Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: 1Q84, by Haruki Murakami

Published: October 2011

Finally got around to it: December 2011

1Q84—that’s what I’ll call this new world, Aomame decided.

Q is for “question mark.” A world that bears a question.

Aomame nodded to herself as she walked along.

Like it or not, I’m here now, in the year 1Q84. The 1984 that I knew no longer exists. It’s 1Q84 now. The air has changed, the scene has changed. I have to adapt to this world-with-a-question-mark as soon as I can. Like an animal released into a new forest. In order to protect myself and survive, I have to learn the rules of this place and adapt myself to them.


Parallel universe-crossed lovers Tengo and Aomame—him, a cram school math teacher and modestly successful ghost writer/wannabe novelist; her, an athletic instructor, personal trainer, and enterprising young assassin—are the twin protagonists for Haruki Murakami’s 925-page, three-part epic of magical realism, 1Q84.

One day, embarking on a routine hit, Aomame is delayed by gridlocked traffic on Tokyo’s elevated Metropolitan Expressway. Unable to be late for her “appointment”, she abandons the taxi she was riding in and crosses the lanes of traffic to an emergency stairwell that will take her off the expressway and down to the city streets, where she is able to catch the subway that will take her the rest of the way to her target. In another part of the city, Tengo—Aomame’s fated lover, a man she has not seen in twenty years—is being coerced into the role of ghost writer for an unconventionally brilliant book by a first-time author, the mysterious and enigmatic Fuka-Eri. The novel, Air Chrysalis, has captivated both Tengo and his friend Komatsu, though Fuka-Eri’s writing is stilted and lacking the depth to turn the book into the classic both men suspect it is capable of becoming.

By straying from their paths—in Aomame’s case, as she climbs out of one world and into another via the emergency expressway stairwell; for Tengo, as he invests himself in Fuka-Eri’s impossible-yet-entirely-real tale of possibly mystical-in-nature cocoons, religious indoctrination, and the little people that crawl out of the mouths of dead animals—Murakami’s protagonist quietly abandon the Japan of 1984 for what Aomame dubs 1Q84—the world with a question mark. For the pair, it is an uncertain world of two moons, phantom NHK fee collectors, and the occasional immaculate conception. How they have fallen into this parallel world, and how they expect to extricate themselves from their individual-yet-intertwined situations, is 1Q84’s focus.

More through the looking glass than down the rabbit hole, 1Q84 is both an exercise in literary re-interpretation and a culmination of Murakami’s many interests and obsessive quirks. There are undoubtedly parts of the book that feel cobbled together from narrative strands and character traits in Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore. However, rather than feeling overworked or relied upon too much, these instances and many others—his obsessions with ears, philosophical literature, jazz and classical music, and the otherworldly influence of cats—are pulled together and expanded upon in ways that make some of Murakami’s previous works feel like working drafts of concepts not yet fleshed out. There is certainly a road-well-travelled feel to some of these underpinnings, but the narrative of 1Q84 remains fresh thanks to its protagonists.

Murakami’s approach to magical realism has always been perfunctory. Things simply are, no matter how weird or outside of reality they may appear to be. Convincing his protagonists of the mystical dual nature of their two-mooned world is something of a rote task by this point in Murakami’s career.

What separates 1Q84 from the rest of Murakami’s work is its somewhat obvious literary precedent: George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Murakami holds a mirror up to Orwell’s dystopian future narrative. Big Brother becomes the Little People, an almost invisible force that may or may not impart a deified sort of wisdom unto a populace from within the carcass of a dead animal; the authoritarian political regime becomes a Jehovah’s Witness-style cult of dual-natured people—of perceivers and receivers; the two-mooned world of pursuing cult enforcers, false grant providers, and oversexed hospice nurses, is a prison of sorts for Tengo and Aomame and no one else.

It’s difficult not to wonder if some of the beauty of Murakami’s imagery is lost in translation, or if his abrupt descriptions of a world less than familiar to our own is simply his method of relaying the absurd and surreal with as little fanfare as possible. Because of this, some of his descriptions can feel anticlimactic or long in the tooth, but they paint an effective portrait of a world that is at once different and still very much the same.

1Q84 is a bit overwritten in parts, with deliberate language echoes and character repetition as garnish for the world outside of the norm. But what Murakami achieves in his otherworldly homage to Orwell’s masterpiece, Janácek’s Sinfonietta and Proust’s In Search of Lost Time is an impressive feat of magical realism, social commentary, and long lost love. I can’t say whether or not 1Q84 lives up to the symphonic hype it accumulated in the months leading up to its release, but Murakami’s epic is a deep and compulsively entertaining work of fiction, with only the odd misstep in pacing and originality.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Review: Glass Boys, by Nicole Lundrigan

Published: July 2011

Finally got around to it: December 2011

Mrs. Fagan sighed. Somehow, this house, rickety and full of whispers, had become a home for herself and her son. Even though he was fully grown, he lived with her still. In the room he had occupied since he was a boy. When her older daughter was grown, Mrs. Fagan had rooted her out, and she would do the same with the younger girl, as soon as possible. But Garrett would stay. Garrett was a good boy, strange, yes, different, yes, but he was a decent son. Maybe she hadn’t loved him enough, or protected him from Eli. Maybe he had been damaged somehow, when lost under the ice pans for those long minutes. But what sort of son offers up a reward he has earned to his useless old mother?

She went to her son’s room, opened the door, and there he was, on his knees, spreading out a scrap of beautiful carpet. “Looks nice,” she said. “Might be hard to keep clean.”

“I’ll be careful,” he said. “I won’t make a stain.”

“No, you won’t,” she replied. “I’m sure you won’t.” Garrett Wesley Glass was a good boy. A good man. No one could tell her any differently.


Glass Boys, Nicole Lundrigan’s fourth novel, is a compelling family mystery set in the small everyone-is-in-everyone’s-business town of Knife’s Point, Newfoundland. When Eli Fagan discovers the unsettling secret his stepson, Garrett Glass, has hidden in an old pickle jar, an unfortunate and accidental death drives an impassable wedge between the Fagans and a neighbouring family, the Trenches.

Spanning several years—taking us from the death of Lewis Trench’s brother Roy, through his marriage to Wilda and the childhood and adolescence of Lewis’ two young sons, Melvin and Tobias—Lundrigan gradually exposes Garrett Glass’ dangerous proclivities, and how is inability to understand and contain such urges risks destroying the Fagans and the Trenches, casting dark aspersions over the small Newfoundland town.

Lundrigan’s approach is subtly non-linear. She whisks us back and forth on a whim, dovetailing threads in an effort to understand the various threads of mistrust and discontentment that have woven these families together, in spirit if not in reality. Her method, and the supremely lyrical quality of her writing, offers a series of impressionistic family portraits that neither ignores nor directly explains the intentions of her two families, relying instead on a naturalistic manner of exploring emotional self-examination and trauma un-tethered by attentive parental influence.

The overwhelming tenor is evocative of Grant Wood’s American Gothic; there’s a lifelessness and timid presentation to both Wilda and Mrs. Fagan, a muted sensibility that trickles down to their children—Wilda, incapable of giving herself over as a mother; and Mrs. Fagan, oblivious to Garrett’s unsettling idiosyncrasies—and invariably affects their growth. Conversely, Eli Fagan is, at first glance, an abusive, uncaring husband and father figure, and Lewis Trench is more than willing to assume the worst of Melvin, without truly understanding his son’s actions. It’s through Melvin’s younger brother, Toby, that these imperfections are made clear.

The faults and inaccessibility of their parents is cyclical—Lundrigan reveals their past miseries as points on the line of fate, dictating their inadequacies as parents before children were ever a threat to their futures. The X-factor, so to speak, is Garrett, and Garrett’s very specific secret which Eli would sooner forget than comprehend. And it is Garrett and Glass Boys’ uncomfortable examination of a young boy’s confusion developing into an adult’s homosexual and paedophilic tendencies that contrasts so alarmingly with Lundrigan’s effortlessly poetic diction.

Though my lack of small town maritime experience made Lundrigan’s work somewhat difficult to penetrate, her language and respectful, realistic depictions of people and place were far more captivating than I first expected. It didn’t take long for me to feel drunk on her descriptions of environments and interactions, like ice settled on a young boy’s eyelashes, or the way two figures embrace in an act of extreme violence, “hugging almost like old friends.” Glass Boys is unnervingly soft, its tenderness underlined by thick strokes of familial secrets and dark histories.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Review: We Need to Talk About Kevin, by Lionel Shriver

Published: April 2003

Finally got around to it: December 2011

“I guess there’s only one question left, Kevin—the big one. Why’d you do it?”

I could tell Kevin had been preparing for this. He inserted a dramatic pause, then slammed the front legs of his plastic chair onto the floor. Elbows on knees, he turned from Marlin to directly address the camera.

“Okay, it’s like this. You wake up, you watch TV, and you get in the car and you listen to the radio. You go to your little job or your little school, but you’re not going to hear about that on the 6:00 news, since guess what. Nothing is really happening. You read the paper, or if you’re into that sort of thing you read a book, which is just the same as watching only even more boring. You watch TV all night, or maybe you go out so you can watch a movie, and maybe you’ll get a phone call so you can tell your friends what you’ve been watching. And you know, it’s got so bad that I’ve started to notice, the people on TV? Inside the TV? Half the time they’re watching TV. Or if you’ve got some romance in a movie? What do they do but go to a movie. All these people, Marlin,” he invited the interviewer in with a nod. “What are they watching?”

After an awkward silence, Marlin filled in, “You tell us, Kevin.”

People like me.” He sat back and folded his arms.


On the surface, We Need to Talk About Kevin is Eva Katchadourian’s life laid bare through a series of unanswered letters to her husband, Franklin, detailing the finer points of her life and their life together—both good and bad—and the events surrounding their teenage son Kevin’s decision to execute nine people—seven students, one teacher, and one wrong-place-wrong-time cafeteria worker—in his high school gymnasium on April 8, 1999.

Kevin’s actions—riding a growing wave of high school shootings and assaults in the years and months leading up to the Columbine massacre of April 20, 1999—and the fifteen years of coldness and disaffection that preceded the events of April 8, are the fulcrum by which Eva’s letters pivot. As much a dissection of her own selfishness, idiosyncrasies, and misgivings as it is an attempt to understand Kevin’s ambition for murder, We Need to Talk About Kevin paints an early, unforgiving portrait of a woman primed for anything but motherhood.

There is no way for me to accurately discuss this book without exposing my initial (and, in the end, unwarranted) judgement of the characters, the writing, and the narrative. To the point: for 380 out of 400 pages, I loathed this book. I fought to continue reading, determined to see it through to the end because of the recommendations of others—not because of any outstanding compulsion to understand Kevin or Eva or their unsettling family dynamic. I despised Eva, right through to her core. This is a woman that, for the majority of the book, seems to regret her role as a mother and as a wife. Though at one point she claims to have wanted, more than anything, to know and have the love of another, her actions and desires are so introverted and self-serving as to seem destructive and antagonistic to the very concept of sharing a life with someone else. Her ambitions for solitary travel and the coldness of her demeanour depict a woman who seeks companionship because she feels that she should want it more than she does.

By that same token, I hated Franklin almost as much as I despised Eva. Here is a man determined to stick his head in the sand, ignorant to the increasingly obvious divide between his familial wants and needs and those of his wife. He is as guilty of moving through the I-need-to-find-a-partner-to-be-whole actions as Eva. From minute one, Eva’s me-and-only-me selfishness is apparent, mirrored expertly in Franklin’s ignorance of every one of his wife’s true desires—ignorant because paying attention to them would mean accepting the truth: in many ways, he is a placeholder for her, something she can latch onto when “trapped” in the United States, a home she openly criticizes at every available opportunity between jaunts around the globe—research for her A Wing and a Prayer travel book operation.

Then we have Kevin and Celia. Yup. Despised them both. Kevin is an antagonistic little bastard—the apple of his father’s eye and the bane of his mother’s existence. Kevin is not right, from the minute he enters the world and into his mother’s icy grasp. The lack of an emotional core between them is apparent from Kevin’s earliest stages—though, in the end, this deficit of emotion becomes the most honest connection between any two characters in the book. For whatever reason (a question with extreme impact by the book’s finale), Kevin’s killing spree is choreographed from an early age, evident in the utter misanthropy with which he regards his family, his teachers, and the whole of society.

And last but not least, Celia, Kevin’s younger sister. Why do I hate this sweet, innocent, disarming child? Because of the selfishness of Eva’s desire to have her in the first place—because Eva’s need to feel some semblance of love in her household overrides her clear distaste for motherhood and the obvious threat Kevin’s presence provides. The malevolence of her eldest, the fear that instils in her, is what drives her to have a second child. She has Celia not because she loves being a mother and wants to experience it all over again, but because she is desperate to fill the void left by Kevin’s complete ambivalence. Celia is a reactionary move by a woman who’s wants, needs, and dreams are in conflict with one another, not in concert. I hated Celia because I pitied this character’s very existence—and because I feared so much for her safety.

The quality of Shriver’s writing threw me at first. Similar to my early concerns over the divergence between character and authorial voice that seemed evident in Lynn Coady’s The Antagonist, We Need to Talk About Kevin presents itself early on as an author’s showcase. The writing is exceptional, lyrical, and at first, distracting. Shriver’s ambitious diction doesn’t fit with the presentation—of letters from a wife to her estranged husband. There is such a strong, narrative-driven presence of mind to Shriver’s writing that the letter-writing structure seems, in the beginning, disingenuous. While the intellect on display offers an accurate glimpse into the obsessively proper, presentation-filtered thoughts of Eva Katchadourian, the narrative layering of events—withholding certain elements of the plot in an overtly authorial manner as if deliberately building to a climax—feels counter-intuitive to the reader’s ability to accept the first-person, soul-expunging intent of these letters. While Eva’s personality gradually crystallizes, as does her relationship to Kevin, our acceptance of the book’s narrative structure is tested.

As technically well written as We Need to Talk About Kevin is, these structure- and character-based stumbling blocks kept me at arm’s length for far too long.

Shriver, however, had a plan.

Without giving too much away, the final twenty pages of We Need to Talk About Kevin changed everything for me. With Eva’s final words, Shriver managed to alter everything I had thought or felt towards the rest of the novel. Without the abuse of an insincere twist or startling discovery, Shriver managed to inject genuine sympathy into both Eva and Kevin, cementing the uniqueness of their connection and her motherly qualities in a completely unexpected way. The change of tone, the ability to redirect the emotions I felt towards everything that had passed without once renouncing her characters’ obvious failings, is something Shriver earned with honesty and integrity. That may seem a strange statement given my earlier distaste for the entire family, but the distance between them—the seemingly obvious hatred and absence of respect felt for one another—becomes, in the end, their defining characteristic, and the element that bridges the emotional divide between them.

We Need to Talk About Kevin is not an easy book to read, and more than once I considered placing it on my shelf, unfinished, ignored as a piece of socially disaffected, malevolent trite. Having finished the book, I would not hesitate to recommend it to anyone—with a simple caveat: let it breathe. Step back, walk away from it for a spell if you need to. But see it through to the final page. You won’t regret it.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Review: Enter, Night, by Michael Rowe

Published: October 2011

Finally got around to it: December 2011

The pain when he bit down was incredible, but it vanished almost before it had even registered. As he felt the blood drain from his body, Richard Weal felt himself pulled up into a swirling vortex of crimson and gold light. For the briefest possible moment, Weal caught a glimpse of a glittering necropolis of souls, a dimension of pure love and endless wisdom. Its inhabitants reached out, their arms outstretched to embrace him, to join him to them, to forgive him and to guide him and beckoning his soul to join the mass of others.

Not this! Make me like you! Make me like you! You promised! I want to live forever! This isn’t what I killed for! This isn’t what I died for! YOU PROMISED!

The crimson sky turned black and cold and violent.


I know what you’re thinking: a vampire novel in 2011 without glitter, shirtless-at-every-opportunity werewolves, and potentially dangerous messages about relationships and expectations for young men and women everywhere? Bullshit! But here we are with Lambda and Spectrum award-winning author Michael Rowe’s first novel, Enter, Night, and there’s not a loosely veiled Mormon abstinence tale in sight. Oh, happy day.

Enter, Night follows recently widowed Christina Parr, her daughter Morgan, and brother-in-law Jeremy as they return to the small northern Ontario town of Parr’s Landing in 1972, where Jeremy, Christina, and Christina’s late husband Jack grew up. The name Parr, as one might imagine, carries substantial weight in this small community, which is lorded over by the hate-filled, Sauron-like eye of Jeremy and Jack’s mother, Adeline. Persecuted for what Adeline perceived as unforgivable sins, Jeremy, Jack and Christina abandoned the Landing more than a decade prior to the start of the tale. However, due to Jack’s untimely death and insurmountable financial troubles that followed, Christina and Jeremy have been forced to return to Parr’s Landing and beg the help of the bitter and authoritarian Adeline.

Also returning to Parr’s Landing, for the first time since 1952, are two opposing forces: Billy Lightning, a professor who seeks the answers to his father’s recent murder; and Richard Weal, a presumed-dead man with a murderous, supernatural agenda. Both men are tied to events surrounding the excavation of a Jesuit settlement in Parr’s Landing and a mysterious, malevolent entity trapped within the site.

Enter, Night isn’t a typical vampire tale. It certainly pays tributes to tropes of old—stakes through the heart, immolation via sunlight, feeding on the blood of the innocent—but injects the element of colonialism into the mix. That the vampire at the heart of the tale is in fact a 17th century Catholic priest who sought to colonize the natives of the land is a detail perfectly mirrored in the book’s many disparate threads: the way gossip spreads through a small, deeply conservative town, instilling unshakeable prejudices; the manner in which a matriarch’s oppressive worldview and homophobia bleeds into the minds of her children, infecting them with a reactionary degree of fear; the racism and subjectivity of small town law enforcement with little to no outside-the-fishbowl experience. The viral aspect of vampirism—as a plague or parasite that can decimate an area—is at the core of Rowe’s narrative. That the vampire is a supernatural being is unimportant. What matters is what the vampire represents, as a concept and as a thing to be feared.

Not everything in Enter, Night is as effective as its tone. The book begins with a rather tangential subplot that, though it introduces us to the bastard Richard Weal, feels altogether unnecessary. Similarly, the final act—the unearthed transcription of Father Alphonse Nyon’s deathbed confessional regarding his confrontation with the vampire, Father de Céligny, at the site of St. Barthélemy—feels strangely misplaced. The content of this final act is captivating and is likely the strongest aspect of the entire novel, but it feels truncated, as if this small narrative within the text should have been expanded into a separate second book. As a consequence of this, the novel feels a little stuffed to the gills, as if Rowe wasn’t sure what to cut and what to keep.

Pacing issues aside (and some tonal problems with Finn, whose voice sometimes trips between that of a young child and someone with social and/or developmental problems… which may or may not have been intentional, I can’t say for sure), Enter, Night is a welcome shot in the arm for the vampire genre—because, apparently, it is a genre unto itself these days. Considering the glut of limp-wristed horror titles that want to address vampirism through forbidden love or unfortunate farce (see: Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and all zombie, werewolf, and android related titles), Enter, Night has the potential to capitalize on aspects of the genre that have been forgotten as of late.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Review: Embassytown, by China Miéville

Published: May 2011

Finally got around to it: November 2011

Our everyday pantheon gone needy, desperate for hits of Ez and Ra speaking together, fermenting Language into some indispensable brew of contradiction, insinuation and untethered meaning. We were quartered in an addict city. That procession I’d seen had been craving.

“What happens now? I said. It was very quiet in the room. There were hundreds of thousands of Ariekei in the city. Maybe millions. I didn’t know. We knew hardly anything at all. Their heads were all made of Language. EzRa spoke it and changed it. Every Host, everywhere, would become hardwired with need, do anything, for the blatherings of a newly trained bureaucrat.

“Sweet Jesus Pharotekton Christ light our way,” I said.

“It is,” said Bren, “the end of the world.”


Avice Benner Cho is a simile: she is the girl who ate what was given her. For the Ariekei, the Host species of Embassytown, language is spoken by two voices in one breath—one is the Cut, the other the Turn. Before humans came to their world, dialogue was minimal, if it existed at all. Language was a means to a simplistic end for the Ariekei, lacking imagery—lacking flexibility. Through humans they were able to expand conversationally by the proclamation of similes. Certain linguistic traits of humans, however, such as lying, remained beyond the grasp of the Ariekei’s very binary culture. To coexist in the cultural outpost of Embassytown, Ambassadors—human doppelgangers, or doppels—have been genetically bred to gift two voices, two tongues, with a linked mind for successfully constructing the language of the Ariekei. For Avice, a figure of speech for the Ariekei and an Immerser who has spent time a significant amount of time away from Embassytown, her return coincides with the introduction of a unique and dangerous new Ambassador, EzRa, who has the ability to manipulate the Ariekei’s language in unexpected ways, threatening the lives of both the Embassytown natives and the Ariekei.

China Miéville’s ninth novel is a new genre unto itself: Hard-Lit Science Fiction. Embassytown is an analogy for colonial hegemony via interstellar expansion by way of a severe literary mind fucking. Miéville goes beyond simply crafting an alphabet and rules for language use, as might be done in other works of science fiction. This isn’t Elvish, or Klingon, or anything so… simplistic. In Embassytown, Miéville introduces several difficult key components that build off of one another in natural succession: he theorizes the introduction of language elements, such as similes, to a species incapable of visual analogy; he develops a dual-voiced alien race and conceives an entire sub-sect of interstellar, political, religious, socio-economic, colonial, educational, and genetic factors contextualized within the parameters of the given Host culture; and he examines the human influence of metaphor and lying as necessary for the growth of the Ariekei’s restrictive dialect, as well as the cultural implications (and ramifications) for such growth.

Nothing in Embassytown is given with ease. This novel begs its readers to take their time, to drink in the nearly overwhelming detail on each page in faith that, at some point, context and detail will come together to produce understanding. The details of Avice’s life—from when she is made into a simile to her time as an Immerser—are confusing at first, as Miéville lays the impressive groundwork for his universe. But as details are revealed in a slow, organic manner, her purpose becomes clear: to evolve language for the Ariekei. To educate them, to show them the manner in which they have been unfairly manipulated by exposure to an unknown use of their own dialect.

Embassytown is about language, first and foremost. Every character, every action and reaction, is a function of language—the usage and manipulation of. Miéville’s work skirts the crosshatch between science fiction, high literature, and a loosely defined genre that has come to be known as New Weird. This is science fiction for editors—for language nerds, obsessives who see the magic, the danger, and the possibility inherent in all freely spoken language. As previously mentioned, it is also high literature for cultural fetishists—the god-drug affliction of malleable, colourful, dishonest language to a linguistically naïve society, and the resulting threat of dominion by the “dealer” species, reeks of First World colonial expansion.

Personality is an unfortunate victim of Miéville’s incredible attention to detail. Though we learn a great deal of Avice’s past and present intentions, her emotional range is less than ideal. She feels more like an educational tool, a means of non-linearly introducing the elements of the Ariekei’s world and language to the reader, than she does an actual character with motivations of her own. The same can be said for her husband, Scile, whose arc felt like that of a born-again searching for his purpose, with little thought given to the “why” of his actions. The primary entry point for emotional reader investment is through the various Ambassadors—specifically those like Bren, who have been separated, usually by death, from their doppels; through Bren and others like him, the development of the manipulated god-drug language illustrates their tenuous connection to the world, that their purpose is defined by an advanced yet juvenile use of language and dialogue that becomes obsolete as the Ariekei become educated to their own ability to manipulate their means of communication—with one another and with the humans of Embassytown.

Even with its slight deficit of personal attachment, the accomplishments of Embassytown are many. Miéville’s deconstruction of science fiction and colonialism by way of language is not an easy book to read. To be perfectly honest, it wasn’t until I had reached part four of nine that I felt I had a strong enough grasp of the overarching narrative to see the motivations of the various factions and how they were playing off one another. However, Embassytown is worth it. This is a daunting, captivating, one-of-a-kind work that deserves the same high amount of attention from both science fiction and literary fiction readers.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Review: The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick DeWitt

Published: May 2011

Finally got around to it: November 2011

I looked. And it was as though there was nothing in the world wrong with him, his manner was perfectly at ease. I imagined what he in turn was seeing in me, hair wild, rubbery belly pushing against an unclean undershirt, eyes red and filled with hurt and mistrust. It came over me all at once, then: I was not an efficient killer. I was not and had never been and would never be. Charlie had been able to make use of my temper was all; he had manipulated me, exploited my personality, just as a man prods a rooster before a cockfight. I thought, How many times have I pulled my pistol on a stranger and fired a bullet into his body, my heart a mad drum of outrage, for the lone reason that he was firing at Charlie, and my very soul demanded I protect my own flesh and blood? And I had said Rex was a dog? Charlie and the Commodore, the two of them together, putting me to work that would see me in hell. I had a vision of them in the great man’s parlor, their heads enshrouded in smoke, laughing at me as I sat on my comical horse in the ice and rain outside. This had actually taken place; I knew it to be the truth. It had happened and would happen again, just as long as I allowed it.

I said, ‘This is the last job for me, Charlie.’

He answered without so much as a flinch: ‘Just as you say, brother.’

And the rest of the morning in that room, packing and washing and preparing for our travels—not another word exchanged between us.


Eli and Charlie Sisters are brothers, guns for hire based out of Oregon City. The pair have built themselves a reputation back when a name was all it took to scare some poor fool halfway to pissing his pants. The Sisters brothers. Should they have reason to cross your path, your life may be forfeit.

Hired by a mysterious and powerful man known only as the Commodore, Eli and Charlie embark on a journey from Oregon City to a gold-mining claim near Sacramento to find and assassinate one Hermann Kermit Warm. How Warm harmed the Commodore is the source of much rumination amongst the brothers—because The Sisters Brothers is not at all a typical Western. For this, I am grateful.

It bears mentioning that the Western as a genre has never worked for me. Short of a strange affinity for Blazing Saddles, the drab, kill-or-be-killed Western aesthetic has always left me feeling cold and uninterested, regardless of the story being told. Had it not been for the quartet of literary awards The Brothers Sisters has been nominated for, I likely would have passed it by based solely on this prejudice. Thankfully, I was convinced to take another stab at the genre.

The Sisters Brothers works as well as it does because it is recognizable as a Western in base aesthetics only. Sure, there are horses, saloons, gunfights, whores, and plenty of gold fever to go around; but beyond the checklist trappings of the genre is a decidedly un-Western story. This is popcorn existentialism wrapped up in a saddle.

Narrated in the first person, The Sisters Brothers charts Eli’s dismay over their chosen profession. Charlie, the more sociopathic and whiskey guzzling of the two, is in deeper than Eli with the Commodore—a detail that adds to Eli’s dissatisfaction. He wants out—of service to the Commodore, of killing for hire, of their entire lifestyle. He has a romantic side he seeks to explore. He yearns for simplicity, safety, and a life without murder. Eli is the gunslinger’s antithesis.

As the brothers track Warm, their musings reveal a wider than expected gap between them. Indeed, the gulf between Eli and Charlie becomes greater as the narrative progresses. Though they do agree on how to best handle certain situations, the accord is not made through a commonality of perspective, but through necessity. As Warm’s offense to the Commodore becomes clear and the brothers further question their role in everything, the gulf of personality grows, and Charlie’s lack of conscious reveals itself as the one thing that will forever keep the brothers apart on a truly emotional level.

DeWitt’s modest existential tale is what’s missing from most genre fiction—a desire to play with archetypes within the confines of their established sandbox. The Sisters Brothers is laced with an unexpected dry wit that feels at once in line with Eli’s personality, but also exists on the fringes of genre expectations. The novel is a bit of a breath of fresh air—a Western that pays homage to the establishment without feeling indentured to it.

And pour one out for Tub. Poor horse dragged more emotion out of me than most characters this year.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Review: Beautiful Chaos, by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl

Published: October 2011

Abraham stubbed his cigar out on Mrs. English’s side table and rose from the chair. He opened The Book of Moons as if he had marked a specific page.

“What are you doing? Calling more Vexes?” I shouted.

This time, they both laughed. “What I’m calling will make a Vex look like a house cat.” He started to read in a language I didn’t recognize. It had to be a Caster language—Niadic, maybe. The words were almost melodic, until he repeated them in English and I realized what they meant.

“ ‘From blood, ash, and sorrow. For the Demons imprisoned below…’ ”

“Stop!” I shouted. Abraham didn’t even look at me.

Sarafine twisted her wrist slightly, and I felt my chest tighten. “You are witnessing history, Ethan—for both Casters and Mortals. Be a little more respectful.

Abraham was still reading. “ ‘I call their Creator.’ ”


The more I read, the pickier I become. Nowhere do I notice this more than with Young Adult literature. With the industry still largely in a state of flux, the YA market is current the go-to money-maker for publishers. It’s the Hollywood studio system, transposed to a different medium: strike gold with a new intellectual property, then sequel the living hell out of it—without, if possible, running the franchise into the ground. It’s hard not to feel a bit suspicious or cynical when you consider the typical YA series production turnaround of only a year in several cases. It’s almost quaint to think back to the Harry Potter saga and the unknown—the indeterminate amount of time between each book. They would be ready whenever Rowling and Bloomsbury deemed them fit for public consumption. Compared to the North American pump-one-out-a-year cycle and it’s hard not to feel that time might be compromising quality.

Certainly this was the case with the most recent 800-pound YA gorilla, The Hunger Games. The phrase “diminishing returns” is being kind to Suzanne Collins clusterfuck of telling-and-not-showing—and after such a strong first entry, too. With the entire trilogy released over just three years, it’s almost impossible to look at the plot, pacing, and character gaps in the second and third books without thinking of how some extra time for polishing and rewriting might have saved the overall tale from the confusion and lack of imagery that plagued the third book, Mockingjay.

It’s with great pleasure then that I can point to the Caster Chronicles series—Beautiful Creatures, Beautiful Darkness, and the most recent title in the supposed quartet, Beautiful Chaos—and say that sometimes the current model works. And works beautifully.

The Caster Chronicles series is set in the once-quiet mythical Southern American town of Gatlin—a town bursting with equal parts religious fanatics and Southern charm, as well as Casters, Incubi, Seers, Waywards, Sirens, Vexes, gothic cabals raining judgement down on the deserving and undeserving alike, inexplicable earth-wrenching weather patterns and not-so-natural disasters, and whatever the test-tube-baby-Hell John Breed happens to be. Beautiful Creatures, the first in the series, introduces us to Ethan Wate and Lena Duchannes—fate-crossed high school lovers who, through a rather dramatic series of events spread over the first two titles in the series (including one pissed off Dark Caster of a mother), are drawn into a generations-old battle between light and dark, good and evil, bleach-white Wonder Bread and whole wheat…

When broken down to its basic bits and pieces, there doesn’t seem to be much to separate the Caster Chronicles from other supernatural YA fare, save for a coat of Southern drawl, pecan pies, and a total absence of glittery, emo-as-fuck vampires (and frequently shirtless werewolves, naturally). However, beyond the magic and mysticism invading the real world premise is a confident, clever, and most importantly, realistic cast of characters.

Beautiful Chaos, the third book in the series, continues this trend in a decidedly non-YA fashion. There are no lengthy recaps for those who might have missed books one and two—no cliff notes for the detailed relationships, family trees, and mythology. The authors of this saga, Garcia and Stohl, jump right into the meat of the tale. They fully expect that you’ve followed along thus far, and that the finer details of Ethan and Lena’s sometimes strained relationship, of Ridley’s power stripping, and of Link’s quarter-Incubus infusion are common knowledge for anyone picking up this book for the first time. To put it bluntly, they’re not willing to hold your hand—not for a moment—and the series is stronger for it. This is YA for the sixteen and up crowd, and they seem totally confident skewing older.

The world’s coming to an end in Beautiful Chaos—or so it would seem. Following the showdown that left the Order of Things shattered at the end of Beautiful Darkness, Chaos picks up without missing a beat, and the ramifications to Lena’s decision to claim herself as both Light and Dark are being felt in everything from extreme disturbances in nature and the weather, to the frantic search—from both sides—for John Breed, to Amma’s rapidly decreasing grip on the dangerous situation that has enveloped Ethan and Lena. Amongst this mess-to-end-all-messes are a Linkubus learning to accept his newfound status (without arousing the suspicion of his bible-toting zealot of a mother), Ridley, who is learning what it means to be a sanitized Siren, and Liv, who is discovering her place in Gatlin after sacrificing her future and her love for Ethan’s happiness.

What pulls all of this together is the quality of Garcia and Stohl’s writing. They’re able to marry the playful with maturity, which the story’s been gifted with via the weight of sacrifice that’s evident in every facet of the series—most notably through the memories of Ethan’s dead mother and her continued influence on events. Even the humour, though, seems as much intended for adults as for kids (such as a couple of great jabs against Methodists). There’s a definite Who Framed Roger Rabbit? vibe running through the series’ DNA—a comic awareness that plays to a number of different audiences with equal effectiveness.

The single strongest element, however, remains Ethan and Lena’s relationship. These two have been tested beyond normal means. Where lesser authors might feel an inclination to wipe the slate clean and give our heroes their due reprieve, Garcia and Stohl bring them back from the brink of destruction in the second book without once pretending like their emotional separation never happened. They’re a changed couple in Beautiful Chaos—more adult than I expected. Don’t misunderstand me, they’re still very much doomed teenagers in love, but without certain behavioural extremes that might have dogged them in the past. They understand the role they play now, and the threats that entails. They trust one another, and that trust has been earned. More importantly, they understand the role that others play as well, be they friend or foe. Understanding is the name of the game in Beautiful Chaos. Major antagonists are humanized in an effective manner, and a genuine sense of history and connection—though tenuous between certain characters—is more apparent than ever.

Therein lies the victory of the third title in this series: history. The sense that the characters exist in their own worlds, where details aren’t always obvious to the reader. It was a late-in-the-book moment between Ethan and Link that really worked to this effect, and it’s caused me to look to a lot of other YA titles that I’ve been reading in recent years with retroactive disappointment.

There’s a great deal to be said in defence of the Caster Chronicles series. It feels like a treat—a yearly series that manages to increase in quality, not decrease. I can’t say for certain if the development or production of these titles is handled with any more care than, say, the Scott Westerfeld Uglies series, or the aforementioned Hunger Games (both had truncated release schedules and a few too many frayed, undeveloped points to ignore), but Garcia and Stohl have crafted an inviting serial world that I can’t wait to return to.

*Incidentally, if you haven't read Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men and would like it not spoiled for you... maybe read that first. Things I wish I had known...

Monday, October 17, 2011

Review: Half-Blood Blues, by Esi Edugyan

Published: September 2011

Finally got around to it: October 2011

All of a sudden Chip give me a look of surprise from his dark corner.

Kid wasn’t even hardly listening, it seemed. Handling his horn with a unexpected looseness, with a almost slack hand, he coaxed a strange little groan from his brass. Like there was this trapped panic, the barely held-in chaos, and Hiero hisself was the lid.

I pulled back soon as he come in, fearing we was going to overpower him in that narrow closet. But he just soften it down with me, blurr it up. Then he blast out one pure, brilliant note, and I thought, my god.


Shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the Scotiabank Giller Prize, the Rogers Writers’ Trust for Fiction, and the Governor General’s Literary Award for Fiction, Esi Edugyan’s second novel carries a hell of a lot of weight to its name. Fortunately, Half-Blood Blues more than lives up to its lofty expectations.

Splitting its narrative between Berlin and Paris in 1939 and 1940, and Berlin and Poland in 1992, Half-Blood Blues tells the tale of “the kid”—legendary trumpet player Hieronymus Falk, “one of the pioneers: a German Louis Armstrong, if you will.” Taken away by the Boots—Nazi enforcers—in 1940 and long thought dead, recovered recordings of Falk take on a near-mythical status, and his supposed death is considered one of the great tragedies to face jazz in the first half of the twentieth century.

Edugyan’s narrative follows bassist Sidney “Sid” Griffiths in both the past and the present, recounting the events that led to their evacuation of Berlin for Paris, meeting Louis Armstrong, and the final splitting of their band. Inspired by a letter his former friend and drummer Chip Jones receives, written in Hiero’s hand, the two set off to Poland to reunite with the legend they thought long gone. For Sid, the journey is not just a means to see an old friend, alive and well after decades assumed dead, but to confront his own guilt over events in 1939 and 1940, and how his actions changed the course of Hiero’s future.

Esi Edugyan digs deep into the lives and minds of a Black, Jewish, and mixed-race band trapped on the brink of war with a nation that wants nothing to do with the lot of them, or the “deviant” lifestyle their music represents. Not just dialogue, but everything—from the most basic descriptors, to long-winded inner monologues—embraces its lyrical affectations, keeping in sync with the presence of musical greatness, with the roll-with-it jazz lifestyle and the personalities that attracts, and with the overshadowing mood of the era as Germany lumbers toward a declaration of all-out war.

Dividing the book in six parts—three in the past and three in the present—there are moments in Half-Blood Blues that feel weighted too much in one direction; as compelling as it is to follow Sid, Chip, Hiero, and the rest of the band from Germany to France, hiding from the Nazis at every opportunity, Sid and Chip’s journey in the present, to reunite with Hiero and reveal the truths of their shared past, feels slightly less developed. In some respects, I don’t mind this decision, as much of Sid’s growth in the book’s final pages comes as much from what’s left unsaid as what’s revealed (given tremendous gravity and understanding through the obviously redemptive/uniting use of music in the final paragraphs). Still, with a book this difficult to put down, it’s hard not to be left wanting a little more to taste—a little more of what it was to hear Hiero for that first time, to have a changing, almost synaesthetic experience through another’s music, and to confront the loss of talent that imprisonment and the decades that followed were responsible for.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Review: Reality Hunger: A Manifesto, by David Shields

Published: February 2010

Finally got around to it: October 2011


Genius borrows nobly.


Good poets borrow; great poets steal.


Art is theft.


No truer words. At once blood-boiling and eye opening, David Shields’ manifesto for an artistic culture in flux is: an analysis of past and current failures to move beyond our artistic comfort zones; a decriminalization of the appropriation (piracy, to be glib) of art of all mediums for use as a constructivists’ tool in creating new levels of artistic dimensionality; a found object in and of itself—one that conceptualizes a progressive theory for adaption and, to some degree, acquiescence that mirrors the thesis put forth in Janet Wolff’s The Social Production of Art. Put simply: art is not “art” until society interacts with it. Our social contract, forever changing, defines what art is accepted as thus, when, and to what extent. Art is “art” when it impacts, when it challenges accepted norms, and when it denies culpability.

Because art is inspiration, absorption, and redistribution.

Is it fair to say that art is theft? Sure, to a degree. But the definition of theft—and the morality, or lack thereof attached to it, remains nebulous.



An artistic movement, albeit an organic and as-yet-unstated one, is forming. What are its key components? A deliberate unartiness: “raw” material, seemingly unprocessed, unfiltered, uncensored, and unprofessional. (What, in the last half century, has been more influential than Abraham Zapruder’s 8mm film of the Kennedy assassination?) Randomness, openness to accident and serendipity, spontaneity; artistic risk, emotional urgency and intensity, reader/viewer participation; an overly literal tone, as if a reporter were viewing a strange culture; plasticity of form, pointillism; criticism as autobiography; self-reflexivity, self-ethnography, anthropological autobiography; a blurring (to the point of invisibility) of any distinction between fiction and nonfiction: the lure and blur of the real.


I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction.

In Reality Hunger, Shields offers an alarming stratum shift as his central conceit: like it or not, the traditional view of art, and the accessibility of art for reuse and manipulation, has been compromised by the digital age. The Internet exists as an open platform for the distribution of ideas, thoughts, whacked-out-of-your-mind proto-conceptualizations that have no business within a common sense structure. The Internet and global digital accessibility are the very definition of a Vox Populi—unrestrained, uncensored word of mouth. The ability to cast inspiration and aspersion with equal impunity. What hasn’t changed is our aversion to confrontation. I don’t mean confrontation in a traditional sense, but with respect to being challenged by not only what we have created, but with letting go of what we have created—accepting that our dear, precious children are amorphous, flexible, and not tethered to our singular interpretations. Ideas are offered less as artefacts, and more as languages, diction primed for translation and transposition.

Wolff’s The Social Production of Art is the unspoken linchpin on which Shields’ argument balances. The denotative meaning of art is something conventionally rooted in time and place, as elements of historical and socio-economical influence, affecting a world or an epoch but not necessarily defining it. The connotative construct, on the other hand, is what tears art from the aesthetic-only and places it firmly within the realms of transformation and confrontation, where images are not images but symbols with meaning beyond their visually inscribed depths. In Shields’ patchwork manifesto, the adoption of words, images, and sounds across continents and through generations, with little fear given to the possible ramifications the appropriation of such work—displaced from their original culture, time, and intent—might have on an existing subset of social order, is the key to growing beyond our simple pre-existing pigeonholes of plot, genre, fiction, nonfiction, etc.



Found objects, chance creations, ready-mades (mass-produced items promoted into art objects, such as Duchamp’s “Fountain”—urinal as sculpture) abolish the separation between art and life. The commonplace is miraculous if rightly seen.


You don’t make art; you find it.

You pull literature from the world around you—from art, experiences, your very being. Your life isn’t linear, easily boxed into a square room on the 14th floor of a concrete obelisk at the heart of a city both isolated and not. Your life is shuffling through memories, thoughts, moods, feelings, and interpretations of events—none of it trickling out in anything approaching a pre-defined linear progression.

Shield seeks to throw out the existing forms—to do away with plot and, in the absence of plot, discover something more akin to the reality of experience. However, the thrust behind this challenge assumes that all art must challenge in the same fashion—discarding the same artifices of old, whether they benefit the concept or not. Should the concepts that fit more discretely into such a mould be more readily filtered through the guise of the new and exciting and very, very real? The manifesto, a call to arms for a new definition of artistic integrity, dilutes the simple pleasure of art for art’s sake, somewhat effacing the idea of aesthetic motivation warranting equal merit to avant-garde conceptualization and the splintering of accepted modes of operation.



The world exists. Why re-create it? I want to think about it, try to understand it. What I am is a wisdom junkie, knowing all along that wisdom is, in many ways, junk. I want a literature built entirely out of contemplation and revelation. Who cares about anything else?

Does re-creation eliminate understanding or draw further attention to the possibilities therein? One’s definition of wisdom is not so easily constricted. Contemplation can just as easily refer to the presence of the real world, carved out of one context and placed within another. Do I feel a greater amount of contemplation is required before the commitment of pen to paper or brush to canvas? Absolutely. Does that negate the possible revelations that may follow rather than precede the art? Not at all. The recreation of the world and the reimagining of the world are not necessarily exclusive concepts. They are just as commonly married together, decided upon out of order, and able to impart wisdom to varying degrees in any number of circumstances, depending on the interpreter on hand.



Anything you do will be an abuse of somebody else’s aesthetics.


What you respond to in any work of art is the artist’s struggle against his or her own limitations.


I know of nothing more difficult than knowing who you are and having the courage to share the reasons for the catastrophe of your character with the world.

The limitations of the self, both pre-existing and stumbled upon through the creation of art or literature of any kind, can be discovered and overcome through methods of old, but Shield argues that the true test of one’s ability to overcome their limitations rests with the story being told, how the story is told, and in what sense the story’s redistribution is expected or not expected to upset all preconceived (naively so) iterations. The challenge is to accept the lies that might be spun from your truth, or the truth from your lies, and to willingly embrace all eventualities as equals—redefinitions of the private self made public.

This is art’s challenge—faced equally by the artefact, the process, and the creators: to accept adaptation from external sources—the good, the bad, and the truly offensive misdirection that might occur. Because there is no such thing as misdirection in a world of digital absorption and immediate global interpretation and reinterpretation.



To write only according to the rules laid down by masterpieces signifies that one is not a master but a pupil.


He who follows another will never overtake him.


You can always recognize the pioneers by the number of arrows in their back.

Is the musician Gregg Michael Gillis, also known as Girl Talk, an artist or a thief? When he culls seconds worth of samples from hundreds of artists, is he stealing or reinterpreting the art through a new and entirely acceptable lens? What about Beyoncé, caught for appropriating near identical choreography in one of her most recent videos without due credit to the originator—is this theft? Artistic reimagining? Are transparency and responsibility the deciding factors between which appropriation artists we accept and which we aim to crucify on the altar of public shame?

To steal from one is plagiarism; to steal from many is research. There isn’t a university student alive today who isn’t familiar with this axiom. Art, like academic research, has its roots in the inspiration of many. In an era where the acquisition and use of another’s art is tied intrinsically with the medium used to promote and further an individual artist’s identity, some say that digital rights protection is the answer—to restrict, through anti-piracy measures, the ability to download and appropriate another’s art for one’s own means. To others, anti-piracy measures are an opening salvo, a challenge to those willing to embrace the opportunities provided through a digital global village and circumvent the paranoid, the “artists” who refuse to accept a very simple truth that has been at the core of all art: that without the public’s involvement, without physical or conceptual connotative responses to a piece of work, art is not “art.”



What actually happened is only raw material; what the writer makes of what happened is all that matters.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Review: The Mere Future, by Sarah Schulman

Published: September 2009

Finally got around to it: October 2011

Spending money was now what we did at home. When no one was looking. This stuff on the street was fluff. A diversion.

We were marketed to at work, where we felt employed.

But once we stepped outside of the office, there was none of it. Not a trace.

Sophinisba had realized that the most traumatic and marking things in a person’s life happen in secret, in private. They often involve cruelty from someone you love or at least know. All of us are used to this. We don’t like it, but it’s now familiar to suffer indignities, to be dehumanized and lied to at home. For many of us, life has been that way since childhood. Then we grow up, love someone, trust them, and they hurt us. Again, AT HOME. We know nothing else.

Given this very common but unacknowledged truth, the violation of marketing is just another slap in a very full face. Assimilable.

But public, that’s another story. That is a place of display, and trust.

Now, we go home to cry. And to shop.


Sarah Schulman is one hell of an acrobat.

Over a trim 183 pages, Schulman manages to create and destroy a utopia (or the mythical image thereof) by offering society the very thing we want most of all—affordable housing. Then, without a word of warning, she slips the needle of marketing into our collective vein and whispers sweetly to us, telling us it will all be okay, all Albert Brooks-in-Drive style. All this while balancing family dysfunction, acceptance of gays and lesbians, the ramifications of eliminating the very concept of the poverty line, and the struggle for artists to define their worth in a social structure more akin to the post-modern communist Star Trek utopia, where everyone contributes to the grand schematic (or The Media Hub) in their own way.

The Mere Future is also dripping with lyricism, personality, and intricately—occasionally ridiculously—drawn individuals.

The novella begins with the introduction of a new Manhattan regime. Under newly elected Mayor Sophinisba Breckinridge, the city experiences The Big Change: the cost of living drops dramatically, homelessness is all but eliminated, and the art of marketing becomes the be all and end all profession. Personality matters, possibly more than ever, and notoriety is currency.

Schulman’s writing is sharp—intelligent without overwhelming her characters or the reader with the intellectual/sarcastic shorthand she employs progressively throughout the book. Instead of directing the characters to whatever forced endpoints her argument might have, she allows them to grow naturally and absurdly, to whatever endings suit their development under the veil of Mayor Sophinisba’s utopian dystopia.

It feels oddly coincidental that I would come to this title so soon after reading Zsuzsi Gartner’s Better Living Through Plastic Explosives. Though their narratives and structures are decidedly different, both writers are dystopian satirists, unafraid to let their subjective social criticisms rise to the forefront of their storytelling. But where Gartner’s collection of short fiction wanted to stand at the front of the class, yelling “Hey, look at me and how clever I am!” Schulman’s novella is content to let its diction and style evolve through the content and the characters—especially that of Harrison Bond, the dark, dissatisfied celebrity writer whose status, trembling as it is under the weight of past success, remains his greatest commodity.

The Mere Future carves a Spirograph design from the husk of a falsely placated Manhattan, winding through the cult of personality, all-purpose media marketing, and the impact sweeping change to an established social structure would have on a city’s inhabitants. Through the character of Harrison Bond, Schulman wraps the tightest coil of commentary around a figure so grossly representative of one of the major problems of the old world—celebrity status and its inherent power—that, in the shadow of the new, his extremes are amplified to take advantage of the full-time media circus that envelops and employs all. The greater the pariah, the greater the dividends.

The Mere Future is a wonderful companion piece to the pantheon of sort-of-but-not-quite-sci-fi dystopian literature. Schulman finds a near-perfect balance of commentary, sincerity, and wit with which to fashion her argument, without forcing resolution from content alone.