Book review: A General History of Oblivion by José Eduardo Agualusa

(cover image courtesy Penguin Australia)

 

Combining both poetic lyricism and raw emotional vulnerability, A General Theory of Oblivion explores, with poignant insight and an unwillingness to wash everything in a romanticised sheen, what it is like to take a great big step away from the human race.

Through the protagonist, Ludovica Fernandes, who walls herself off in her Luanda apartment as the first throes of Angolan independence wreak their bloody havoc in 1975, and sundry other deeply-engaging interconnected characters, we come to understand what would cause someone to take time out from the messy, chaotic, hurly-burly of life, and why for all its eccentricity of premise, the move is underpinned with some profoundly-affecting motivations.

Agualusa’s masterstroke through every single part of this remarkably beautiful book is to take what could have been a quirky, one-joke premise – there really was a Ludovica Fernandes Mano who died in 2010; while the novel borrows from her diaries, the author assures us the narrative itself is pure fiction – and turn it a ruminative meditation on life, its many coincidental twists and turn, and its capacity to connect seemingly disparate moments into one interwoven tapestry.

“Ludovica never liked having to face the sky. While still only a little girl, she was horrified by open spaces. She felt, upon leaving the house, fragile and vulnerable, like a turtle whose shell had been torn off. When she was very small – six, seven years old – she was already refusing to go to school without the protection of a vast black umbrella, whatever the weather. Neither her parents’ annoyance nor the cruel mockery of the other children deterred her. Later on, it got better. Until what she called ‘The Accident’ happened and she started to look back on this feeling of primordial dread as something like a premonition.” (P. 3)

To be fair, when she bricks off her end of the hallway and erases her apartment from existence, Ludovica, or Ludo as she is often referred to, isn’t thinking about any kind of grand existential statement.

She simply sees her world falling apart her, one she barely knows to begin with thanks to her relatively immigration from Portugal with her sister Odette who falls in love and marries a local “businessman” Orlando – both of who disappear in mysterious circumstances at about the same time – and reacts in an impetuous but wholly sensible, as she sees it, way to stem the tide of destruction.

It’s a move that somewhat salves a great many psychological and emotional issues, thought she is acutely lonely, especially as she is forced to being burning her precious books for light and warmth, but which causes her a great deal of hunger, poverty, loss and deprivation; she is safe certainly, but at what cost?

To her great credit, she doesn’t simply close off her ruminations on that topic, spending copious hours as her eyesight dims and her paper supplies ebb to the point where she is writing on the walls, musing on what has driven her to this point and what it all means.

It doesn’t put food on the table true – that comes courtesy of trapped pigeons, lured to the terrace of her expansive apartment by the sunlit glitter of diamonds left by Orlando – nor does it give her power or water, both of which become perilously unavailable in the post-independence but it does help make sense of her vastly-reduced world.

 

José Eduardo Agualusa (image courtesy official José Eduardo Agualusa Facebook page)

 

As Ludo struggles to get through thirty years of Garbo-esque seclusion, high atop her rapidly-dilapidating apartment block, a cast of characters play out their stories, each of them connected in ways tenuous and painfully direct to each other.

Each of them from onetime police agent of the new repressive socialist regime, now private detective Monte to criminal-turned-reborn man Jeremias Carrasco to Little Chief, a socialist revolutionary who falls afoul of the new powers that be but ends up rich and unwittingly living next to Ludo, play a part, directly or indirectly, in Ludo’s heavily-circumscribed life.

Throughout the pages of what is, for all its relative brevity, a narratively sprawling book that takes in vast sweeps of time and human experience, we come to understand how even when you take a step back from the human race, that you can’t ever truly leave it.

Indeed, when some 28 years later, a 7 year old boy named Sabalu sneaks into Ludo’s apartment via scaffolding erected to gentrify the apartment block next door – socialism is out and capitalism, once again, is in – the reclusive old woman comes to understand the truth of the connectivity of all people.

“If I still had the space, the charcoal, and available walls, I could compose a great work about forgetting: a general theory of oblivion.” (P. 100)

A General Theory of Oblivion, which is punctuated with exquisitely poetic rumination on life courtesy of Ludo’s diary entries, and on two occasions by the emotionally-resonant poetry of Christiana Nóvoa, doesn’t treat this connectivity as some fey morality lesson or glib observation.

Through the experiences of Ludo, Sabalu and so many other engaging people, we come to appreciate that these connections promise as much pain as they do pleasure, that the inherent warmth and love of Monte and his wife Maria Clara is balanced by those who want the former agent of the state, noble though he might be, dead and buried.

It’s this yin and yang of community, and how Ludo, for the most part, seems to have mostly, but not completely, lost out in the roll of its dice, that anchors this luminous, enriching, insightful and beautifully well-written meditation on how being connected to others can both lift and elevate us, while dragging us down and taking to places we might never have imagined, such as a walled-off apartment for 30 years.

That her seclusion is not the end of the story, thanks to Sabalu’s unexpected intrusion, is not necessarily the point of the story; A General Theory of Oblivion is less about where it all leads, though that is important, and more about what happens to us, and those around us, while we are getting there, and the way in which forgetting does not erase the events of our life and the links these create to the people near and far from us.

Book review: Netherspace by Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster

(cover image courtesy Titan Books)

 

Among humanity’s many contradictory traits, one that stands out is our ability to romanticise just about anything.

Whether it’s things as mundane as upcoming holidays or an album release by our favourite artist, or idealistic hopes for a better future, one that dwarfs our oft-blighted present, we are ever-ready to slap on the rose-coloured glasses and stare dreamily at all kinds of imagined possibilities.

Sometimes this plays out as expected, but as Netherspace, the collaborative novel by Andrew Lane and Nigel Foster makes painfully clear, often it does not with the future, especially the gee-whiz techno-wonders that have been promised since time immemorial (where are the flying cars exactly?), often resembling a dented and bashed-in version of what we breathlessly anticipated would come to pass.

In the near-future Earth in which Netherspace takes place, aliens have arrived – the technologically-advanced Gliese, the human artifact-acquisitive Cancri and the art-loving Eridani – and as you might expect, totally reshaped human society.

But while humanity has been gifted with side-slip generators, which allow it to travel fantastically fast through our solar system and the galaxy beyond, leading to the establishment of colonies without number, it has come at a great cost.

“Marc felt an increasing anger, aware that it covered a pit of unease that only deepened the more he discovered about space flight and hyperspace and the odds of getting where they wanted to go unscathed. He’d always known space flight was like launching a ship into rough seas and hoping for the best, the metaphor, for him, has meant seventeenth- and eighteenth-century tea clippers: all sails and masts and spars and jolly heave-ho Jack Tars. Now he was beginning to realise they were more like Vikings in open longboats sailing the North Atlantic. Or islanders from a small, insignificant atoll sending canoes across the Pacific Ocean. This wasn’t exploration but an act of faith … or desperation.” (PP. 162-163)

Far from Roddenberry’s Star Trek vision of a united future Earth, cosily-ensconsed in a Federation of like-minded aliens, the planet is now a patchwork of city states, connected by AIs, with many people living in the Out There, the so-called regions outside the realm of urban control.

While humanity has undoubtedly take a great big warp-powered leap into a glittering future, it remains totally subservient to the wanton needs and capricious actions of the three alien races, all of whom seem inordinately fond of acquiring actual human beings above all else.

Hence, every generator or piece of high-tech wizardry comes with a fairly hefty price tag of x number of human lives, and those charged with overseeing these exchanges, principally Earth central’s Galactic Division, based in Berlin (where aliens first arrived), know all too well the Faustian social and political ill-effects of humanity’s great leap forward.

What is most perplexing in this brave new world, where netherspace (the mysterious corridors below or above normal space) is traversed as easily as we cross the street to buy bread and milk – though again at great cost in human lives – is that we still can’t communicate with the aliens, who remain as obstinately unknowable as they did 40 years ago when they first arrived.

 

(cover image courtesy Titan Books)

 

 

It’s not an ideal world but then neither is it terrible either (beats an alien invasion right?); it is, however, not the romanticised vision of the future many of us cling to, something that is remarked upon again and again by characters in the book, principally its leads state-sanctioned assassin Kara and avant garde artist Marc.

Layered across all this alien-triggered existential angst is a lo-fi action thriller about rescuing a group of Pilgrims off to establish an utopian new world where humanity and alien live in perfect harmony.

Of course that goes the way of all well-intentioned but hopelessly naive plans with Kara, Marc, pre-cog Tse (he can see parts of a possible future but not all of it) and the crew of the very unromantically-named RIL-FIJ-DOQ sent to rescue the Pilgrims from themselves and their Cancri-kidnappers, in the process discovering that humanity is so far away from the idealised visions of the future that it shouldn’t have bothered conjuring them in the first place.

Netherspace is brilliantly, realistically, imaginatively expansive, presenting us at every turn with a world in which nothing is ideal but nor is it dystopian, and where the idea of first contact has exactly gone according to the much-imagined playbook.

“Marc said no, it was more than in deep space and especially netherspace nothing surprised or shocked. Just getting there was startling enough. Their minds had accepted that anything could happen and probably would. But maybe it was safer to assume that Nikki and Henk – and probably Tate – were no longer quite human. Whatever netherspace was, it has corrupted them.” (P. 277)

The gulf between the glossiness of a Star Trek-ian future of sleek spaceships and peace, love & galactic harmony, and the gritty realism of the reality is deeply compelling, shining a realism on sunny side-up sci-fi that recasts humanity’s nascent journeys into the great cosmic beyond to something much more akin to what might actually happen.

But while the reality of humanity’s galactic endeavours may verge on the banal and utilitarian, the galaxy itself is richly, impossibly alien, with the many other lifeforms out there diametrically opposed to human understanding in a multiplicity of ways.

Avoiding the great trap of anthropomorphising the aliens, who are always regarded as damn near impossibly unknowable, Lane and Foster have gifted us with a universe which is truly and utterly beyond anything we could happen, and ripe with myriad mysteries and possibilities.

Which is just as well since a sequel is in the offing – Originators arrives May 2018 – one in which, no doubt, we will be plunged even further, and with great reward given the extensive delights of Netherspace’s unparalleled willingness to upset the idealistic sci-fi applecart, into a galaxy so dark and unknowable that you would be best leaving the rose-coloured glasses at home, and taking your chances as you hang on for dear life through the full-on ride that is this wild and dimly-understood near-future of ours.

View of the ever-tightening spiral: Turtles All the Way Down has a cover #JohnGreen

(cover image via Hypable)

 

SNAPSHOT
Turtles All the Way Down begins with a fugitive billionaire and a cash reward. It is about lifelong friendship, the intimacy of an unexpected reunion, Star Wars fan fiction, and tuatara. But at its heart is Aza Holmes, a young woman navigating daily existence within the ever-tightening spiral of her own thoughts.” (official synopsis via Hypable)

Early July was a pretty exciting time in my household – John Green announced he had a new book coming with the wondrously playful title of Turtles All the Way Down.

It’s one of those titles however that belies some fairly serious intent as John explained when introducing his first new novel in six years:

“This is my first attempt to write directly about the kind of mental illness that has affected my life since childhood, so while the story is fictional, it is also quite personal.”

He is referring to his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder which affects in ways far beyond the usual stereotypes that underpin most peoples’ perception of the mental illness.

Now Turtles All the Way Down has a cover which, as Mashable notes, does not feature a single turtle – bummer! – but which will make for undoubtedly compulsive reading as John, once again, pours his heart-and-soul into a book.

Turtles All the Way Down releases 10 October.

 

Changing hearts and minds: It’s time to journey to the Promised Land

(image courtesy Promised Land Kickstarter page)

 

SNAPSHOT
In Promised Land, a young Prince and a farm boy meet in the forest and a growing friendship between them blossoms into love. However, when the Queen re-marries, her sinister new husband seeks control of the enchanted forest and the land the farm boy’s family are responsible for protecting.

We live in a world that can be wonderfully, generous and endlessly encouraging.

But it can also be cold, cruel and brutishly intolerant; not fun when you’re an adult but often cataclysmically devastating when you’re a kid, particularly a LGBTI kid who is slowly coming to an awareness than they are not like all the other kids around them.

I was one of those kids growing up, feeling like I was perversely, horribly out of place, with no touchstones to tell me that I was just different; not bad, not terrible, just different.

Thankfully today’s kids are increasingly able to appreciate that being gay is not something weird or strange but just another type of normal, and one book that’s going to play a key part in that is Promised Land, a New Zealand Kickstarter-funded book for children.

 

 

There is no doubt that the small-minded and bigoted among us will try to paint the book as some sinister plot to brainwash kids but as Hypable makes clear, this is powerful book with lofty, worthy aims and the talent and execution to make them come to pass:

“Not only is it visually gorgeous, the story is inspiring and normalizes same-sex couples in the context of a children’s book. Plus, the story teaches children about responsibility, standing up to bad guys, and overcoming obstacles.”

I’ve already touched on why a book like Promised Land is so vitally important but let’s hear from the authors Chaz Harris and Adam Reynolds, both of whom experienced the same kind of treatment as I did growing up:

“I experienced a lot of homophobic bullying during my teen years at school, as did my co-author Adam Reynolds. We believe books like this can make a difference for future generations to make them kinder and more inclusive to their LGBTQ peers, and we hope to be able to provide more LGBTQ youth with the representation they need in stories because if you don’t see yourself in stories, you don’t see yourself in the world.”

Proof that there is a need for books like this is manifest but in nuts and bolts figures, people who backed the Kickstarter contributed NZ$ 43,362, far exceeding the NZ$ 25, 000 goal, and the book sold out within 3 weeks of its printing in February 2017.

Yes, today’s kids need, and want, this book!

If you’d like to pick up a copy and you should, head to Promised Land is available now on its official website, Amazon, and iBooks.

 

Why I love books and bookstores #LoveYourBookshopDay

(image courtesy Love Your Bookshop Day 2017)

 

Have loved books for as long as I can remember.

And given their close connection, I have loved bookshops with just as much passion for almost as long.

Where other kids were spending their hard-won pocket money on skateboards, lollies and comics books – OK I did that too but not exclusively, and let’s be fair, the skateboard phase of my life was not a longlasting one – I was buying as many books as I cold manage.

I also begged for them as presents for birthdays and Christmas, and when the money was tight and birthdays and Christmas didn’t come around anywhere near quickly enough – it didn’t help that my those dates all fell at the end of the yea, leaving 11 months of present-less existence to endure – you could find me in the community library or at the school library (a haven from the bullies as much as anything else).

But when money was available, my favourite place to be was always deep within a bookstore, spending hours and hours roaming the shelves, picking out books, reading the opening page to get a feel for an intended purchase, and talking to the staff, many of whom loved books as much as I did, about their recommendations.

There was something infinitely calming about being in bookshops, place I felt I belonged and where the world made perfect, gloriously rich and poetic sense.

As a nascent writer, reading fuelled my ability to express my imaginative thoughts into words, the two forming a happy bond that continues to this day and so bookshops were instrumental in my now-flourishing writing career.

 

 

I owe bookshops bigtime.

So supporting #LoveYourBookshopDay, which happens today, is a no brainer.

Three of my favourite bookshops in Sydney – Better Read Than Dead (best name ever!) in Newtown, Dymocks Sydney and Kinokuniya – are participating, all of them staging a series of great events during the day to mark the event.

Will I be instore at at least one of these shops? Of course, I will! And there’s a better than even chance that I will purchase a book or two … or ten.

And honestly even if I don’t, Love Your Bookshop Day is a great opportunity to tell my favourite booksellers that I love what they do, that I support them in their quest to not just make money but to spread a love for spreading among people big and small, and that I will keep supporting them as long as I draw breath.

I even contributed to Better Read Than Dead’s social media outfits for the day with the following piece of fulsome praise:

“You love books! I love books! You guys honestly feel like family and it makes buying books and reading so much more pleasurable.”

It pretty much sums up my love affair with books and bookshops, and honestly even if there isn’t a Love Your Bookshop Day where you are – and if not, why not? – why not pop along to your local bookshop, peruse, chat with the staff and other book lovers, and maybe even buy some more books to fall in love with?

As far as I’m concerned there is no better way to spend the day.

 

Amelia from Better Read Than Dead Bookshop in party mode (image courtesy official website)

Can a chirpy imaginary blue horse save a life? We find out in Happy! (comic review)

(image courtesy IMAGE comics)

 

Balancing light and dark in any story is always a tricky proposition.

Veer too much to the bright and cheery and you risk leaching the narratively-necessary darkness from the more intense elements of your storyline; but go too dark and the comic quotient looks oddly out of place and damn near dispensable.

The brilliance of Happy! by author Grant Morrison (Batman, The Invisibles) and artist Darick Robertson (The Boys, Transmetropolitan) is that manages, with a deft mix of grit and fairytale fun, to balance these two competing demands.

So successful is this inspired tale, which first appeared in 2012-2013, that you are somehow able to process with great ease that it is a story about a pedophilic Santa who is kidnapping little girls, with only one washed-out, alcohol-soaked, disillusioned ex-detective and an imaginary tiny bright blue flying horse capable of thwarting him.

At face value, the story’s central conceit is ridiculously preposterous, a mix of extreme elements that couldn’t possibly work in any kind of cohesive manner.

But work it does, in a manner so profoundly adapt and affecting, that you easily move between horror at the girls predicament, sympathy for Nick Sax, the washed up anti-hero who, at first, wants nothing to do with a nasty situation and sublime joy and amusement at Happy’s plucky, giddily-upbeat, and as it turns out, necessary tenacity.

Why it works is primarily because both Nick and Happy are finely-wrought characters who make sense; they, and in Happy’s case, this is particularly important, feel real, their motivations entirely understandable and their predicament all too impossible to deal with.

And the way they arrive together as the most unlikeliest of odd couples, and indeed the very reason it happens at all (to give that away would be far too spoilery), is so perfectly-paced and so meaningful, despite Nick’s quite trenchant resistance at first, that it feels like the most believable and organic of relationship.

As you can imagine in a story that features an imaginary blue flying horse as the main narrative driver, this is crucial to creating a story that is emotionally-affecting, truthful and real.

 

 

(image courtesy IMAGE comics)

 

Another key element in the success of Happy! is that it doesn’t stint on the grave events underpinning the story.

It’s world is dark, real, disillusioning and soul-sapping, on the surface irredeemably broken, something that is underscored with a vividness so stark that it temporarily stops even Happy in his deliriously-upbeat tracks.

This is important not simply because it makes Nick’s eventual willingness to go along with the mission of Happy, who is the imaginary friend of one of the kidnapped girls, all the more remarkable, but because it gives some grunt to Happy’s flighty behaviour.

He’s sweet, delightful and fun sure but he’s doing what he’s doing and doing it the way he’s doing it, because important, life-saving things are in play.

He may seem lightweight and insubstantial but in reality, he is possessed of an imperative so robust and a goal so vitally important that he cannot give up.

In other words, there is steel inside his happy velvet glove, something Nick eventually sees and acquiesces to, especially once Happy, who’s been querying how he and Nick are connected at all, puts two and two together, and realises why fate has drawn and he and the drunken law-enforcement has-been together.

This continual pivoting between darkness and light, sad resignation and buoyant hope propels Happy! through a thoroughly-arresting storyline, accompanied by artwork so vivid that you can’t help but be drawn in.

Yes, there’s a gross ton of language used but that simply adds to the veracity and truth of the tale, helping us to understand why Nick and Happy would end together and would work as a team.

Happy!, for all its personal-dystopian greys and shadows, is a joy to watch, a brilliantly-told and illustrated tale that reminds us at every turn that life is never, ever straightforward and that even if you’re not confronted by blue flying horses, you need to be open to anything life can throw at you and be willing to run with it, particularly since you have no idea where it will lead or what might be at stake.

 

 

Book review: How to Stop Time by Matt Haig

(cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

As the temporary custodians of relatively short lifespans, humanity has always looked longingly at the idea of immortality.

Everything from the fabled Fountain of Youth through to vampires and religious dogma (though in many cases you have to die to get this extension to your lifespan, rather complicating the process), and beyond, have touched upon the imagined lustre of life without end.

But as Matt Haig beautifully explores in How to Stop Time (spoiler – you can’t really) immortality, or at least quasi-immortality, is not all it’s cracked up to be.

This gracious and heartfelt novel, which moves with a poetic world-weariness almost until its faster-paced final act, is an exquisitely well-written rumination on time and whether we can truly ever escape its onrushing momentum.

In the case of the “Albatrosses” or “Albas”, rare genetically-gifted or cursed (depending on your perspective) people who age at a rate 15 times slower than their more rapidly mortal “Mayfly” aka “Mays” counterparts, it is not so much an escape as a lengthy stay in execution.

“It occurred to me that human beings didn’t live beyond a hundred because they simply weren’t up for it. Psychologically, I mean. You kind of ran out. There wasn’t enough self to keep going. You grew too bored of your own mind. Of the way life repeated itself. How, after a while, there wasn’t a smile or gesture that you hadn’t seen before. There wasn’t a change in the world order that didn’t echo other changes in the world order. And the news stopped being new. The very word ‘news’ became a joke. It was all just a cycle. A slowly rotating downward one.” (P. 32)

By dint of their far slower aging process, Albas, who are watched over by the dictatorial Albatross Society run by Hendrich, a 900 year-old wealthy man steeped in paranoia and mistrust of the “Mays”, are witness to the expansive nature of time, to its peaks and troughs, its patterns and tropes, and its capacity for extreme ennui, and increasingly, its rare delights.

The protagonist Tom Hazard, born in 1581 into French nobility before he and his Huguenot Protestant mother are forced to flee to the UK to escape persecution from the Catholic majority, is a man who knows well how delightful and yet enervating a wildly extended lifespan can be.

He has known both true love with a woman called Rose in the early 16th century and decade upon decade of unending decay of loneliness and loss, met and befriended the likes of Shakespeare, F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Samuel Johnson, and yet found himself living in poverty and obscurity.

Through it all, he wonders if life, as long and winding as an Alba’s is, is worth the price; but like many of his long-living contemporaries who always attract attention as they stay youthful while those around them inexorably age, he remains on the path to near-eternal longevity, driven largely by the burning desire to find his long-lost daughter Marion, who shares his condition.

 

(Matt Haig (image courtesy official Matt Haig Twitter account)

 

Tom’s is a precarious dance between futility and purpose, hope and despair, a sense that life is worth all the sacrifices as long as you truly live it.

But is he living it as fully as he could? Is Hendrich, who parcels out eight-year assignments to each known Alba with absolute, deadly  control, killing any “Mays” who find out the Alba’s true condition, letting him and others like Agnes and Omai experience everything life has to offer?

It’s a question that permeates How to Stop Time, suffusing every piece of existential angst and its great conundrum of the worth or otherwise of romantic entanglements (or indeed any kind of relationship at all).

Falling in love is seen by many Albas as an unnecessary complication that leads only to heartache and loss; but Tom begins to wonder, after he meets fellow teacher Camille as the school in London where he is a history teacher, whether staying away from love doesn’t incur more pain that surrendering to it – and it takes what could be seen as a gimmicky conceit in less capable hands, and imbues it with richness and meaning.

For if there is one thing that Matt Haig does well it is articulate what it is like to be on the outside looking in, to peer through the windows of gilded opportunity and wonder if there is a place for you in the midst of all the glitter and chaos of normalcy.

“The past resides inside the present, repeating, hiccuping, reminding you of all the stuff that no longer is. It bleeds out from road signs and plaques on park benches and songs and surnames and faces and the covers of books. Sometimes just the sight of a tree or sunset can smack you with the power of every tree and sunset you have ever seen and there is no way to protect yourself. There is no possible way of living in a world without books or trees or sunsets. There just isn’t.” (P. 180)

As Haig describes Tom’s beautiful, worn, exhausting, sometime joyful, often ennui-plagued life with deft nuance and heart-tugging emotional resonance, you come to appreciate in a profoundly moving way how quasi-immortality – for the Albas all die, not immune from time’s ravages, just more favoured by them – may not be the cornucopia of delights we envisage.

But more than that, and this speaks to the deep insightfulness and thoughtful contemplation that Haig brings to his quite extraordinary but touchingly human tale, is the contemplation of what makes for a fulfilling life, regardless of how many years are allotted to you.

In the end, that is the central idea at play – not so much how long you live as what do you do with the time you have, and what constitutes living as opposed to simply existing?

How to Stop Time is richly, poetically meditative, anchored by Tom’s very human struggle to define his exceptionally long life in ways he can be at peace with; as he reaches the end of the story, which comes with some satisfying conclusions that don’t feel twee or outlandish but authentically happy and complete, you feel as if he has found that long elusive accommodation with life … until, of course, it twists out of his hands once again at some unspecified future point, and leads him on another merry dance.

But in that moment, that brief shining moment, he is happy.

Happy and content and then not; How to Stop Time nicely encapsulates that near-eternal struggle and asks whether any of us, Mays or Albas, can ever claim to have got the better of time, and muses whether the best we can hope for are fleeting moments of happiness and purpose on time’s canvas of contrary possibilities.

 

Book review: Deadline by Mira Grant

(cover image courtesy Hachette Australia)

 

With a built-in warning that humanity is its own worst enemy – by a considerable margin and that’s without a nasty zombie-creating virus on the loose in the world – Deadline picks up the shambling good work of its brilliant predecessor Feed, and runs with it, far faster than you’d think an animated corpse can manage.

Shaun Mason is alive and kicking – though convinced his sister George aka George is alive, living in his head and talking to him; he knows it’s a sign of madness but he can’t live without his beloved fellow-sister journalist /blogger sister by his side and so he keeps up the impossible conversation – and the globally-renowned newssite they created After the End Times continues to draw into the Newsies (news), Irwin (adventurers) and Fictionals (stories, poetry) crowds.

Everything seems to be going relatively well, the imminent threat of viral amplification aside, for the news team headed by the surviving Mason, and department heads London-based Mahir (Newsies), Rebecca “Becks” Atherton (Irwins) and Maggie Garcia, which is, of course, the cue for the conspiracy thought partially-seen off to rear its decayed, ugly head once more.

Now based in the community of Oakland, San Francisco’s grittier sister city across the bay which survived thanks to a critically-important never-say-die attitude during the Rising of 2014 and beyond, Shaun and his investigative team, who eat, sleep and well, all the other things, the news, find themselves once more staring into the endlessly dead void that is the collective soul of humanity when CDC scientist Dr Kelly Connolly appears on their reasonably-heavily fortified doorstep.

No sooner is the recently-dead scientist there than their world implodes, with a massive outbreak of zombieism – keep in mind that society is now geared towards protecting against and smoothly handling outbreaks of the Kellis-Amberlee virus; constant fear and a phalanx of security measures make things as safe as they can be – killing hundreds, a deadly occurrence that is met with customary thoroughness by the authorities.

“Oh, the world didn’t change in the big apocalyptic “tiny enclaves of people fighting to survive against a world gone mad” way most of the movies suggested it would, but it still changed. George used to say we’d embraced the culture of fear, willingly letting ourselves be duped into going scared from the cradle to the grave. George used to say a lot of things I didn’t really understand. I understood this much, anyway: Most people are scared of more than just zombies, and there are other people who like them that way.” (P. 29)

Surviving this annihilistic attempt to shut down Kelly’s quest to reveal the conspiracy that led not just to Georgia’s death but that of fellow After the End Times colleague and friend Buffy and thousands of others in a world dominated by the aftereffects of a slow-motion zombie apocalypse – it’s not over by a long shot; just happening a lot more slowly than it used to – Shaun and the others lay low at Maggie’s keep reporting the truth and make a commitment to follow through on Kelly’s gamechanging revelations.

Because that’s what journalists do, right?

Well, yes, but as countless stories have made clear down through the years, poke the hornets’ nest of entrenched power and influence and you are bound to find yourself at the losing end of history.

True, tenacity, a boundless thirst for the truth and a desire for revenge count for a lot, but when your enemies can conjure up an outbreak big enough to wipe cities and coastline conurbations off the map with barely a whimper and minimal, coldblooded effort, you have a titanic battle on your hands.

The After the End Times team knows this, and they accept the risk and seriously undead consequences and sally forth to pull back the wizards curtain, one which, in this instance, reveals not a less-than-imagined power but with the capacity to play destiny puppetry with humanity, and think nothing of the collateral damage that accompanies it.

 

 


Deadline
is then not just a story of zombies, many, many zombies and their constant shambling, sometimes sprinting, presence, although it is that and more, but how humanity handles living under the ever-present threat of death.

It can warp a psyche and indeed, an entire society, but most people do their best, even when going to the supermarket is an exercise in endless patience and multiple threats and any animals over 20kg is a potential zombie threat, trying to carve out as normal an existence as possible.

But as this remarkably tense, suspenseful book intelligently-emphasises again and again through its gripping, page-turning narrative, all this normalcy, such as it is, clawed back from the truncated apocalypse of the middle years of the 21st century’s second decade, only exists at the whim of a shadowy group of people who are using humanity as their testing plaything.

No matter how noble and humanitarian their motivations may be – honestly, that’s highly doubtful when you witness the lengths they will go to, up to and including killing of tens of thousands with nary a backward glance – the net effect is a society trapped in a paradigm of constant, brutal fear with any truthseekers like Shaun, Mahir, Becks, Kelly and Maggie facing the constant threat of death, undeath and the obliterating consequences of power gone mad.

“‘Or maybe something’s really wrong.’ Becks pressed the radio scan button, scowling as it skipped through a dozen channels of static before settling back on the canned modern country station she’d been listening to the  night before. ‘All my live news is off the air. There’s nothing running but the preprogrammed music channels. I’d kill for an internet connection right now, I swear to God. Something’s really wrong.'” (P. 431)

Deadline continues Mira Grant’s brilliantly-told tale of power ran amuck, zombies at every corner, and the living caught between the two.

Deftly keeping the action burbling along through its 500 odd-taut-as-hell pageswhile allowing her deeply-wrought characters time to think about and express what happening to them (this is the unthinking person’s conspiracy thriller), Grant, the pen name of Seanan McGuire, masterfully a tale of power corrupting, those that seek to stand against it, and those like the After the End Times team who seek to expose the whole sorry, humanity-dooming mess.

It becomes hard to escape through the near-misses, end of the world reruns and constant death that punctuates this delightfully self-aware book that takes its worldbuilding as seriously as it takes its shadowy power machinations, that humanity is holding the dagger to its own long-exposed throat.

While the zombies are the ever-present reminder of our reminder of our seemingly endless capacity for self-delusion and abuse of each other for highly-questionable gains, what really percolates through Deadline is the sense that this is simply the pattern that has repeated through our long, violence,-punctuated history.

Sure it’s now told with virus splicing, god-like abilities to manipulate life and death and a near omnipresent capacity to skewer reality and the truth, but the bedrock of humanity’s narrative remains eerily the same – there are those who will do anything to acquire and retain power, there are those who will stand to oppose them, and inbetween lies drama, a morally-ferocious battle to the end and the people of After the End Times doing their best, and compellingly bringing us along with them, to save us from ourselves, if such a thing is even possible.

 

 

(image courtesy Orbit Books)

Weekend pop art: The thoughtful fun of Joey Spiotto’s Firefly Back From the Black

(image via IO9 (c) Joey Spiotto)

 

I love the work of Joey Spiotto.

He has a keen eye and obvious love for pop culture and invests all this art with a playful sensibility that still manages to convey everything you love about the characters and shows or movies he draws inspiration from.

Take his Little Golden Books designs, which were exhibited in L.A. this year, and in 2015, which are exactly what you’d expect to see appearing in the much-loved children’s book series, but are wholly unique and fun too.

Now he has turned his attention to Firefly, that lamentably short-lived but iconic show from Fox, which saw Malcoln Reynolds and his ragtag crew/family flying around the badlands of the galaxy, dispensing justice and helping themselves to stuff with equal abandon.

I previewed his book Firefly: Back From the Black last year, and was excited at the idea of what it might look like if Mal and the team made it to Earth (they never did in the 13-episode TV series or follow-up movie Serenity) and saw what the race who ended populating much of the galaxy, with often less than stellar results (no surprise there; we have a track record) did back on their home planet.

It’s quirky, insightful and beautiful true to the show and its characters and if you’re a Browncoat (a Firefly fan) then you have to have this book.

Firefly: Back From the Black is available for sale now.

(source: io9)

 

(image via IO9 (c) Joey Spiotto)

 

(image via IO9 (c) Joey Spiotto)

 

(image via IO9 (c) Joey Spiotto)

 

(image via IO9 (c) Joey Spiotto)

 

(image via IO9 (c) Joey Spiotto)

Book review: The 9th Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen

(book cover image Allen & Unwin)

 

When it comes to popular parlance, love, to put it mildly, is a popular topic.

Whether we are falling into it, breaking up with it, celebrating its longevity or mourning its unexpected brevity, it consumes a lot of pop culture air.

For all that well-deserved ubiquity, one aspect of love that isn’t remarked up on as much as you might it to be, is what happens when love goes rancid, curdles if you like, in the heart or in its execution; in other words when something very good, that should be uplifting, encouraging and even recoverable from when your heart is broken, instead becomes something malevolent or darkly-realised.

The Ninth Life of Louis Drax by Liz Jensen, fills in this void quietly, and yet dramatically, with the story of a 9 year old boy, the titular Louis, who exists in a world where love has taken on a nasty, violent hue, all outside evidence to the contrary.

If you were to look at the family of Pierre and Natalie Drax, and their son Louis, you would see a cosy, almost-nuclear family who take picnics in the countryside, go out outings to Disneyland Paris and who aspire to love, togetherness and a closeknit sense of belonging.

“I’m not most kids. I’m Louis Drax. Stuff happens to me that shouldn’t happen, like going on a picnic where you drown.

Just ask my maman what it’s like being the mother of an accident-prone boy and she’ll tell you. No fun. You can’t sleep, wondering when it’s going to end. You see danger everywhere and you think, Got to protect him, got to protect him. But sometimes you can’t.

Maman hated me before she loved me because of the first accident. The first accident was being born.” (P. 1)

But as the book unfolds, alternating between Louis’s perspective and that of those around him including, most prominently, Doctor Pascal Dannachet, it becomes unnervingly clear that there is something rotten in the house of Drax.

A bright, insightful, rabidly-intelligent child, Louis is obsessed with rapists, with suppressing his gender, and with the sort of twisted, very adult thoughts that a child of his age should not even be remotely concerned with.

His ferocity of expression and willingness to take on all comers, alarms many including his father Pierre, whose marriage to the very needy Natalie is not a happy one, and therapist Marcel Perez, who finds himself continues on the continual back foot with his quite unlikable young patient.

Louis is, to put it bluntly, a very unpleasant young man and there are times, many times, when you recoil from his brutish cruelty and lack of human norms; but as The Ninth Life of Louis Drax unfurls in slow burning, lo-fi melodramatic fashion, you come to understand why the young man is so damaged.

 

(book cover image courtesy Allen & Unwin)

 

At heart, Louis is just a wounded kid; a deeply-wounded kid, in fact, who struggles to react to the competing paradigms and sick demands for love around him.

Much of his coiling, animalistically-restive emotional confusion (backed, it must be said, by naive but freakishly well-reasoned intelligence which never quite arrives at the right conclusions), is expressed in conversations with the mysterious figure of Gustave, a bandaged, clearly-ailing man who inhabits the netherworld of coma into which Louis is plunged after an “accident” which sees his family rent asunder.

As Pascal Dannachet tries to coax him from his coma, and falls in love with the desperately manipulative and emotionally-broken Natalie – the latter dynamic happens again and again with different men as Natalie, like some needy black widow spider, draws men into her orbit with spectacular but ultimately destructive ease – we come to understand how Louis sees the world in his own earnest, flawed way, and how everyone around him comes to see it.

“He’s holding my hand like Papa used to do. He’s slower than Papa though, because he’s got a limp. He’s all broken and thin from being hungry all the time, if you pushed him he’d fall over, he isn’t any stronger than a boy who’s only nine. If we had a fight I might win, I might even kill him by accident. That kind of thing can happen, trust me. Someone gets in a rage and they don’t know what they’re doing and they’re sorry afterwards but then it’s too late.” (P. 173)

As the police investigation into the accident rolls on, it becomes patently obvious that the yawning gulf between what love could be, and what it is aspired to be, and what it is actually expressed in Louis’s messed-up world, is the product of one person and their ability, which begins unraveling quite demonstrably as the story progresses, to skew the perspective of those around him.

There is a resolution of sorts at the end of The Ninth Life of Louis Drax – the title refers to his life in the coma which he finds infinitely preferable to the real one around him, a damning indictment of love in twisted form if ever there was one – but mostly the book concerns itself with a series of rapier-sharp internal monologues as everyone tries to process what is happening/has happened to Louis, what that means for them, and whether it is possible to come out the other side with anything that looks even remotely like love held in their possession.

This book then is a rumination on the quietly-ruinous nature of love gone wrong; how something so potentially beautiful and real and true, can instead become so disastrously awful, that it leaves far more victims than benefactors, victims so broken that even when there is some sort of resolution, are never quite the people they could have been if love, true love, had been allowed to run its course.