Review: Under the Poppy, by Kathe Koja

41punffajIL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: October 2010

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

If only she were Istvan’s true apprentice! or even Puggy’s, she could do a better job with the stagecraft than Jonathan, as willing as he is to fetch and build, he has no eye for it; he is an ear…. The idea makes her grin. Jonathan the ear of the Poppy, yes, as Puggy is the hands, as Omar is the fist, as Velma is the cooking pot. As Decca is the purse, as she and Laddie and the girls are, what, the holes…. And Mr. Rupert is the mind. An anxious mind, truly, see those furrows dug between his brows, even worse since Istvan came—and yet he is far more alive, now, his movements swifter, his eyes troubled and alight. Those two strike sparks from one another, anyone who looks can see that—

—though Decca is quick to deny it, quick and fierce and perhaps she, Lucy, ought not have said what she said yesterday, though everyone has a snapping point and the Lord knows Decca has trod hers times past counting. But still… She and Velma and Vera in the downstairs kitchen, sifting through the daily oatmeal for weevils, Vera complaining about the soldiers, they are too rough, too quick, not quick enough—until Decca, counting coal, flew down her throat: You’ll take what walks through the door and there’s an end to it! Or try your chances on the road! Vera crumpled into silence, Lucy flicked a weevil to the floor and, consolingly, Oh the road’s not so bad, with an eye to Decca, Mr. Istvan’s told me all about it. May be he’s on his way soon anyway, and he’ll take you along if you ask him nice.

***

Set in 1870s Brussels, right around the time of the Franco-Prussian war, Kathe Koja’s Under the Poppy is like an amorphous trip through time, politics, and the bed sheets of its many characters. It’s lyrical, at times stunningly beautiful, and only occasionally baffling—but not for reasons of narrative inconsistencies or decisions made within the confines of its story.

The titular Under the Poppy is a popular and somewhat successful brothel owned by Decca and Rupert. The two present themselves as siblings, though in reality Decca is very much in love with Rupert. Rupert’s love, however, is Decca’s true brother, Istvan, a man whose myriad names are matched only by his talents as a puppeteer. When Istvan rolls into town with his puppets—mecs, as they are called—his arrival sets off a chain of events that threaten to upset the Poppy’s station as a fulcrum around which soldiers and the slow start of war revolve. And as old loves are rekindled—and the potential for others outright extinguished—both Istvan and Rupert find they are at great risk of being used by those more powerful and affluent than they.

As admitted near the start of this review, I found myself at times confounded by the goings-on in Koja’s narrative. This was not, as I mentioned, due to problems with the plot, or even with the many relationships and dalliances that sometimes seemed to erupt from nothing more than a flirtatious glance. No, my confusion had to do specifically with Koja’s writing style, which can best be described as “labyrinthine.”

Make no mistake, Under the Poppy is gorgeously written, and there were moments where I felt utterly swept up in the effortlessness with which this world exists. However, the very precise rhythm and flow that Koja has crafted (which can be seen, to some small extent, in the section quoted at the start of this review), wherein multiple characters speak without paragraph or even sentence breaks, having entire conversations without ever breaking stride, has a tendency to overwhelm, sometimes requiring the re-reading of certain scenes. It’s a little like strolling through a hedge maze and being struck by the quality of the trim and the density of the growth, but finding oneself entirely lost as to one’s position within the whole, or even how much time has passed. As a result, while I adored my time with the book, its technical merits to some extent overshadowed its characters, whose moment-to-moment machinations I felt only partially invested in, and as such they seemed more loosely drawn than I’d have liked—products of style over substance.

There were some additional, smaller technical aspects that I found lessened my experience to some degree, such as the flagrant overuse of EM-dashes when segueing from paragraph to paragraph. It builds a certain amount of almost filmic tension, causing things to flow together almost without breaking thought, but after a while the tactic felt diluted, losing its impact as a result of simply being used too often.

But if I were to point a finger to my single largest complaint, it would be in how the novel jettisons the Poppy in its second half. Presented merely as a structure in which the characters all congregated, the brothel itself was in actuality a character, and a strong one, too, filled with a colour all its own. When in the second half of the book the narrative splinters to follow the lives of Lucy, Istvan, and Rupert, it loses some of what made it so compelling in the first place. And while the change in scenery is necessary for the aforementioned characters to grow, the Poppy’s loss—and the absence of Decca as well, a force in her own right—was most certainly felt.

In the second half, though, the character of Lucy grows considerably, becoming one of the standouts of the entire narrative. While in Istvan Decca saw trouble, and Rupert conflict (both internal and external), Lucy saw providence, opportunity to learn and become more than she was under the Poppy’s influence, and under Decca’s watchful eye.

And while the love triangle between Benjamin, Istvan, and Rupert never totally landed for me (because Benjamin was such a pale, almost two-dimensional character when compared to Istvan), I appreciated the organic manner in which Istvan and Rupert were once more brought together in the end. It was, however, appreciably simplistic when drawn against the love pentagon of the novel’s first half, with Decca being in love with Rupert, Rupert with Istvan, Istvan with his mecs, and Lucy with both Istvan and his puppets—and the possibilities represented therein.

For one reason or another I don’t tend to devote that much time to historical fiction. However, Under the Poppy was, from beginning to end, an enticing, incredibly well composed and enjoyable read, even if at times I felt as if I needed a road map through its characters’ individual plots, betrayals, and objects of affection. Truthfully, I don’t know if the strength of the narrative alone would be enough for me to recommend this book, but Koja’s writing is an experience in and of itself, and is certainly worth the price of admission. It elevates as it confounds.

Review: Music for Love or War, by Martyn Burke

9781770864283>>Published: April 2015

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

At the top are those guys who are practically shrink-wrapped in the flag. They get it! And no matter how hard I try to be like them, I never get there. Cast from some alloy of history and patriotism, they know exactly why they’re risking the package. They’re the guys who look you right in the eye as they coat you with a thick layer of geopolitical goo beginning with September 11 and working back to some wormhole in your convictions as they remind you how you’d damn well better atone by charging into the great machine gun of history. These guys never blink. I envy them. I love having them in my platoon. But I sure as hell won’t be hanging out with them telling war stories years from now.

In the vast middle are the guys who are over here because they can’t stand mortgage payments, PTA meetings, malls, marriage counseling, plumbing courses, and all the other avatars of two thousand years of testosterone drilled into a single drop of present-day ambivalence. Over here in the war, that one little drop gets re-distilled into a hundred-proof buzz that comes out shooting flames. These guys cling to war because they’ve peered into the abyss and seen themselves punching a time clock for the rest of their lives.

And then there’s me and Danny. I now know it was no accident we found each other in this maelstrom.

Right from the moment he asked about us being in the same unit with the psychic I knew each of us was there because of a woman.

***

I can’t think of another book that goes to war with Liberace as both good luck charm and weapon. This is to author Martyn Burke’s credit: through a psychic, identical twin Playboy Bunnies, a divergence into madcap Hollywood insanity, and the aforementioned man for whom no fashion cow was sacred enough, Music for Love or War manages to effortlessly sidestep predictability in a war-based narrative.

The story follows two men: Hank and Danny. Hank is a Californian; Danny is from Toronto. Besides enlisting to fight in post-9/11 Afghanistan, the two men share a unique bond: the women they love have been taken from them. In Hank’s case, it’s Annie Boo—Ann Boudreau—who along with her sister Susan jumped/fell into the fame spiral, becoming two of Hugh Hefner’s Playboy harem.

Danny’s story of love and loss, meanwhile, is quite different and far more tragic. Ariana, the woman he fell in love with when they were just teenagers, is the daughter of a man named Sayyid Shah, who we learn (through Ariana’s brother Omar) managed funds for bin Laden in the years preceding the 9/11 attacks. As we experience more of Danny and Ariana’s story, which is interspersed with Hank’s, it becomes clear that not only is their love illicit—were Sayyid to find out there would be no end to the hell Ariana would pay—but it was, from minute one, destined to end badly. And so it does when, years after they first met, became friends, and subsequently lost contact, Omar, having imbibed in his father’s Kool-Aid, sold his sister to an Afghani warlord named Zadran for weapons, ammunition, and fake passports.

So what are two lovelorn souls to do when faced with such loneliness? Enlist, naturally. Except their reasons for doing so were very different from one another: while Hank enlisted to escape the twenty-four-hour “paparasshole” news cycle guaranteed to splash images and video Annie and her sister and their very old and very creepy lover across every magazine and website available, Danny enlisted for the noble purpose of finding Ariana and bringing her home again. As such, while Hank is the voice through which we view the narrative as it unfolds in the present, it’s Danny who gives this book its heart.

There’s a lot to love in Music for Love or War. Split between time periods and locations—Hollywood, Toronto, and “The Mountains,” referring to the mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan—the narrative moves at a brisk clip. The connection between the two men is also well realized, with Hank, either directly or indirectly, assuming the role of Danny’s protector. And while Danny’s unwavering conviction is in stark contrast to Hank, whose personality errs a little more on the practical side of things, one never gets the sense that Hank looks down on or dismisses Danny’s belief in what he’s doing. If anything, it feels sometimes like Hank envies what he sees as Danny’s drive and sense of nobility.

While I felt deeply invested in Danny’s story, I can’t quite say the same for Hank’s, or for that matter the subplot involving the psychic Constance Amonte, who both men lean on for advice on how to handle their troubled love lives. Initially I was intrigued by the Hollywood side of things and all its accompanying craziness; however, the section of the book that takes place in Hollywood, about two-thirds of the way through (the longest section, incidentally), feels as if it was pulled from a different story altogether, with its ridiculous pace of events and equally ridiculous and over-the-top personalities. I’m not saying the sorts of people and situations depicted don’t exist, because they most certainly do, only that the section seemed to diverge enough from the more compelling narrative—Danny’s quest to save Ariana—to be distracting. It was kind of like the bureaucracy scene in Jupiter Ascending, which felt less like something directed by the Wachowski siblings and more like a scene from a lost Terry Gilliam film. It wasn’t bad; it just didn’t fit.

Actually that ludicrous scene was the best part of that film, but I digress.

Overall, I quite enjoyed my time with Music for Love or War. Burke’s narrative has a lot of heart to it, and Danny and Ariana’s troubled history felt real—lived in. I almost wish the book had been only their story. That’s not to say Hank’s had no merit, as he is I think a necessary counterpoint for Danny. But when all was said and done, it was Ariana and Danny, and to a lesser extent Omar, who made this story sing.

Review: Bald New World, by Peter Tieryas Liu

18760990>>Published: May 2014

>>Finally got around to it: July 2015

I don’t want to blame everything bad that happened on the Great Baldification as it came to be known. But it was the beginning of a lot of social change in the world. Marriages broke up at ten times the normal rate and my parents ended up getting divorced two months after the Baldification. Maybe it was strain from endless fights or that they never liked each other much to begin with. I never heard from my biological father after the divorce. My biological mother dropped me off permanently with Cousin Baochai so that she could pursue her dream of being a travel blogger. My sister, Kelly, going against the trend, married her rap star wanna-be boyfriend and I rarely saw her again after that.

Our economy regressed from disastrous to beyond redemption. Accelerated resource depletion forced countries into a war over Africa even though we were technically all part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force. Unemployment rates were at 56% in the States (though official reports had it at 5.5%), so soldiering was the only chance for a career most of our generation had. I signed up for the army and was assigned to the media department because of my passions for cameras despite all the combat training they gave me.

***

With a title that evokes Huxley’s science fiction classic, Liu’s debut novel Bald New World is aiming for a high bar right out of the gate. Whether it comes close to that bar or sails painfully under will depend largely on one’s own tastes and whether or not you like to have your stories told to you from a distance, or whether you prefer to actually feel involved in the narrative. Personally, this book didn’t even get off the ground before tripping over its feet and crashing face-first into the dirt. But let’s try and pull this apart anyway.

The story follows Nicholas Guan, a thirty-six-year-old Chinese-Korean man raised in the United States, whose job is “photographing—or beautifying—baldness.” As we meet Nicholas, it was been twenty-five years since the Great Baldification—when one night, as if an intervention from God itself, every man, woman, and child on the planet lost their hair. And not only did they lose their hair, but no new hair is grown, either. It’s a little like Children of Men in that the explanation as to why or how this has happened runs a distant second to simply examining the ways in which this event changed and continues to change the world, creating new industries, indeed new dynasties out of the world’s largest wig manufacturers. Because hair, naturally, has become one of society’s greatest luxuries.

Nicholas’s best friend is Larry Chao. As the owner of one such wig manufacturer, Larry is one of the wealthiest men in the world. And how does he spend his money and free time? Making “pointless movies throughout China about tragically dumb characters” with his good pal Nicholas. But when Larry is killed one night, Nicholas is forced down a dark path, along which he will discover what makes his hairless world tick.

Conceptually, this sounds right up my alley; taken as just its jacket copy, Bald New World sounds both engaging and unique. Its problems rest not with ideas, however, but with how they’re executed. At the top level, this book suffers from one of my largest pet peeves—it tells you its world rather than showing it. We’re given snippets of content here or there, like how it’s too dangerous to even go outside in Los Angeles without wearing body armour, but at no point do we really experience this ourselves. We’re told about how fish used to be fresh as if it’s a recent news article rather than just discussing the state of farm-raised fish. We’re given details about the shit world economy, but never does it feel like an impediment to Nicholas or anyone around him. These are but small examples; however, there are enough throughout the novel that I finished with the feeling that I’d been given an outline for a world, filled with some fairly interesting ideas, but had them dictated to me point-form rather than actually experiencing them as just another element existing within the author’s creation.

Shit, I think Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha has spoiled me forever on this. It’s not enough for me now to be told of a world; I need to experience it, to feel as if my characters are experiencing it as well, and not standing there remarking on it as if to a tourist accompanying them on their journey. Otherwise, the world isn’t a world; it’s an academic exercise.

The novel suffers equally from a narrative standpoint. Its chapters feel strung together with bland prose like an exquisite corpse of literary prompts—from filmmaking to North Korean spies to religious extremism and captivity and mind-control cricket fights. In short, there’s no real through-line to anything that happens in Liu’s narrative. On some level there’s an examination going on of shifting beauty standards and the world evolving around them, but without interesting characters with adequate depth/growth—of which there isn’t much—its overarching thesis falls flat.

I did appreciate some of the smaller aesthetic elements throughout, such as how video game music is treated as a mainstream pleasure and not merely an affectation of a small subculture, but in general I found Bald New World to be an unsatisfying slog that took me far longer to read than it should have. A lot happens on a conceptual level, but none of it sticks—there’s nothing human anchoring the characters or whatever ideology the author hoped to instil. In the end, I’m left thinking this would have made a fantastic short story, but there just isn’t enough content here to satisfy.