The Woman in Black by Susan Hill
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: 1983
Format: Paperback, 164 Pages
Rating: ★★ To Buy
Arthur Kipps could easily contribute to his family's tradition of ghost stories on Christmas Eve... only his ghost story is so dark and so disturbing he dare not utter it. After the holidays he decides he will commit it to paper so that it is recorded, exorcised from his life. A life that was destroyed by him going to Crythin Gifford to deal with the estate of Mrs. Alice Drablow. As a young solicitor he was excited at the opportunity this job gave him to prove his worth. He planned to spend a few days sorting out the elderly widow's papers and return to London and his fiance. Though the townspeople seemed reluctant to endorse his staying out at Eel Marsh House by himself. Arthur thought it was because of the Nine Lives Causeway which would cut him off from the mainland during high tide... but the seclusion wasn't the only reason. The main reason is a woman in black Arthur saw at Mrs. Drablow's funeral. A woman whose appearance presages something which the villagers dare not discuss. Despite vocal opposition Arthur ensconces himself at Eel Marsh House and is subjected to many supernatural apparitions, terrifying noises coming from the causeway, as well as many revelations. He learns who the woman in black is and what she wants, and what she will take from him... though, even in death, it looks like she will forever be unsatisfied.
I remember when the Daniel Radcliffe adaptation of this book arrived in cinemas, everyone who saw it kept insisting that it didn't capture the book. How The Woman in Black was a classic of Gothic storytelling and the stage adaptation was brilliant, but how I should avoid the movie and just go to the source. Of course I did both. I picked up the book at Barnes and Noble and then I eventually got around to watching the movie. Oddly for me I actually decided to watch the movie first and was unimpressed and confused. The sequel, The Woman in Black: Angel of Death, which had almost nothing to do with the book or the adaptation, might actually be my favorite among the three. As for the book, I don't know if it's because people were building it up to me or if it's just that horror films and other Gothic stories have gone so far beyond what Hill did here in the early eighties that it fell flat. The worst person though in building up this story is Hill herself. She set herself up for a fall with all the allusions to this story being too terrifying for Christmas Eve, and that it really shouldn't be uttered. I'm sorry, but if your narrator is telling a story about his past right there almost all jeopardy is gone. He's alive at the end. He survives into old age. He's never in real danger, so why is this story so scary if he makes it out alive?
But Hill keeps insisting on the danger... and with each insistence, with each demurral from daring to tell the tale she comes across as smug and overly pleased with herself. Oh Arthur was so damaged he never recovered... yet here he is with his new family surrounded by love and light at Christmas! So Hill thinks she's SO clever trying to break all the tropes? Others have broken the tropes and FAR better. She thinks the beauty of nature and the surrounding country makes it not your typical ghost story? I think that Mary Shelley kind of blasted apart the setting trope with her Gothic classic. Breaking with genre locals and connecting with nature... sorry to say but a pretty place doesn't a book make. The question of who is really the baby's mother? Um, yeah, it's not like this is anything original. Especially in Gothic literature! As for the townsfolk who don't trust outsiders and close ranks? Seriously, you think this was groundbreaking? In fact, this is also to everyone who recommended this book to me. Seriously? And no, you're not allowed to use the excuse that she did it first, because 1983 isn't that long ago and many many people did it better first. I just couldn't shake this feeling of Hill thinking she was superior throughout the book and this continually alienated me.
The narrative just didn't sit right with me. But then again this could all be Arthur's fault. Arthur isn't a good lead. Skipping over his dramatics about even wanting to tell his story, let's just go with him being a whiny little pretentious bitch. He views this job as a real feather in his cap. Oh, he'll just do this job so well that he'll get a huge promotion enabling him to marry his fiance sooner and well, his boss will just love him and never want to let him go, just throwing money at him for simply doing his job. I could say that this was Hill showing the naivety of youth that will be jaded by experience... but the fact is I wanted to smack him so bad that I couldn't relate to him on any level. Plus he's like manic depressive or something, split personality perhaps? Because during the days at Eel Marsh House nothing bothers him, he's all rainbows and puppies and oh, that noise was nothing, look at the beautiful view out these glorious windows, and the night falls and he's running around like a chicken with his head cut off screaming about the noises on the causeway. Maybe Jekyll and Hyde is a more apt way of describing Arthur. Yes, things can get scary at night, in the dark, but having him so blithely swan through the day talking about how lovely everything is? He's in serious denial and needs help. But it's not coming from me.
What does "help" Arthur is that lovely trope of the fever that puts him abed. Suffered by any overactive man who just collapses from strain. I kind of wonder if this is a trope that women writers use to just poke fun at men who have been claiming that women are weaker and prone to fainting... because whenever I've seen this trope used so heavy-handedly it's always been from the pen of a female author. Like they're saying, "we'll show you a wilted flower!" Which amuses me to no end. But then again Conan Doyle even used this trope in a Sherlock Holmes story... so maybe it was really a thing. And I have to say, if this is a real thing, how can I get in on this action? Because I'd seriously like a month off to just lay in bed and read. Because I don't want to take it to the extreme of delirium, but just a slight wasting problem that needed bed rest. Can you seriously, in this day and age, imagine someone saying that they are convalescing for the foreseeable future do to nerves? Everything is so diagnosable now this isn't something that can be believable in novels written in present times about the past. We know better now and so this trope too must pass.
The Woman in Black was actually in a perilous position. Until the last few pages it was about to receive the dreaded one star rating and then it surprisingly redeemed itself, just a little. If you don't know the motives of the woman in black, Mrs. Drablow's sister, now is the time to get a fever and take to your bed. OK, so I assume now if you're still reading you either already know or don't care to be spoiled that the woman in blacks appearance heralds the death of a child, which is why the villagers never wanted to talk about it, because it might be their child next. So Arthur figures this all out we and think he's getting his happily ever after, he gets married, has a child, but turns out, things aren't so resolved. Because the woman in black, she is a ghost that is unrepentantly evil. She is not able to be "put to rest" or "exorcised" and THIS is the selling point of the book. There is no happy resolution. Arthur loses his wife and child to the woman in black because she is pure evil. This is rare in ghost stories, I can only think of a few, usually Japanese in base, where there is no tidy resolution, evil wins. Yes, you could say that Henry James did this with The Turn of the Screw, but he didn't do it effectively. Here there is no doubt that evil wins. And I like that. It's spelled out cleanly and clearly, like the vengeful ghost in The Ring. So if you stick with it, there's this lovely light at the end of the tunnel. Sure it's actually a train, but it brings you some satisfaction.
Angelica by Arthur Phillips
Published by: Penguin Books
Publication Date: April 3rd, 2007
Format: Paperback, 331 Pages
To Buy (different edition than one reviewed)
The Barton household is about to be violently upset. Whether it's of a supernatural nature or a more prosaic nature is dependent on who you are listening to. The simple facts are these. Constance Barton and her husband Joseph had a hard time having a child. Two painful miscarriages and finally Angelica was born. In an attempt to thwart her husband's sexual advantages Angelica has been living in their bedroom for four years. Constance couldn't handle more disappointments and Angelica is enough for her. Angelica is her everything. But things are changing and Joseph finally imposes his will, which is a rare occurrence, and Angelica is removed to her nursery and the master bedroom is once more home to the martial bed. That is when the trouble starts. Constance views it as a haunting. There are smells and spectres and while Joseph points out that it could all be due to her high strung nature, she is convinced something more is at play; and is Angelica playing along? Could the child actually be scared or is she feeding off her mother's emotions? When Joseph claims his martial rights with Constance the spectre takes on physical form and something must be done. The maid Nora has heard of a spiritualist who specializes in cleansing houses, Anne Montague, a failed actress who is supplementing her income via overwrought housewives. But Anne sees something in the Barton household to change her mind about her "calling" and helps Constance. As for Joseph, he is easily taken care of... and as for Angelica? It turns out this is her story in more ways than one.
If you're looking for a book strewn with contradictory stories and lack of resolution, than this here is the book for you! If instead you're looking for a psychological thriller that has supernatural elements, then I'd suggest you walk away. Or at the very least only read Constance's viewpoint, because the only thing going for this book was, aside from Phillips's ability to capture the language of the time period heavily reminiscent of Lewis Carroll, the first section with it's paranormal activities. Because this book isn't about the supernatural it's about unreliable narrators and the fallibility of memory and how each and every person sees the world differently. Which is all fine and good, it's just not the book I thought I was signing up to read and therefore I was a very dissatisfied reader. But more on my complete dissatisfaction later, with spoilers aplenty, so you've been warned. The problem with having four distinct perspectives is that they will never agree, add to this that Angelica is technically the vehicle for the other three narrators, and it's a jumbled mess. Yes, it's interesting to see the different interpretations of the same events, but overall it needed some grounding. There needed to be some character that you could connect to over the others, someone needed to be a little more believable so that you could take that away as what you believe is the truth. Instead, by not having this element the inconclusive ending makes for dissatisfied reading.
Seeing the story in order from the POVs of Constance, Anne, Joseph, and finally Angelica, who we've really been hearing from all along because this is her therapy session, Phillips seemed to want to discount the previous POV. Yes, everyone sees the world in their own unique way, but he seems determined to lessen the book in each section by paving over what came before and making it unbelievable. Therefore instead of being able to pick apart the POVs and find some thread of truth, we have each subsequent narrator totally disproving what came before. With Constance it's a ghost, but then Anne comes along and it's not a ghost it's sexual abuse, though she still lets Constance think it's a ghost. Then along comes Joseph and it's not sexual abuse it's that women be crazy yo. As for Angelica... she confirms nor denies any of these stories. So all is plausible. Say what!?! All is true and nothing is true? I know you can mimic the writing of Carroll, but please, no. Phillips you are no Carroll when it comes to nonsense and riddles. Unreliable narrators are really popular at the moment from Gone Girl to The Girl on the Train, heck this book technically has the ever popular "girl" in the title with Angelica's name, but these books succeed, and I really can't believe I'm saying there's something successful in Gone Girl, but they succeed because you get closure, not some supposedly deep yet ultimately aggravating non-ending.
But then again, this is a book that basically writes itself off in the end. In fact, rarely have I hated a book so much in it's last few sentences that I grew to despise it and wanted to throw it more than anything."Flames, on the side of my face, breathing-breathl- heaving breaths. Heaving breaths... Heathing..." So let's break down that ending. At the conclusion of the book Angelica, the gimmicky narrator/manipulative bitch we've been hearing from tells her therapist to just ignore everything she's said, he will never understand her and he should just bring on the next "pretty hysteric." Now I've had long talks with one of my friends over this abrupt ending, seeing as we read this book for book club. Her conclusion, in as simplified a manner as I can make it, is that Angelica realizes that the therapist will never understand her, a complex modern woman, and the slight is to the therapist. Whereas I think it's the exact opposite. I think it's the author not bothering to understand women but just flipping them off at the end. They're women, they aren't worth figuring out because this wasn't Angelica's story it was Joseph's story all along. And why do I think this? Because Phillips, while writing so much about women here can't help that he is a male and as evidenced strongly in Joseph's section all his sympathies are with the male of the species so he's just writing from his entitled white male POV. Yeah, so let's throw this book out a window shall we?
Going back to Joseph's section, not only does it discount everything that Constance and Anne have said, it makes Joseph this tragic figure who isn't understood at work or at home and he just has no friends and blah blah blah blah. I'm sorry your wife doesn't want to sleep with you, could it be because there is no birth control and she doesn't want to almost die having a stillborn child again? Every aspect of Constance's life is put under the microscope, every thing she does, says, feels, is up for debate, whereas Joseph, well, it's just poor Joseph don't pick on him, he's having a bad day, so let's let him be. Why not scrutinize Joseph? Put him under the harsh lights he uses in experimenting on animals, a job that is noble and not at all amoral! The true theme of this book isn't about memory and differing POVs, in Joseph's section we see Phillips's true motive, everything comes down to "poor men." Because obviously, like the recent Portlandia sketch, men have been pushed aside and marginalized too long. All women want from them is to trick them into marriage so they can have babies. Yeah, that's right. This very modern and topical view that women are out there to trick men into baby making is thrust into this Victorian period piece. I just kept thinking, yes, things are cyclical and men could have felt that way then, but more I kept thinking, is the author's girlfriend trying to get him to put a ring on it and a bun in the oven?
So as you can imagine by this point, I'd sworn off the book. Whatever good had happened with Constance and Anne, all was washed away by the modern hypocrisy just screaming at me from these pages that made up Joseph's section. Was there hope that Angelica could redeem the book? As you've read already. No. There wasn't. In fact Angelica's section is so slight it barely deserves a mention, except for one point; Constance and Anne hooking up. This is an issue I have with many male authors, they think that women will just randomly be lesbians if it suits the needs of the men. George R. R. Martin might be the worst, but can't they get that people are born who they are and that's that? You can see why Constance and Anne might be drawn to each other, Constance hasn't fared well at the hands of men, especially in regard to reproduction, and Anne is a wonderful protector and provider. But like the male entitlement that just oozed off the pages earlier, this just seems to be another nail in the coffin of women as manipulators. They got the child they wanted, killed Joseph, and now can live happily ever after. Or you could look at it as Constance doesn't like Joseph or his attentions so therefore she must be gay. In other words, everything in this book is seen through male entitlement glasses, I wouldn't say they're rose colored, they're more shit colored, because what makes you think that it's OK to think like this? Women are people too. I know many men are trying to change this, and reading a book that thinks that way... it just enrages me.
Seconds by Bryan Lee O'Malley
Published by: Ballantine Books
Publication Date: July 15th, 2014
Format: Hardcover, 336 Pages
Rating: ★★★★★ To Buy
Four years ago Katie started a restaurant with her friends. Since then they have all moved on. Seconds feels like Katie's past now. Her future is a new restaurant, Katie's (she can live without the snarky commentary on the vanity of this name), that she will actually be part owner in versus just their culinary genius. Yet as the new restaurant is taking longer and longer to become a reality and she's still a presence at Seconds she feels frustrated being trapped between the life she's outgrown and the life she has yet to live. Then one night there's an accident at Seconds and one of the waitresses, Hazel, gets injured. Katie feels guilty and that night in a dreamlike state she finds a box with a mushroom, a notebook, and a card saying "A SECOND CHANCE AWAITS. 1. Write your mistake 2. Ingest one mushroom 3. Go to sleep 4. Wake anew."
Katie follows the instructions and awakes in the morning to find that Hazel's accident never happened. Confused Katie befriends Hazel and learns that perhaps Seconds has a House Spirit, a being protecting their restaurant and willing to help Katie fix Hazel's accident. This is well and good, as long as the house spirit is happy then Seconds is happy. Only Katie happens to find more mushrooms... what was to be a one time gift of the House Spirit is used by Katie to start fixing all the problems she feels are plaguing her life. The House Spirit tries to stop her, but things start to spiral out of control the more Katie tries to fix her life. Perhaps it would have been better if she had never started on this path, but it's too late to stop now.
Bryan Lee O'Malley has this surreal dreamlike quality to his stories that make you feel that you might be inhabiting the world of a video game or some other leftover hiding place from your childhood. He connects with my generation so well because he taps into our cultural zeitgeist of angst and nostalgia, where a heroine with the hair of Sonic the Hedgehog isn't just cool, but that we embrace her. The meta narrative technique of having Katie snarkily comment on what the omniscient narrator is saying feeds into the my sarcastic and disillusioned generation that isn't quite generation X or Y, being forgotten by the roadside when they started having a need to generationally label us.
But what I connected to so much is this idea of seconds, of a do-over. People of my age are still in a time of flux, they are on a path but they aren't sure it's the right one, they don't know if this will be their life. They keep waiting for their life to start not realizing that while you're waiting it's actually happening, you are missing your life because of the illusory belief that someone will tell you when it's actually begun. I know I keep hoping that instead of being forced to grow up that there will miraculously appear an easy way out, a way to pave the path in front of me and save me blood, sweat, and tears. Their might be some truth in the thought that my generation feels entitled to a life of ease, a life that helps and doesn't hider your path, that we would be willing to take whatever might ease our journey, but I think this is more rooted in the fear we all have of growing up.
And isn't the childlike dream that still lives in us the idea that whatever goes wrong it will be fixed for us? Here it might be a magic mushroom, but in our past it was our parents. Who wouldn't want a chance at a do-over? A chance to tweak one thing in our lives? A chance to take a different path? It's not surprising that Katie falls into the bad habit of re-writing what she didn't want to happen. If you had a bucket full of mushrooms and no apparent consequences, wouldn't you jump at a second chance? It's the final realization that their is no easy way out, their is no shortcut, no warps, no way to get through life then by living it that is the final step in growing up. Katie might have needed a little more of a push to learn this, but haven't we all at some time?
What I feel elevates this book beyond the angst and eighties nostalgia of Bryan Lee O'Malley's previous works is the, not mystical, but the folkloric side to the story. The House Spirit, or Household Deity of Lis, grounds the story in the realm of fairy tales versus 8-bit console entertainment. This makes Seconds feel more of a fable, a coming of age tale then Bryan's previous ventures. Even the Brothers Grimm wrote about these family guardians, these protectors of home and hearth.
In fact, the more I think about it, growing up is not just about leaving childish ideas behind and knowing that their is no easy answer, but in finding your place in the word, finding where you belong, finding your home. While some might just write off a graphic novel as cartoons, which is the biggest mistake I think anyone could make, I at least implore you to look beyond the girl with the Sonic the Hedgehog hair on the cover and read between the covers to find a magical coming of age story full of wit, wonder, and life lessons that all of us could be reminded of.
The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists by Gideon Defoe
Published by: Vintage
Publication Date: January 1st, 2006
Format: Paperback, 176 Pages
Rating: ★★★★ To Buy
What seems like years ago now, probably because it was, I remember seeing a few of Gideon Defoe's Pirates! books at Half Price Books and thinking they looked rather fun. I promptly forgot about them because do you realize the number of books I look at on a daily basis? It's seriously staggering. But shortly thereafter Lauren Willig mentioned them in passing as being hilarious so this confluence of events led me to order the first two books, handily sold as one volume, and I put it on my bookshelf and promptly forgot about them again. Fast forward to 2012 and Aardman Animation has adapted the first book for the screen. David Tennant, Hugh Grant, Russell Tovey, no wait, not Russell Tovey in the US, grumble, grumble, but once again I thought of the books and again promptly forgot. For some reason all my encounters with Gideon Defoe's work was promptly forgotten until his third book, The Pirates! In an Adventure with Communists, was picked out of the hat for book club in 2016. Not being one to start in the middle of a series I picked up my copy of the first two books, promptly fell in love, ordered the next three books and plundered my way through them all.
The thing is, I've always had a soft spot for pirates. This started quite young with my parents reading Irene Haas's The Maggie B. to me. A young girl wishes for a boat to travel the world in with her little brother. I wanted a boat just like it for myself. A pirate ship in miniature with flora and fauna and the coziest rooms you could ever imagine that weathered all storms. As I grew up there were Lego pirate ships and Playmobil pirate ships that actually floated helmed by my Star Wars figures. There were hideouts down by the railway tracks and in my back yard with hammocks, just like on a real pirate ship. There were other books too like Peter Pan and The Princess Bride, and tons of movies from The Goonies to Muppet Treasure Island to Hook. Finally there was Pirates of the Caribbean, opening night at Point Cinema on the UltraScreen with my girlfriends. Some were there to see Johnny Depp, some to see Orlando Bloom, and some to see an anvil three stories tall. I was there for the pirates!
But these Pirates! by Gideon Defoe, they are a breed apart. They are the love children of Blackadder and the briny deep, with historical cameos thrown in just as much as historical accuracy is thrown out. With this lovability that makes you just want to take them home give them a big feast predominately of ham and tell them a good bedtime story before tucking them in for the night. Gideon Defoe's writing combines the wit and love of footnotes of Terry Pratchett with the absurdity of Monty Python. Yet it's so uniquely his own that while I can draw comparisons all day it will never do justice to a series of books that need to be read for their hats and their love of ham. And I'm not joking that once you start you won't be able to stop until you've read them all. From Darwin and Bobo, the "man-panzee," to Ahab and what hunting the great white whale does to the Pirate Captain's sanity, to Wagner trying to blacken the name of Communism, to beekeeping on St. Helena where Napoleon causes quite a ruckus, to Byron and the Pirate Captain forming a true bromance while the Pirate Captain tries to woo Mary Godwin away from Shelley, you will just pillage your way through Defoe's prose.
Yet what makes this series really unique is that, aside from them being kind of hopeless as pirates, is that the characters names aren't really names, instead being character descriptions. There's the Pirate Captain and his faithful number two, the pirate with a scarf, there's the pirate in green, the pirate with rickets, the albino pirate, Jennifer, and every one's least favorite pirate, the pirate in red. While this could be viewed as just a humorous joke at the readers expense, I mean, think how many times we as readers when faced with a new story with oodles of characters has picked up on a character trait to remember them all by? Instead I don't think it's about readers and the inability to remember names, instead I think it's a clever conceit. While yes, there is a bit of poking fun at stereotypes, I think it actually goes beyond this and is making the character archetypes. The Pirate Captain is THE DEFINITIVE pirate captain. He's the only one that matters, suck it Black Bellamy! Just like the pirate with a scarf is the perfect number two, and the pirate in red is the perfect red shirt for us to hate on. These are the lovable essence of all the pirates we wanted to sail the high seas with as a kid and therefore we gleefully go with them wherever that may be. Even if there might be ghosts. And we all know how scared pirates are of ghosts!
In fact I think that the film by Aardman Animation, The Pirates! Band of Misfits, is doing a disservice to the books. While these pirates are true characters by making them cartoonishly animated it has turned them into caricatures. This movie has lessened them. In the books they are larger than life fiendish friends, on the screen they are a kind of boring movie. Which is really odd when you consider that Gideon Defoe wrote the screenplay. When I think back to when I first saw the movie, it in no way made me want to rush out and read the books, which is such a shame. Think of all those people out in the world who are judging these books based on that movie? The movie has far more "presence" and it's overshadowing these lovely, sweet, and comical adventures. When reading the books I thought how much they reminded me of the TV series Galavant. There's an absurdity and a gallantry and a sense of humor that makes it similar to The Pirates! Plus done as live action, there's a basis in reality with having actors like the brilliant Timothy Omundson bring the characters to life. This humor works best with the dichotomy of the absurd versus the real. Which leads me into my next point, when is there going to be a live action movie with Timothy Omundson as the Pirate Captain?
Published by: Orbit
Publication Date: August 30th, 2016
Format: Paperback, 592 Pages
Rating: ★★★ To Buy
Little does Julie Mao realize that when The Scopuli was taken it would sent in motion a chain of events that will forever change the solar system. Jim Holden and his crew make their living as ice miners. Their ship, The Canterbury, receives a distress call from The Scopuli and they go to investigate it. Holden, Naomi, Amos, Alex, and Shed board The Knight to go get a closer look. The Scopuli is derelict. No signs of any life. No signs of Julie. But Holden knows something is wrong, so they head back to The Knight and that's when The Canterbury is blown out of the sky. The Canterbury, the rest of their crew, gone in an instant, by what Holden assumes is a stealth ship belonging to Mars. In his rage at such senseless waste Holden broadcasts the destruction of The Canterbury to the whole solar system, not caring if this triggers a war between Earth and Mars. Not caring about any ramifications, just hoping for justice for the friends he lost. But Holden hasn't quite connected the dots. The five of them should have died on The Canterbury because whatever they found on The Scopuli is worth killing for. He's determined to find out exactly what it all means, damn the consequences.
Detective Miller has been taken off his usual beat on Ceres. His higher ups have given him the case of a missing girl to be investigated as a favor to her wealthy Lunar family. The girl is Julie Mao. She was a decorated pinnace pilot who gave it all up. She became active in politics and moved to Ceres and joined the OPA. The Outer Planets Alliance is a thorn in the side of Detective Miller, but a thorn he can deal with. He understands their desire to not be controlled by Earth. People on Earth can't comprehend what it's like out in the belt so why should they be allowed any say? Of course they're also the ones who call the OPA terrorists. But none of that matters to Miller, he is consumed with the disappearance of Julie. He might not be the best at his job, and he might drink a little too much, but he's also like a dog with a bone, he will figure out what happened to Julie, even after his boss demands he drop the case. But it's too late for Holden, he's a man possessed by Julie. He must find Julie even at the cost of his sanity. It's not long before he learns about The Scopuli and realizes that Holden might be the only one who can answer his questions. But when they finally meet at Eros Station things are much more complicated than either of them imagined and everything is about to change.
It's rare that I pick up a straight up science fiction book. Usually there's some kind of aspect that draws me to the book, a favorite author like Douglas Adams wrote it or it's Star Wars. So out and out science fiction usually gets pushed aside for books with more paranormal elements, thus pushing them into the fantasy end of the spectrum. Leviathan Wakes was actually a book that was thrown in the hat for book club and I can honestly say that when it arrived from Amazon it's heft made me a little hesitant to dive in. Yet I was quickly sucked in, even preaching to other members of my book club that it was a surprisingly fast read that overcomes it's flaws. Because Leviathan Wakes does suffer from a typical science fiction problem, it wants to be the pinnacle of science fiction and to that extent it incorporates so much of everything that has come before it's hard to really laud it on it's own merits. Yes, it stands on it's own, but so much is borrowed or re-interpreted that it's sometimes hard to let it stand alone. You can't help thinking what else it reminds you of. Here's a little Firefly, here's a little Battlestar Galactica, here's a little Doctor Who, here's a little Red Dwarf, here's a littleBladerunner. Each and every one of these instances pulls you out of the book. I can almost forgive Fred Johnson being Yaphet Kotto from Alien, but when Kaylee literally walks onto Holden's ship, well, that's a step too far.
Yet of ALL the references crammed in the most obvious is Bladerunner. Because Detective Miller is just Rick Deckard under another name and without the whole is he, isn't he a replicant controversy. Now, I'm not saying this is a bad thing, I'm just saying it's a thing. It's actually the Noir aspect of this book that is a little divisive, not the Bladerunner homage. And it's not among readers but among the story itself. It's hard to get a Noir story right. You have to have just the right amount of hard drinking, bitterness, and delusions, which Miller does have. But the problem is balancing Miller's plot with Holden's plot. While they do eventually connect and Holden's plot has a mystery at it's center, it is in no way Noir. And when the two storylines merge, the Noir aspect is sacrificed to the bigger storyline. So then why do it at all in the first place if you're going to eventually ditch it? I just feel that this dichotomy between the two narrators should have been thought out more in advance. Yes, it's good to have two very distinct narrators, but they shouldn't feel like they inhabit two different genres. A book needs to be some sort of cohesive whole to work and the styles of these two characters seem to be constantly fighting. In fact I wonder if perhaps this book was written more like the letter game, seeing as James S.A. Corey is actually two people. That might account for the two narrative styles being at such odds. They really needed an editor to fix this.
But then Leviathan Wakes needed an editor in general. There are long sections of the book that could have been excised and the story would have still have been successfully conveyed. This book clocks in at almost six hundred pages and probably two hundred pages could have been omitted. Two hundred pages of battles in spaceship corridors and hiding in spaceship corridors and just hanging in spaceship corridors. And the Amos/Alex thing should have been fixed, because their names are too similar. Oh, and internal monologues! Yes, I know Noir needs these, but as I've already said, the Noir was sacrificed so why not sacrifice a few of these monologues? Oh, and don't think the irony is lost on me that half of James S.A. Corey, the Ty Franck half, is the assistant to George R. R. Martin, an author known for mighty tomes that could use a little tightening up. The extra irony is that he claims he doesn't want to write like his boss... um, ok, so you've totally failed there. But where the editing could have really been used is in the space politics. Yes, I get that with the conflict between Mars and Earth politics have to be included, to an extent, but please, as I've said time and time again, don't bog down your book with politics I don't care about. Contain what needs to be contained and omit the rest. I get too much of regular politics, I don't need to add space politics to this as well. In fact this was a flaw that always grated on me with Battlestar Galactica, too much politics! There's only so much I can take and only so much needed. So bring on the editor!
Though the faults of the book don't take away from the fact that in the end it was still enjoyable and I look forward to reading Caliban's War. The reason for this is that James S.A. Corey has created a believable future. Sometimes when writers imagine the future and how our future will look like in outer space it's just ludicrously wrong. They think too big, too broad, too many aliens. Instead mankind has had about two hundred years in outer space and human genetics, language, and politics are shifting, but not radically, instead at a normal pace that we can see as possible. Outer planets resent the control exerted by Earth, we still can't go beyond our own galaxy to the far reaches of the universe. Mining the other planets for ice to have enough water is big business. These little things like survival and control are big concerns. As for humans themselves, it's interesting to read about what would hypothetically happen to people born outside the confines of gravity, known here as Belters. How it would effect not just their genetic makeup but how their bones would be effected. They are taller and thinner because of this lack of gravity. Reproduction is more difficult. They've developed sign language from the necessity of spacesuits, and therefore their own linguistic mutations with the Belter patois. They are also viewed as different and therefore racial tensions erupt. But this is all believable. This could happen. This might happen. This makes me really need to start the next book.
The Winner isThe Magicians
by Lev Grossman, and once again a freaky mind-meld happened and three people put it in the hat, not ballet stuffing, though we aren't above that. But other titles in the "hat" were:
High-Rise by J.G. Ballard
Published by: Liveright
Publication Date: 1975
Format: Paperback, 208 Pages
Rating: ★ To Buy
Two miles downriver from the City of London right on the Thames there's a new complex surrounding a small lake. On one side of the lake is a new medical school and television studio. On the other side there will be five identical high-rises reaching forty stories into the sky. The architecture by Anthony Royal may be brutal, creating a concrete landscape, but for Doctor Robert Laing moving from Chelsea into his 25th floor studio apartment in the first completed building, three floors above his sister Alice, he feels like he's traveled forward in time. He's now living in the future. The high-rise has a glut of conveniences, with a 10th floor concourse having a supermarket, bank, hair salon, as well as a swimming pool, and the 35th floor having fine dining, not to mention there's a school for the kids living in the high-rise. It's a small vertical city that has everything Laing needs. In fact with all the bored housewives and rumors of a brothel higher up the building is a sexual playground for the recently divorced Laing and his upstairs neighbor Charlotte Melville might just well be his first conquest. But when he arrives at Charlotte's he finds the unwelcome presence of Richard Wilder, a documentary filmmaker who lives down on the 2nd floor with his wife and two kids. While Laing and Wilder both work just across the compound soon they both feel reluctant to leave, a feeling which seems to be spreading. Soon there are breakdowns, garbage chutes not working, lights going off, elevators behaving erratically. Skirmishes arise between neighbors, whole floors band together to attack other floors further up the high-rise. Time becomes irrelevant as the violence escalates. Bodies start to pile up, canine, feline, human... Will anyone escape the lure of the high-rise and the desire to kill? As the first power outage hits the second building one wonders if the insanity will spread.
Usually I like a good rant. In fact back in high school when I first started writing reviews, though usually about art, I found that it was easier to write a negative review than a positive one. Because sometimes it's really hard to put your finger on what works but it's so much easier to know what doesn't work. Despite years and years of writing, let's not discuss how many years please, I do still find it easier to write a negative review, though I hope I've gotten better at communicating what makes something work for me, because I truly want to read only good books, but that is just a utopia that I fear will never exist unless I were to spend a year just re-reading my favorite books. All this brings me to High-Rise... this is a book that deserves the biggest longest rant I can give and yet, for the longest time, I just couldn't be bothered. It has been over a year and a half since I read this book and it has languished on my shelf for books I need to review. It's sitting there waiting. Waiting to be sold. Because that's right, the second this review is done off it goes to Half Price Books in the hopes that I can get something back for my time and energy. Such wasted energy. Even writing this now I'm like, why bother? I seriously don't know where this lassitude with regard to all things High-Rise comes from. I read this for my book club and most everyone really liked it. But I'm here just going, no. All the no for this book. Perhaps my differing opinion has led to me dragging my hells? Who knows. Yes, High-Rise has an interesting and plausible concept that is somehow timeless yet it just fails utterly in the execution. There are no characters likable or fascinating enough to be invested in. At no point did I relate to the situation or the people and therefore I just checked out.
A big turnoff is the treatment of animals. You know the website Does the Dog Die? where those who can't handle animal deaths go to vet (ha ha) a movie? Well, here it wouldn't just be one dead dog, it would be Laing roasting one on a spit for dinner. Yes, seeing as this flash forward happens on the first page I should have known what was to come. Yet somehow I thought that was just setting the apocalyptic tone and wasn't going to be something so graphically carried throughout the book. I was wrong. Reading so much of what happens in the high-rise actually made me physically sick. And it wasn't JUST the animals, women and homosexuals were treated just as badly. And I'd like to make it clear, I'm not saying the women and homosexuals are animals and should be treated that way, J.G. Ballard is. The women have two purposes, one is that the more women a man has in his harem, the more power he has. They are just a status symbol. The other purpose they serve is sexual release. Women are constantly being raped here. This book should just have a trigger warning placed on the cover. And while I see what Ballard is doing with showing what happens with the breakdown of a society, he seems to take glee in it. Violence just for the sake of violence making it impossible for the reader to become desensitized. While I should applaud Ballard for creating such a visceral book wherein violence never loses it's potency, I just can't because it made me sick. It's like that scene in A Clockwork Orange where Alex undergoes the Ludovico Technique, violence of this level just creates nausea in me.
And yet Ballard could have subverted this male dominated narrative and created a more balanced story. At the denouement of the book we learn that there's been a band of women roving the high-rise lead by a children's book writer. They have not only been protecting the children but meting out punishment on the men. Where is this in the rest of the book!?! Where is this story? Yes, it basically redacts what was happening in his narrative, but it's so quickly mentioned and pushed aside that you can't be 100% sure that this is what Ballard meant or what really happened. There's this "Blood Garden" (the title of the only chapter this is dealt with) and the women bring their victims there? Oh, and this is also when cannibalism makes its way into the story. I also forgot to mention the incest. Seriously, why would anyone read this book? But this little hint of female empowerment turns everything on it's head. Up until this point it's been a bit of a testosterone fueled slog to read the book, and I can't help thinking, what if this second plot line about the second sex been introduced earlier? What if the female narrative was parallel. Yes, you get a bit of a nice surprise to learn what else has been going on when the men were too busy with their conquests, both in turf and women, but it's too little too late. Yes, you could say that this opinion, in fact all my opinions of the book are based on me being a female, but that doesn't account for the fact that this book is badly paced, badly plotted, and could have been so much more.
Because the crux of the problem, the book's failing, isn't violence or women, no matter how much I have issues with that, it's in a sameness to the three main characters. So much of the book is a metaphor for the struggle between classes and this is born out in our leads, Richard Wilder, 2nd floor and working class, Doctor Robert Laing, 25th floor and upper middle class, and finally, Anthony Royal, penthouse and upper class. Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, each man lower down is trying to jockey for a position higher up in the building. In fact Richard Wilder's obsession to get to the 40th floor leads to his death in the blood garden. But what annoyed me was the sameness of all three men. They basically all behave the same and that's just stupid. Yes, you could say that this shows that despite class, rank, status, whatever, everything boils down to men and their mommy issues, but that literally makes this book too darn simplistic. This universality is a point that is made so quickly that it's constant repetition makes the book boring. In the end there is literally no way to tell these men apart. Sure, let's say that is what Ballard was going for, going back to my previous statement, this does not a compelling book make. Stereotypes, tropes, avatars for the everyman can not be at the center of a good story. They are a character without character. They give you nothing and therefore the book is nothing. A book needs a payoff, or at the very least a hook. Violent male archetypes/stereotypes aren't enough. Again, you could say all this was Ballard's point. He meant to make a statement with High-Rise. Well, you know what makes a better statement? A book you want to read and analyze and discuss, not torture porn.
Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill
Published by: William Morrow Paperbacks
Publication Date: June 18th, 2013
Format: Paperback, 400 Pages
Rating: ★★★★ To Buy
Judas Coyne acquired quite the reputation as a death-metal rocker. His love of the macabre has resulted in a unique collection of grim occult artifacts. Those from ardent fans and those he has sought out himself. From cooking for cannibals to a used hangman's noose, though perhaps the oddest item in his possession is an honest to goodness snuff film. But he doesn't have a ghost. Jude's assistant Danny discovered the listing on an online auction house. A woman is selling the spirit of her step-father which she is convinced has attached itself to his Sunday suit. This is bona fide proof of the afterlife and Jude wants it, buying it immediately for $1,0000. If only he knew why this suit was for him and what would happen once it arrived at his New York farm in a heart-shaped box. There is no doubt that the suit is haunted and the ghost is a vengeful spirit set on destroying Jude. Because Jude hasn't just spent his life collecting supernatural specimens, he has also collected groupies. Each named after the state they're from he hopes one day to have a complete set. His current squeeze is Georgia. But the ghost? The ghost is there because of Florida. And the ghost won't settle until Jude, Georgia, and anyone close to them is dead. The couple set out on a road trip with Jude's two dogs, Angus and Bon, in tow. They aim to exorcise the poltergeist. But will it kill them first?
Every once in awhile you stumble on a book that you know is flawed, you no it's not perfect, in fact you have many issues with it, but it's still somehow the right book at the right time and you devour it as fast as you can and enjoy the ride. For me that was Heart-Shaped Box. I had just finished reading the abysmal Newt's Emeraldand, masochist that I am, had heardthat the original e-book version was different than the printed version and as I already had it... I therefore tortured myself by reading the EXACT SAME BOOK. TWICE! Picking up Heart-Shaped Box after this experience was a relief. I should have realized once I started the book that Joe Hill was Stephen King's son, because the book had the same feeling, that quality of fast food, you know you shouldn't, but you crave it and enjoy it the whole time and then wonder at the end if perhaps it was worth it. For me it was. This book tapped into a more modern Gothic sensibility than Shirley Jackson. Shirley Jackson's writing is timeless, whereas this felt more of the moment, of the now. I don't think it will stand up over time but it does capture the time in which it was written, the feel of the American Gothic of that precise moment. Of music and road trips and hauntings from memories and past sins and actual real ghosts. Oh, I was SO ready for this book.
Because while this is a ghost story at the same time it's not really a ghost story. Like his own father, Hill explores the idea of what exactly ghosts truly are. Because while Jude is literally being haunted by the ghost of Craddock he is also haunted by his past, mainly his own father. Yes, Hill went there, much like his father did with Jack Torrance's daddy issues, but with the added irony that King is his own father... oh, can we say meta? Which is why Jude isn't able to defeat the actual ghost without confronting his own ghosts, by going home again. In a messy final act Jude is able to defeat Craddock by confronting the life he ran away from. Because memories, past experiences, emotions, they imprint on us and the world around us, they leave a residue. I always think of the Torchwood episode "Ghost Machine" where the team encounters "ghosts" which turn out to be fragments of emotion and memory imprinted on time. As Captain Jack says: "Human emotion is energy. You can't always see it, or hear it, but you can feel it. Ever had deja vu? Felt someone walk over your grave? Ever felt someone behind you in an empty room? Well, there was. There always is." That episode was able to shift my perception of the paranormal so that I was able to appreciate what Hill himself is doing in his approach to the concept of ghosts.
Yet for what the book got right it is flawed. In several regards, but to me and most members of my book club the biggest flaw was in the treatment of animals. If you are at all squeamish about animal abuse... this book has a lot of troubling incidents not for the faint of heart. I mean, yes, you should know what you're getting into, this is Gothic Horror, but still, animal cruelty is a whole separate kettle of fish. I seriously think I could handle the most graphic of depravities humans can inflict on each other but if a puppy or kitty dies, I can't deal. So know this going in, Angus and Bon are going to die. Horribly. Both from gunshot wounds protecting Jude as his familiars. Yet their deaths could have been noble if Jude had deserved their sacrifice. Because throughout the book, even before his trouble with Craddock, he treats these lovely dogs like shit. THAT is unacceptable. These dogs love him blindly and as is obviously apparent, he was unworthy not just of their love but any love. This story, to an extent, has a redemptive side, but I think there is no redemption for someone who mistreats animals. More than that, both dogs didn't have to die. Angus survived the initial fight that killed Bon and IF he had been taken to a vet and not thrown in the back seat of Jude's car, there was a chance. But he's just left there in pain to bleed to death. That's unacceptable.
But then again Jude and Georgia do some of the stupidest things imaginable. They never do what's logical. Then again, does anyone in horror do anything logical? There's a reason the Scream movies, poking fun at the stupidity of the horror genre, were so popular. Why would they take Angus to the vet when they don't even go to the hospital for Georgia's finger. This is perhaps the most vomit inducing aspect of the entire book. Georgia pricks her finger on a pin attached to Craddock's haunted suit. It quickly goes septic. The details are kind of lavished on this disgusting injury. Instead of going to the hospital she spends much time ignoring it or sucking on it like a little child with a wound. I'm not even going to address the issues that insight brings to light, but just harp on about the fact she never went to a hospital. I mean, she was convinced it was supernatural so that obviously it would only get worse until they defeated Craddock. How does she know this? Yes, she's kind of zoning out occasionally and watching snuff films in a trance, but I personally would demand an examination by a medical professional prior to blaming it on spirits. Who knows what could have been put on that pin as a secondary offensive attack? Plus. Just too much eww for me.
The nail in the coffin though, as it were, is that in the end this book is predictable. Because the trope that is the card played too often is sexual abuse, this time used with a side of incest. Obviously Florida had to have had a horrible upbringing to have her kill herself and to have Craddock have a need to exact revenge, but is sexual abuse the only trauma available? It certainly seems that way from all the books and TV shows and movies that go to that explanation. What I wouldn't give for say a serial killer or a cult, anything that doesn't go straight to the creepy sex place. But I think the reason why it always comes back to sexual abuse is because this is the worst it could be. Everyone can imagine the horror. Everyone can imagine the shame however unwarranted. Everyone can imagine it and wish it away. In fact, I wonder, how many people, when asked what their worst nightmare was wouldn't say sexual abuse? Hill though has a need to compound the creep factor by having Florida's sister complicit in the abuse and even offering up her own daughter to Craddock. This takes it to a level of creepy that I just don't want to go to. But more than that, I felt that because of who Jude is, because of the damaged women he drew to himself, it was just too expected. So while this book is a journey I enjoyed, it wasn't one that was always scenic and unexpected. Like a commute, there are some days it feels nice, familiar, but in no way was it unique.