You are currently browsing the monthly archive for October 2015.
Cycle of the Werewolf by Stephen King, illustrated by Berni Wrightson (1983) 128 p.
This is a bit of a weird one: a project which was apparently originally intended as a calendar telling a gradual horror story, but which became too long to be contained in such a format, and was released as a book instead. It’s published in the same A4 size as a graphic novel or comic book, but I wouldn’t call it much more than an illustrated novella, or even just a long short story. I read it in a single sitting, anyway.
You can see how it was meant to be a calendar: the story covers a full year, from January to December, with each month chronicling a fresh attack by the werewolf that has come to haunt the town of Tarker’s Mill in (you guessed it) Maine. There’s an extended chapter in July as our wheelchair-bound adolescent hero fights off the werewolf, and some more long ones in November and December as the story comes to a climax. The werewolf’s identity is pretty easy to guess from about the halfway point, although it’s not really written as a mystery.
For what it is, I liked it. I wouldn’t have gone and sought it out, but my local library had it and I thought it might be interesting, and what the hell, it’s Halloween. (Although being back in Australia reminds me precisely of why this is the most difficult holiday to transplant – in the southern hemisphere, October means lengthening days, sunshine and blooming flowers.) It’s very well-illustrated by Berni Wrightson, and it comes from the core of Stephen King’s peak years, so the writing is quite good as well, capturing that nostalgic small-town 20th century American vibe in his inimitable way. Worth picking up if you enjoy King’s writing and happen to stumble across it.
My Life As A Fake by Peter Carey (2003) 277 p.
Apart from the theme of Australian identity that runs through his novels like a spine, the subjects of Peter Carey’s writing are hugely diverse: the Plymouth Brethren, gambling, adoptive fathers, incest, taxation, the Prince Rupert’s Drop, acrobatics, Charles Dickens and Irish mythology, to name a few. My Life As A Fake is a curious fusion of three very disparate things: Frankenstein, Malaysia and the Ern Malley hoax.
Now, I’m sure we’ve all heard of Frankenstein and Malaysia, but the Ern Malley hoax is little-known even in Australia outside of literary and academic circles. In 1944 the literary magazine Angry Penguins was embarrassed to find that some modernist poetry it had published and celebrated, submitted under the name of Ern Malley, had in fact been written in less than a day by two rival poets, James McAuley and Harold Stewart, in order to poke fun at what they saw as the nonsense verse of modernist poetry. The magazine was humiliated, but the joke was ultimately on McAuley and Stewart; nowadays the Malley poems are considered some of the finest examples of Australian modernist poetry. (Which I think says more about modernism than it does about the poems but, hey, whatever.)
My Life As A Fake is a fictionalised retelling of much of this true story, as an English magazine editor listens to the sad tale of disgraced Australian poet Christopher Chubb, exiled to Kuala Lumpur. Chubb’s own version of Ern Malley is Bob McCorkle, with one clear divergence from real life: soon after his hoaxing of a poetry editor, Chubb is confronted by a man claiming to be Bob McCorkle himself – not simply someone annoyed that Chubb ripped his name off, but the fictional poet in the flesh, claiming Chubb is entirely responsible for bringing him into being. (Apart from some small moments in True History of the Kelly Gang, this is probably Carey’s most magical realist novel.) Not only this, but McCorkle is a tall and violent man who resents his creator and, with echoes of Frankenstein, begins to torment him. This harassment culminates in the abduction of Chubb’s infant daughter, and Chubb must begin an arduous journey into the tropical heart of South-East Asia to recover her.
It’s an uneven novel, but not too bad. Carey captures the atmosphere of the Malay Peninsula beautifully – the heat, the melting pot of cultures, the fragrant rot of the jungle – and there are quite a number of memorable characters and events. I particularly liked the Tamil poisoner, and Chubb’s encounter in the deep jungle with a Malay nobleman whose household mistakes him for an evil spirit. Even when Carey isn’t at his best, he’s still pretty good.
A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan (2011) 351 p.
There’s a phrase which gets thrown around a bit in creative writing workshops or certain book reviews: “very well-written.” It sounds like a vague compliment, but it’s backhanded. “Very well-written” is a way of saying that while you might respect an author’s technical ability, neither their prose nor their narrative has stirred any feeling in you whatsoever.
A Visit From The Goon Squad is very well-written. It follows the Quirky New Yorkers model of contemporary American fiction rather than the Multi-Generational Immigrant Family Saga model, charting the lives and fates of a group of loosely connected people between the 1970s and the 2020s. In other words it feels like a fractured collection of short stories, with characters disappearing and reappearing years later, the reader never really capable of properly getting to know them. The only author I know who can successfully pull this off is David Mitchell.
There are a couple of decent chapters in here – I quite liked the one about a down-on-her-luck publicist working for an African dictator, and a second-person piece about a young gay man from the South who’s moved to New York – but for the most part I found this book predictable, cliche and forgettable. Not outright bad by any stretch, but certainly not deserving of a Pulitzer.
Mother of Eden by Chris Beckett (2015) 468 p.
Chris Beckett’s award-winning novel Dark Eden was one of the best books I read in 2013: an inventive, enthralling tale of the five hundred inbred descendants of a pair of stranded astronauts on a rogue planet drifting through space, their world an enclosed little valley of eternal night-time, bioluminescent trees and hostile alien fauna. It begins with John Redlantern questioning the stultifying rules and customs of the Family, and taking a band of followers with him out of Circle Valley and across Snowy Dark to further explore Eden; it ends with a violent schism within the Family, and Redlantern’s followers retreating into the much larger wilderness they have discovered.
As much as I liked Dark Eden, I wasn’t particularly interested when I read that Beckett had planned a trilogy. John Redlantern’s story had wrapped itself up very nicely, I thought, and I wouldn’t be interested in reading any further about him. Fortunately, Mother of Eden takes place many generations after the events of Dark Eden, with the descendants of Family having spread further across the planet, founding towns and settlements, introducing things like metalworking, currency, feudalism and slavery; a warped re-enactment of the bleak eras humanity went through on the way to civilisation. Characters from the first book – John, Jeff, Tina and David – have become legendary historical figures to the people of Eden, just as the original astronauts Tommy and Angela were to the characters in the first novel. All of this makes Eden a fascinating place to revisit.
Starlight Brooking, a young girl from an isolated fishing village, is spotted by a prince named Greenstone Johnson while on a rare trip to a bigger town. Greenstone is the great-great-grandson of John Redlantern himself, who fled with his people across the dark sea to a new land after the schism. Smitten with Starlight, Greenstone takes her as his bride, back across the sea to the grander civilisation John Redlantern founded.
And so the story follows that familiar trope, of the country kid suddenly elevated to a position of power, learning to cope with all the wheelings and dealings of political intrigue. It’s Beckett’s fantastic setting that lifts this story above its old pattern, and his thoughtful way of dealing with his themes and concepts, as the long-lost children of Eden struggle to regain some semblance of civilisation. As with Dark Eden, Beckett employs multiple first-person viewpoints, giving us insights into characters who are more complex than they might first appear.
Mother of Eden isn’t quite as subtle as its predecessor. It can feel a little on the nose sometimes – the dialogue somewhat YA, the plot somewhat forced. It’s not quite as good as the more self-contained parable story that Dark Eden was. But it’s still an enjoyable return to one of the most creative fictional worlds of the last few years, and I look forward to the third and final instalment of the trilogy.
(Sidenote: I complained in my review of Dark Eden about the publisher’s miserly decision to switch from a black cover to a white cover for future printings; since then I’ve seen the American covers, which are terrible. This is clearly just a photo of a birch forest with some colour overlays. Chris Beckett’s tremendously creative alien world deserves far better than that.)
Sourcery, by Terry Pratchett (1988) 279 p.
Discworld #5 (Rincewind #3)
I mentioned at the end of my Mort review that I had dim memories of this one. That’s not a damning indictment – I read many of these books in my early teenage years, after all, which was nearly fifteen years ago now. I also have dim memories of, say, Reaper Man and Small Gods, which are widely considered to be Discworld classics. Sourcery, unfortunately, is not.
As we learned in Equal Rites, the eighth son of an eighth son is always born a wizard. Wizards are supposed to be celibate, but in the case of an eighth son of an eighth son himself actually siring eight sons, the result is hugely dangerous: a sourcerer, a wizard of such power that he can create magic rather than simply utilising existing magic. No sourcerer has been seen on the Discworld for aeons, but now one has risen again, and hapless wizard Rincewind finds himself caught in the middle of a titanic struggle for power.
I’d honestly forgotten how much these early Discworld books focused on wizards, and how much Unseen University dominates proceedings. Pratchett would later become a much more serious writer focused on satirising ordinary human society, and so we have characters who are policemen, journalists, industrialists and conmen; even the Witches of Lancre rely more on psychology than actual magic. But Sourcery is very much a book written in the same vein as The Light Fantastic or Equal Rites: a silly story spawned by the Dungeons & Dragons mythos, with lots of stuff about wizards and their staffs and pointy hats and dripping candles and pentagrams, et cetera. It includes a female barbarian warrior who wants to be a hairdresser and the nerdy son of a grocer who wants to be a barbarian warrior. Like the first two novels in the Discworld series (like all Rincewind novels, perhaps) it feels more like a collection of gags strung together into a story rather than a properly coherent novel. The entire thread about the Archchancellor’s hat ultimately comes to nothing, and we find ourselves yet again in a confrontation with the horrible monsters from the Dungeon Dimensions – which was already the climax of both The Light Fantastic and Equal Rites.
This would all be tolerable if the book was hilarious, but most of the jokes fall disappointingly flat. I actually found myself bored while reading it. As G argues at Pratchett Job, Sourcery is the first novel in which it feels as though Pratchett is taking a step backwards, or treading water, rather than improving.
Having said all that, it’s important to note that at this early point in the series Pratchett was churning out Discworld novels at a tremendous pace, possibly because of publisher pressure after the success of The Colour of Magic. The Light Fantastic was published in ’86, Equal Rites and Mort in ’87, and Sourcery and Wyrd Sisters both came out in ’88. That’s five novels in three years, and in between the excellent Mort and Wyrd Sisters, it’s a shame to say that Sourcery feels very much like filler. It’s hard not to sense a publisher breathing down Pratchett’s neck, and an editor glancing at his watch. The result is one of the Discworld series’ weakest and most forgettable books.
A disappointing blip on the radar, of course – next up is Wyrd Sisters, where the Witches arc properly begins.
(Side note: the edition I borrowed from the library is one of the new hardcovers. I like this re-issued series very much, but I must object to the classification used. Gollancz apparently considers Sourcery part of the “Unseen University collection.” If there is such a story arc, then to my mind it doesn’t begin until Mustrum Ridcully is introduced. It’s certainly not the revolving door of unmemorable wizard characters in these early books who mostly exist to tinker with dangerous forces and get killed in horrible ways.)
Trouble With Lichen by John Wyndham (1960) 204 p.
This one’s similar to Chocky in the sense that it’s one of Wyndham’s overlooked novels, and that although my school library had both of them alongside all the rest, I never read it as a teenager. Possibly both of them failed to capture my imagination the same way as his famous four apocalyptic novels. In any case, I was wrong to avoid Chocky, which is an excellent first contact yarn, but right to avoid Trouble With Lichen, which is a flop.
The novel follows young biochemist Diana Brackley and her mentor Francis Saxover, and a discovery they make which leads to an anti-ageing serum which can extend the human lifespan to beyond two hundred years. Going their separate ways, Saxover develops his in secret and administers it to his children, while Diana – fearful that the government might attempt to outlaw it upon the discovery being made public – establishes an expensive beauty clinic for the wives and daughters of Britain’s influential powerbrokers, in the hope that they’ll exert pressure on their male counterparts when push comes to shove.
It was hard to shake the feeling that this was a sexist book – it isn’t really, but Wyndham is writing from a pre-liberation viewpoint with characters espousing various generalisations which were probably all too true at the time. (And Wyndham always had a habit of writing about the Britain of the 1950s as though it were actually the Britain of his 1920s youth.) It reminded me in that sense of The Midwich Cuckoos; it’s a sort of clueless and unwitting sexism which can mostly (but not entirely) be chalked up to its time, and Wyndham does deserve credit for writing active, intelligent female scientist characters. On the other hand, his constant mockery of various other groups he dislikes (socialists, journalists, the working class, the upper class, the Irish, etc) grew tiresome very quickly. There’s a lot less space for that sort of thing when you’re running from man-eating plants or surviving in a flooded London.
Besides all that, though, Trouble With Lichen is simply not very interesting. It takes until well past the halfway point of the novel for the plot to really get moving, and it’s far more concerned with the lives of its thin characters than the social effects of the anti-ageing serum. Wyndham is one of the century’s greatest science fiction writers, but this is a rare dud – don’t bother.