Review: Mad Hope, by Heather Birrell

>>Published: April 2012

But maybe, just maybe, Geraldine thought, there was something she could take away from all this. A piece of Jerome to put in her pocket. She wanted to find a way to tell him this, but they were locked into something now; she had to carry on. ‘But you’ll never succeed in pleasing everybody,’ she said.

‘Nah, maybe not.’ Jerome made his hand into a neat pistol and shot twice, up towards the heavens. Bam, bam.

Maybe aiming at God, maybe saluting Him.

‘But I got mad hope,’ Jerome said. ‘Mad hope.’

***

Heather Birrell’s second collection of short fiction (following 2004’s I Know You Are But What Am I?) links eleven stories through the common themes of tragedy, loss, and expectations. Beyond that, however, the stories are also linked, to a certain degree, by narrative conceits of siblings, death (usually of a parent), and children—having children, struggling to conceive, and the loss of a child, either through mistakes they’ve made (as in “Dominoes”), or something unavoidable, like a miscarriage (“No One Else Really Wants to Listen”).

Mad Hope is divided into three sections, each with its own feel. In the first part, the stories deal primarily with the communication (or perception of communication) between adults and children. The second part is unique amongst the three, in that the stories contained within this part deal exclusively with one cast of characters spread across two families, switching perspective and style in each story. Part two is more exploratory, using the linked narratives to plum the depths of anguish felt by these families in the aftermaths of two deaths. Part three is about loss—dealing with it, accepting it, and possibly even atoning for it or similar regrets from one’s past.

The second part, comprised of the stories “Dominoes,” “Bye Bye Flangle Nuts,” and “Dingbat,” is the strongest of the three, yet it feels unfortunately out of place in amongst the other, not-so intimately connected narratives. Feeling less like they are part of a collection and more as if they were meant to be part of a stand-alone novel or novella, the stories in part two distract, perhaps intentionally, by pulling in the reader with a greater and unexpected level of depth before somewhat unceremoniously abandoning the accomplished intimacy for the less emotionally invested third part.

Apart from that minor structural quibble, the stories themselves sing. Birrell is gifted with tight sense for phonetic rhythm, which she uses to great tonal effect throughout the book. From the final story of the collection, “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams:”

There’s no contesting the wisdom of children. Now, there she is, all dolled up to the nines and tens, ready to wed. And in such a place! I’m not one for religion, but still, a brewery tugs at the old constraints of credulity. And her sister Samantha, always the ornery one, scowling in the corner. Went and got herself a P-H-D and traipsed around the world. Places herself above weddings and other normal human interactions. Thinks tripping through a rice paddy in Vietnam lends her some smarts inaccessible to the likes of me and Bea.

Ignoring the section breaks and looking to the stories as individual properties, it’s natural that some would be stronger than others. In particular, “BriannaSusannaAlana,” “Geraldine and Jerome,” “Dingbat,” and “Frogs” are the strongest, most original entries in this collection, while the final two stories, “Drowning Doesn’t Look Like Drowning” and the aforementioned “Impossible to Die in Your Dreams” struggle to find their emotional beats.

Birrell’s characters are not stereotypes or archetypal extremes. The character of Thomas in “My Friend Taisie,” for example, is very human, very real as he struggles to find his footing with the adopted Anton, whose parents had recently died. Similarly, Maddie, who is at the centre of the second part’s arc, is brilliantly deadpan, but not so much as to be off-putting or unsympathetic. The ability to write realistic and compelling characters, without feeling forced to straddle needlessly absurd or melodramatic line, gives a greater weight to these stories than their occasionally repetitive subject matter demands.

Mad Hope is an exhibition of control. Birrell carefully weaves through the central themes of the book, using their commonality as a springboard rather than an anchor. More often than not, she succeeds, beautifully.

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Review: The Juliet Stories, by Carrie Snyder

>>Published: March 2012

>>Finally got around to it: April 2012

She can’t love the people in the pictures; she does not know them. She can hate and fear the men with their bayonets. She can pity the tortured. But she cannot love. It is too painful to throw love like a rescue line to humans doomed to suffer, already dead and gone. She will remember forever, and yet never well enough, never with the particularity of love: these people whom her parents have come to save from suffering, who continue to be killed, whose killing will not end the suffering of others, whose torture and murder fall like drops of rain and vanish in the punishing sun.

Words. They scrape along her skin, enter, and the wound heals instantly. She appears unhurt. She does not suffer nightmares or wake in a cold sweat or fear for her life, because she does not believe it could happen to her.

That keeps her safe: belief that she is different, her family unique, marked out for protection by their skin colour and their citizenship and, yes, by their goodness, their rightness. So much of what she believes is wrong, but if it is never proven to be wrong, how will she ever know?

***

Carrie Snyder’s The Juliet Stories follows the Friesen family’s journey from 1984 to the present day, from an unpredictable life in Nicaragua to a disjointed, directionless one in Canada. Beginning with the American involvement in Nicaragua’s post-revolutionary war, the Friesens, a family of peace activists led primarily by husband and father Bram, travel to Nicaragua to live and protest the Reagan administration’s presence. Bram, Gloria, and their three children—the titular Juliet, Keith, and infant Emmanuel—meet other activists and North American ex-pats. Friendships are made, lives changed… and lives threatened. However, Bram’s passion for activism selfishly trumps the needs of his family, and when a medical crisis threatens their equilibrium, Gloria and the children are forced to abandon Nicaragua for Canada.

Divided into two sections—the childhood-in-Nicaragua based “Amulets” and the adolescent/adulthood-in-Canada “Disruption”—The Juliet Stories is an uneven read. The two halves of the book are, sadly, not tonally cohesive. Both have their strengths: the childhood inability to perceive threats and consequences with their due gravity gives the “Amulets” section some much needed innocence; meanwhile, the more temporally expansive “Disruption” is a more emotionally exposed section that effectively builds the character of Juliet from a stark, one-dimensional child into a more fully realized personality.

However, both sections are somewhat overshadowed by their weaknesses. An artificial sense of distance invades the “Amulets” portion of the book, constantly pulling the reader away from the children, so much so that the language often feels stunted and unemotional. It’s as if this section were a nature documentary being narrated by an uninterested third party. “Disruption,” on the other hand, is more linguistically involving, though its quick leaps through time—covering a much wider breadth than her childhood in Nicaragua in “Amulets”—dampen the revelations Snyder has in store for Juliet and the rest of her family. In short, the plot components of “Amulets” outstrip its characters, while the reverse is true for “Disruption.”

Overall, The Juliet Stories, while intriguing in narrative, is unfortunately marred by an overwhelming sense of sterility. Though the writing is beautiful in fits and spurts, with little poetic asides that juxtapose the naivety of childhood and the very real threats faced by the Friesens, there’s desperately little life in these pages. Certainly not enough to make me feel as if Juliet or any member of her family were ever more than a partially realized collection of delicately written thoughts and unrealized ideals.

While by no means a “bad” book (Carrie Snyder is an intelligent wordsmith, that much is obvious), The Juliet Stories is, for me, an unfortunate failure. I felt strongly that I should care more for Juliet and her family than I did, but the at-a-distance writing and lack of personality gave me nothing to hold onto. In the end, Juliet and her family remain as distant to me as they were in the beginning.

Review: Piercing, by Ryu Murakami

>>Published (in Japanese): 1994

>>Published (in English): March 2007

>>Finally got around to it: April 2012

Ten nights ago. He was in the bathtub with the baby, having just finished washing her. He handed her over to Yoko, who was waiting with a fluffy bath towel, and then he leaned back in the tub, leaving the pebbled-glass shower door partially open. Yoko was murmuring to the baby as she dried her, and he was aware of himself smiling at them. And then, with no prelude or warning, a thought came percolating up into his brain and he felt the muscles of his cheeks twitch and freeze.

I wouldn’t ever stab that baby with an ice pick, would I?

***

Kawashima Masayuki is a successful, seemingly normal graphic designer with a loving, fantastic wife, and a newborn baby at home. At night, however, Kawashima finds himself stalking his own child, peering at her as she sleeps with an ice pick in hand and an almost overwhelming desire to use it. To ease his inner turmoil, he concocts a (relatively) simple plan: hire an lady of the evening well versed in S&M, take her to a hotel under and assumed identity, and murder her with an ice pick. Along the way, details of his past will be learned and various levels of psychosis explored.

Yup, this is that Murakami. The other one—the one who sets karaoke gangs against one another in bloody turf wars and fetishizes the slicing of Achilles tendons. Not the spaghetti-slinging, jazz loving purveyor of magical realism and cat-populated universes. This is the Murakami of Audition and Takashi Miike fame. You know, the I-hope-this-writing-calms-his-inner-demons Murakami.

Piercing is in many ways a precursor to the more well known Audition. Where Audition was about one man’s misleading quest for love and the psychopathic, dangerous woman that turns the tables on him, Piercing is about one man’s lust for murder… and the psychopathic, dangerous woman that turns the tables on him. Also, both reference Murakami’s borderline fetishistic lust for the spring-loaded slicing of the Achilles tendon. I won’t lie—it’s more than a little unnerving.

Like many of Murakami’s previous works, Piercing is a novella-length experiment—an opportunity to explore the dark and depraved depths of a singular concept, with little more than a two-dimensional idea to guide the narrative’s path. That’s not to say it’s devoid of all merit—some of Murakami’s descriptive work is suitably distressing and will linger for hours after turning the final page. However, taken as an independent study of one man’s lust for murder (and a potentially thinly veiled commentary on postpartum depression from the perspective of the Y chromosome) it leaves something to be desired.

Had I come to this title before Audition I might have felt more of its impact. As it stands, Piercing feels more like a blueprint of an idea later executed upon in full. In the end, it lacks the tension and fear that might have been found through more in-depth character development.

Review: Lost Everything, by Brian Francis Slattery

>>Published: April 2012

The war, the war. There was no Fort Sumter, no Pearl Harbor, no moment that we all understood at once that we were fighting. No one to tell us things had changed. There must have been a first shot fired, perhaps two men—it must have been men—arguing over where one’s land began and another’s ended, a first bullet flinging a ribbon of heat through the air. Another one shot back. But I have to believe they did not know what they were starting. If they knew, why would they have shot? An army was raised, a resistance arose. By the time Charlotte, North Carolina burned, nobody was asking what it was about anymore. It was about territory. It was about food and water: who had it, who did not. The old fights, the ones we had fought since we got here, the ones our ancestors brought with them when they came here, all those bitter old things becoming new again. it was about how much we had done to the planet, and the way the planet, at last, had turned its great eye to us in anger. You have done enough. The war was about everything, it was everything, and the question of where it came from was meaningless. There was only the question of how to live through it.

***

A little bit of McCarthy’s The Road married to the Ship of Lost Souls segment from the “Kidney Trouble” episode of The Simpsons, Brian Francis Slattery’s Lost Everything is a soft-focus post-apocalyptic journey north through the Susquehanna River and a war- and nature-ravaged vision of America. Focusing on the relationship between Reverend Bauxite and Sunny Jim, who seeks only to be reunited with his lost son Aaron, Lost Everything is, given its subject matter, a surprisingly quiet, introspective tale detailing less the actions that led to America’s downfall, and more the prevailing moods—anger, resentment, suspicion—that have since dominated.

Alluding only to a far-reaching, almost faction-less war, and an accompanying onslaught of vicious end-of-the-world-style storms, Lost Everything offers more melancholy and ambiance than plot, and it is stronger for it. The Carthage, the ship that ferries its wayward crew and passengers north, is the most identifiable protagonist—a skeletal, almost Galactica-esque vessel whose time and purpose is limited in a world no longer certain to survive beyond the end of the week, let alone years and decades into the future. The vessel-as-purgatory conceit is nothing particularly new, but it offers Slattery, via an unnamed omniscient narrator who doubles as a chronicling spirit of sorts, the opportunity to open windows into the destruction of his America via small, intimate pockets of death and misery. At times the book feels like a series of side stories to larger narratives, as if their journey north is taking the multitude of lost individuals aboard the Carthage through the tales of families and lives not covered in the main stories of The Road, or The Hunger Games.

Though Slattery’s lack of detail and concrete explanations may frustrate some, I found this restraint incredibly effective at conveying and sustaining an overwhelming and realistic sense of unease. The factions in his war and what they do or do not stand for are irrelevant; the nature of the storms on continuous deadly approach—be they biblical in origin or the result of severe nuclear fallout—does not matter. It is the never-ending sense of conflict and the strength by which the various external crises mirror the internal demons of the Carthage’s passengers and crew that gives Lost Everything its due gravitas.

I was surprised at how drawn in I was by the end of this book. On paper, it’s presented as a rather conventional post-apocalyptic narrative. However, Slattery’s employment of subtlety and restraint prevents Lost Everything from being boiled down to its barest essentials. Highly recommended.

Review: Briarpatch, by Tim Pratt

>>Published: September 2011

>>Finally got around to it: March 2012

“Oh, hell,” Arturo said softly. “This is all new to you? I thought you were, you know, a seasoned traveler, that you just stumbled onto the wrong path. But, what, today, this is your first time in the briarpatch?”

“The briarpatch,” Darrin repeated. “You said that before.”

Arturo nodded. “It’s what some people call, ah, the place, or the whole combination of places, the paths and roads and bridges some people can reach from this world. I dunno what it really is. I’ve heard some people say it’s God’s maintenance tunnels, or worlds that got half-built and then abandoned, or worlds that might have happened, if things had been a little bit different.” He glanced at the bartender. “Or, you know, a lot different. Some places in the briarpatch don’t last long, and those are the weirdest places, the ones that aren’t very plausible at all, and I’ve seen some demented shit, lemme tell you, but lots of paths are stable. You can use them to get from one place to another in this world, there are some great shortcuts, but that’s not all. The briarpatch… there are secrets in there, if you can get in deep enough to find them. Wonderful stuff. Dangerous stuff. But, shit, it’s big, and hard to navigate.” Arturo went silent, tipping his half-empty pint glass from side to side, watching the beer move around inside. Long speeches didn’t seem to suit him.

***

Ismael Plenty, the Jim Jones/David Koresh stand-in for Tim Pratt’s Briarpatch, is as charismatic and effortlessly convincing as any would-be saviour with a God complex. Two items, however, separate our future poison-spiked Kool-Aid dispenser from his thankfully deceased contemporaries: Ismael actually is immortal, and in no way does he believe suicide will open the door to your salvation. His salvation, yes. Maybe yours, if you’re lucky, but when all is said and done, that is of little concern to Ismael.

As a child of the briarpatch—an indefinable, surreal desert hidden between the lines of our world, the real world—Ismael has seen and suffered enough to want to shake the bonds of his immortal life and travel to the light of paradise that lies beyond. But he cannot make his escape without help, without being guided to the bridge that will take him to the light and whatever is or isn’t on the other side. To this end, he needs the faithful and despondent, those primed for suicide, to help him find his way.

As the primary antagonist of Briarpatch, Ismael is a compellingly selfish son of a bitch whose desire to abandon an immortal life trumps the lives of all those he hurts along the way—including our hero, Darrin, and his girlfriend-of-a-time, Bridget. Always seeking new and exciting experiences, Bridget is won over by Ismael’s promises of salvation. Upon showing her the briarpatch, the mystical realm that runs beneath the surface of the real world, he convinces Bridget to take her own life, to remove all ties to her current reality in an attempt to cross over into the great fuzzy white light of happiness. Through several chance encounters that follow Bridget’s demise, Darrin is pulled deeper and deeper into a darkness he can’t escape as he seeks to discover the nature of his former love’s suicidal actions, and to confront Ismael in the process.

Briarpatch’s take on urban fantasy is refreshing, and succeeds more often than not. With the suicide-as-salvation concept at its heart, the narrative is darker than most, but not overwhelmingly so. The character of Ismael, while interesting in his mannerisms, is somewhat smothered in the end by his overall ambition, which, when boiled down to its essentials, is little more than that of a disgruntled zealot with a death wish of his own. Fortunately, the remaining cast—Darrin, Bridget, Orville, Arturo, the delightfully psychopathic Echo, the conniving, spineless Nicholas, and the silent but continuously intriguing Wendigo (a sentient beast of a car)—makes up for Ismael’s surprising simplicity.

The briarpatch itself is an interesting concept, though at times feels a little closely cribbed from the city-as-God of Clive Barker’s Imajica. With this concept at the core of the story, it’s unfortunate that the novel itself—barely 250 pages—is so bereft of detail. Ismael and Darrin’s conflict is fairly straightforward, but the briarpatch and everything that surrounds it is less than cohesive. Feeling more like a string of concepts thrown together than a living, breathing idea of a world with a pulse of its own, Briarpatch’s tallest hurdles come with its seemingly random nature and abundance of coincidences. Nowhere is this more prominent than a late-in-the-book meeting in which two characters remark on how utterly and unrealistically coincidental their meeting is. It’s as if Obi-Wan turned to Luke one day and said, “Wow, it’s pretty incredible that we have this entire galaxy in which everyone seems to somehow run into everyone else. I mean did you know Boba Fett was even involved in the Clone Wars? Dude was a kid, but still, he was there. Oh, and your dad built C-3P0. Wild, right?” It’s difficult not to see where the book was unfortunately cut short—where months will pass over pages, sacrificing so much world building that I wish had taken place in lieu of simple passages that round up what was covered in the same span of time. It’s as if we’re being given a set of Cliff Notes to catch us up on the world’s history before steamrolling into the final conflict.

I don’t wish to be too negative, however, because problems with the book’s final third aside, I still powered through to the end and enjoyed myself thoroughly. Had certain things been expanded upon—like the Wendigo and the nature of the briarpatch itself—this book might have been something truly special. As it stands, Briarpatch is urban fantasy-light that, through the strength of its core ideas, adds up to being a bit more than the sum of its parts. Given another stab at this universe, I’d love to see what Pratt could come up with. Briarpatch is potentially an interesting blueprint, though a great deal of detail and fleshing out is still needed.