrounding Sriduangkaew, who has been ‘outed’ as ‘Requires Hate’ and ‘Winterfox’, online aliases for vitriolic criticism (apparently including death threats.)

My feeling is that until Sriduangkaew herself engages on an open level with the writers she has targeted, that the work must, alas, speak for itself.

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The Long Mars

The Long Mars: A Novel (Long Earth, #3)The Long Mars: A Novel by Terry Pratchett

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

At the beginning of a new reading year I was delighted to discover that Stephen Baxter and Terry Pratchett would be continuing their Long Earth saga with The Long Utopia. Three volumes in, and this is already one of the most consistently enjoyable SF sequences I have ever read.

It also helps that I am a fan of both Baxter and Pratchett (I do feel though that there is more of the former in these books than the latter, especially in The Long Mars). The joy of reading these books is, I suspect, the similar singular joy of the authors of taking a Great Idea and wringing every ounce of wonder from it.

What elevates the third instalment to five stars for me, as opposed to the four I gave each of the preceding volumes is, surprisingly, the weakest aspect of the trilogy to date: the rather perfunctory characterisation.

However, at this stage the characters have grown into their roles – especially Joshua, Sally and Lobsang – and so the authors can reflect on their lives. We also have the introduction of the Next children, who are supremely creepy and alien, despite their apparent humanity.

It is this wonderful achievement of making us look anew at the familiar that is one of the signature achievements of these books. It is also one of the defining characteristics of SF as a genre. Long live the Long Universe.

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