2016: Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

1. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
2. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Broken Kingdoms – N.K. Jemisin
3. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Kingdom of Gods – N.K. Jemisin
4. The Inheritance Trilogy: The Awakened Kingdom – N.K. Jemisin
5. The Society of Experience – Matt Cahill
6. The Argonauts – Maggie Nelson
7. Generation Loss – Elizabeth Hand
8. Available Dark – Elizabeth Hand
9. Widow Basquiat – Jennifer Clement
10. On the Shores of Darkness, There is Light – Cordelia Strube
11. Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture—and What We Can Do About It – Kate Harding
12. The Passion According to G.H. – Clarice Lispector
13. The Monstrous – Ellen Datlow (ed.)
14. The Mercy Journals – Claudia Casper
15. Blame – Trevor Davison (unpublished manuscript)
16. White is for Witching – Helen Oyeyemi
17. Straight to the Head – Fraser Nixon
18. God in Pink – Hasan Namir
19. Practical Jean – Trevor Cole
20. The Angels of Our Better Beasts – Jerome Stueart (unpublished manuscript)
21. City of the Lost – Kelley Armstrong
22. Citizen: An American Lyric – Claudia Rankine
23. Binti – Nnedi Okorafor
24. Job Shadowing – Malcolm Sutton
25. Bad Things Happen – Kris Bertin
26. The Horrors – Charles Demers
27. Boy, Snow, Bird – Helen Oyeyemi
28. Blackass – A. Igoni Barrett
29. What is Not Yours is Not Yours – Helen Oyeyemi
30. We Should All Be Feminists – Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
31. The Extra Cadaver Murder – Roy Innes (unpublished manuscript)
32. Silver Screen Fiend – Patton Oswalt
33. The Heartbeat Harvest – Mark Jaskowski (unpublished manuscript/re-read)
34. The End of Memory: A Natural History of Aging and Alzheimer’s – Jay Ingram
35. Good Omens – Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman
36. Black Moon – Kenneth Calhoun
37. It’s An Honest Ghost – John Goldbach
38. Weekend – Jane Eaton Hamilton
39. And Again – Jessica Chiarella
40. Even This Page is White – Vivek Shraya
41. The Opposite House – Helen Oyeyemi
42. Leak – Kate Hargreaves
43. I’m Not Scared of You or Anything – Jon Paul Fiorentino
44. Heart-Shaped Box – Joe Hill
45. Somewhere a Long and Happy Life Probably Awaits You – Jill Sexsmith
46. Pedal – Chelsea Rooney
47. North American Lake Monsters – Nathan Ballingrud
48. Rockets Versus Gravity – Richard Scarsbrook
49. Lexicon – Max Barry
50. Untitled/Life Story – Jenna Avery (unpublished manuscript)
51. I’m Thinking of Ending Things – Iain Reid
52. The Conjoined – Jen Sookfong Lee
53. The Sandman: Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman
54. The Sandman: The Doll’s House – Neil Gaiman
55. The Sandman: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman
56. The Sandman: Season of Mists – Neil Gaiman
57. The Sandman: A Game of You – Neil Gaiman
58. The Sandman: Fables and Reflections – Neil Gaiman
59. The Sandman: Brief Lives – Neil Gaiman
60. The Sandman: Worlds’ End – Neil Gaiman
61. The Sandman: The Kindly Ones – Neil Gaiman
62. The Sandman: The Wake – Neil Gaiman
63. The Sandman: Endless Nights – Neil Gaiman
64. The Sandman: The Dream Hunters – Neil Gaiman
63. The Sandman: Overture – Neil Gaiman
64. The Humanity of Monsters – Michael Matheson, ed.
65. Hair Side, Flesh Side – Helen Marshall
66. Lines of Flight: An Atomic Memoir – Julie Salverson
67. Evenings & Weekends – Andrew Baulcomb
68. The Ballad of Black Tom – Victor Lavalle
69. The Dark Tower I: The Gunslinger – Stephen King
70. Lagoon – Nnedi Okorafor
71. Three Years With the Rat – Jay Hosking
72. Testament – Vickie Gendreau
73. I, Death – Mark Leslie
74. This Census-Taker – China Miéville
75. The Last Days of New Paris – China Miéville
76. You Are Having a Good Time – Amie Barrodale
77. Guy – Jowita Bydlowska
78. White Teeth – Zadie Smith
79. Gutshot – Amelia Gray
80. Tokyo Decadence – Ryu Murakami
81. Three Moments of an Explosion – China Miéville
82. Shadow of the Colossus – Nick Sutner
83. Chrono Trigger – Michael P. Williams
84. The Dilettantes – Michael Hingston
85. Death Valley – Susan Perly
86. Survivor’s Club – Lauren Beukes
87. Bottle Rocket Hearts – Zoe Whittall
88. Border Markers – Jenny Ferguson
89. Anne & Kit/Untitled Manuscript – Michael Matheson (Unpublished Manuscript)
90. The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
91. Mad Cow – Alexis Kienlen (Unpublished Manuscript)
92. A Head Full of Ghosts – Paul Tremblay
93. Two Brothers – Fábio Moon and Gabriel Bá
94. Becoming Unbecoming – Una
95. The Best Kind of People – Zoe Whittall
96. Stories of Your Life and Other Stories – Ted Chiang
97. You Can’t Touch My Hair and Other Things I Still Have to Explain – Phoebe Robinson
98. Those Who Make Us: Canadian Creature, Myth, and Monster Stories – Kelsi Morris and Kaitlin Tremblay
99. Everything Belongs to the Future – Laurie Penny
100. Pacn Heat – Terri Favro and A.G. Pasquella
101. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness – Michelle Alexander
102. Downwind, Alice – C.C. Adams (unpublished manuscript)
103. Five Roses – Alice Zorn
104. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Parts I and II – J.K. Rowling, John Tiffany, Jack Thorne
105. The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality – Julie Sondra Decker
106. Ancillary Justice – Ann Leckie

Review: Moving Parts, by Lana Pesch

Book-Cover-Moving-Parts_large>>Published: October 2015

>>Finally got around to it: December 2015

They had discussed it for weeks, maybe even months—the insanity and illegality of the plan, the explanation, the cops, the evidence. The reasons not to do it. The pact. Cody kept saying over and over how he couldn’t live with himself anymore. He was done. The guilt about Joseph, his heartbreak over Astrid, the shame he woke up with every day. Hardly a breeze on the lake. The boat was barely moving, only a slight rocking on the water. He tied Cody’s hands and feet together like a calf’s at a rodeo. He should have gone to Canadian Tire and got new twine. The rope was bristly against his hands as he wove figure eights in and out of Cody’s legs, each end secured with a sailor’s knot.

“You’re a good—”

In one motion, Brent stuffed a sport sock deep into Cody’s mouth and straddled him. Cody’s eyes widened. Brent placed his thumbs together just below Cody’s Adam’s apple. Cody’s eyes closed. His lashes were long, like a girl’s, against his tanned face. His black hair was windswept and messy from driving with the windows down. Brent gripped his best friend’s neck like it was any other thing: a basketball, a can of paint, a plastic patio chair. He positioned his hands as if he was about to pop a cork and pressed his fingers against Cody’s throat. Not even a groan from behind the sock. The boat floated in the current’s natural flow. The sunlight glinted on the surface of the water and looked like a bag of new screws scattered over concrete. It was like some kind of backwards ritual. The opposite of baptism. Brent applied pressure, and Cody wriggled his feet at the bottom of the boat. He pressed harder. A breeze wafted through the birches as if to say, watching, watching.

***

Comprised of nine stories, Lana Pesch’s first collection of short fiction is a character-centric exploration of individuals at or near crossroads of one sort or another. For the most part these forks are emotionally driven, as people embark on new relationships or jettison old ones for the promise, or even the mere possibility, of something better. In a few of the stories, paths diverge in less obvious ways: a person re-examines what they thought they knew about themselves via the criminal actions of a childhood friend; a nephew is forced to accept the inevitable passing of a loved one as he navigates the schism between his mother and a medical specialist; and one young man has to figure out for himself what “brotherhood” truly means, and to decide whether or not to cross certain ethical boundaries as a result.

The opening story, “Moving Parts,” introduces us to Edie and Ditch, who catch sight of one another in the cashier’s line at a No Frills. Ditch proceeds to follow Edie to her car in order to ask her out. And while he’s the sort of person whose train of thought travels down the darker side of things, Edie’s narrative spirals into future possibilities of what their lives together might entail, should they hit it off. It’s a sweet if simple opener about expectations, fears, and the reality in taking a chance.

In “Deffer’s Last Dance,” a young financial mind’s uncle suffers a stroke. The narrative follows the main character through the crucial first forty-eight hours, which will determine whether or not his uncle lives, and what type of existence might follow. To help navigate this difficult time, the uncouth corpse of a homeless man befriends the distraught nephew and attempts to impart upon him a certain degree of afterlife wisdom.

“Brotherhood,” the strongest story in the collection, is a dark tale of childhood friends and the lengths one considers in order to honour a pact made years prior. The narrative follows Brent and Cody, two young men whose lives have remained somewhat intertwined all the way into adulthood. But Cody harbours many dark secrets, including an extraordinarily diminished sense of self and years of stockpiled guilt for the unintentional death of his younger brother. When Cody calls on Brent to obey the letter of their pact, if not the law, the resulting actions threaten to destroy whatever equilibrium exists in their lives, and the lives of their loved ones. It’s intimate and effective storytelling.

An interesting pairing with “Brotherhood,” “Natural Life” explores to striking effect the divergences in childhood friendships as one young woman working for a Fifth Estate-style documentary series travels south to visit a former friend whom she’d not seen in years, imprisoned now for her participation in the murder of an elderly woman during the attempted theft of a mobile home. While “Brotherhood” explored this sort of break in understanding from an immediately personal point of view, in “Natural Life” there already exists such a divide, and it’s the main character’s goal to understand its development, and to marry the memory of the child she knew with the criminal now sitting in front of her. While I prefer the narrative in “Brotherhood,” the writing in “Natural Life” is among the strongest in the collection, as Pesch delicately constructs the language of a woman experiencing an apparent lack of “self” and consequence, straddling the line of psychopathy.

One of my favourite moments in the entire collection, however, comes from a good but not especially great story. “Chewing Slower is a Sign of Mindfulness” follows a middle-aged woman on a bus trip from Kingston to Toronto as she reflects on her third failed marriage. Near the story’s end, she is out walking a dog to whom she is able to say everything she only wishes she could say to her destructive soon-to-be-ex-husband. And of course, the dog reacts adorably, as a dog would when addressed enthusiastically. It’s a small moment, but a very human one… despite one half of the conversation being canine. The emotional disarmament works exceedingly well.

But not every story in the collection is as strong as the entries already mentioned. “Habits of Creatures,” a series of vignettes coalescing around a Thanksgiving dinner during which a husband announces he’s leaving his wife for another man, is entertaining but light on character depth. Similarly, “The Rogues and Scoundrels Among Us,” a story masquerading as a letter of complaint about a company’s shoddy, brutally painful waxing strips, has a lot of fun with its premise but in the end offers little in the way of an emotional core.

It’s only the final two stories, though—“Faster Miles an Hour” and “Landing Area”—where I found myself rather disinterested in and detached from the narratives being told. The latter follows two women, an artist and a pilot, brought together after the pilot crashes her plane in the woods. The former… well I couldn’t tell you about that story if I had to as, truthfully, it simply didn’t resonate with me on any level.

If I had one additional complaint to lodge against this collection, it would be with the interior voice of the nephew at the centre of “Deffer’s Last Dance.” To be frank, much as I enjoyed the story for it’s slight supernatural twist, its tone was entirely off-putting. I’m speaking specifically about the nephew’s thoughts as he, while hearing about his uncle’s condition from a medical specialist, is also thinking rather extensively about his inappropriately timed hard-ons, not to mention what he’d like to do to the medical specialist currently discussing his uncle’s lack of options. Maybe it’s just me, but this all felt very out of place and inauthentic—it read as if written by someone imagining how a man must think based on the loosest and most stereotypical of ideas, and as a result almost destroyed my interest in said narrative. It was by the strength of its larger plot and character work that the story did not buckle beneath this unfortunate misstep in tone.

Despite the aforementioned issues and misgivings, I want to be clear that I thoroughly enjoyed this collection—enough that I read it in a single sitting. Pesch’s work isn’t especially flavourful or image heavy, but her command of character and voice is (mostly) quite strong. This is an enjoyable if not exceptional collection of work and I’d be curious to see what she does next.

Review: Pétronille, by Amélie Nothomb

41FbTBKmfZL._SX316_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: October 2015

>>Finally got around to it: November 2015

And that evening, when she informed me that she was going to be doing a signing in a prestigious Parisian bookstore, and I congratulated her, I saw her begin to fume with anger. I tried to get to the bottom of it. Out it came:

“Those bourgeois booksellers ought to be paying the writers who come and waste two hours of their life signing books for them!”

“Now now, Pétronille, what are you on about? Booksellers already have a hard enough time as it is making ends meet. As far as a bookseller is concerned, they’re taking a risk, inviting an author to sign at their store, but for the author, it’s a gift!”

“You really buy all that, don’t you? You’re so naïve! I maintain that all work deserves a salary. To do a book signing without being paid puts you in a precarious situation.”

I was speechless.

“Hey, the tide’s gone out,” she complained, handing me her empty champagne flute.

“We’ve drunk the entire bottle.”

“So let’s kill another one.”

“No, I think we’ll leave it there.”

I had noticed that the more she drank the more she ventured into the far left of the left.

“What, only one bottle? You, Amélie Nothomb, with your apartment bubbling over with champagne? It’s obscene! It’s disgusting. It’s…”

“Making things precarious?” I suggested.

“Exactly.”

***

In late 1997, thirty-year-old rising literary star Amélie Nothomb moves to Paris. While there, she embarks on a search for a drinking companion—not just any old lover of liquor, however; Nothomb is in search of a partner whose adoration for champagne, specifically, matches her own. Hers is a love unbridled by proper etiquette or thoughts of what goes best with what—an obsession for the drink itself, no matter its source or vintage. To this end, she meets at one of her book signings a young woman named Pétronille Fanto. The two had been corresponding for some time—Pétronille is an academic and literary hopeful who has admired Nothomb’s career from afar. Upon meeting for the first time, Nothomb is immediately taken by the young, somewhat androgynous fan and invites her to join her in imbibing. Thus, a friendship is born.

Nothomb and Fanto’s relationship, however, is unconventional and segmented by large gaps of time and stark ideological differences—some rooted in politics (Nothomb is the daughter of a diplomat; Fanto the child of a proletarian upbringing), others in the ways in which authors function both within and outside of the traditional literary scene and with varying degrees of success. These differences in viewpoint form the crux of the narrative’s conflict, much of which has to do with Fanto’s suspicious nature. From the beginning she views Nothomb’s invitation to go drinking as a person belonging to the literati deciding to “slum it” for a night with a member of the working class:

“Are you going to start up with the class struggle and dialectical materialism?” I asked. “When I invited you, I didn’t know the first thing about your background.”

“Your caste senses these things.”

The narrator does eventually succeed in winning Fanto’s trust, to some extent, as the two rotate in and out of each other’s lives—as Nothomb continues to publish to expected levels of success, while Fanto’s tumultuous literary career begins in earnest. Gradually, as the two reconnect over and over again, Nothomb begins to see in Fanto a dissatisfaction and arrogance at odds with her own success, as Fanto’s views inch ever closer to the far left, to the point where nothing about being a creative satisfies her anger and frustration at the realization that she is indeed a part of a system she so despises, and has not managed to dismantle it from within or succeed in spite of it.

This dissatisfaction hits its apex when Fanto, having had enough of the literary world and all associated with it, embarks on a trip to the Sahara, which she travels on foot over the course of thirteen months. When she returns from said trip, her distaste for Parisian and literary culture is even greater than it was before she left. She sees, in her inability to survive solely off her creative output, the flaws inherent to the very industry she’s a part of: that it is not output or talent or even who one knows, but personality—that a personality as strange and untethered as Nothomb’s is that percentage of a percentage needed to truly stand out amongst all other creatives in an otherwise unforgiving field. It’s then that Fanto is forced to supplement her income, first as a pharmaceutical test subject, and then as a performance artist of sorts staging actual games of Russian roulette for a potentially unsuspecting audience.

Much of Nothomb’s output veers into the semi-autobiographical. Several of her books, including Fear and Trembling and Tokyo Fiancée, are fictions based in reality, with locations, characters, and cues pulled straight from the author’s life. Pétronille is different—while it is autobiographical in that it stars an author named Amélie Nothomb who has written and published books identical to what’s detailed within the text, the novel feels more deliberately existential than some of the others of this ilk, with its titular character, potentially, an entirely fictitious construction meant to externalize a facet of the author’s personality. For the most part, this existentialism is kept to a minimum, with the author occasionally remarking on difficulties faced in her career, such as the time she was accused of plagiarism or the hostile response received by her novel Sulphuric Acid. It’s in this novel’s close, which I will refrain from spoiling, where the existential subtext is made text and an act of performative aggression becomes the author’s undoing as Fanto, whom Nothomb was fascinated by for so many years, is revealed as the stark underside of the frivolity to which they’d celebrated in so many instances—a gloriously disgruntled down note criticizing artistic identities inherent, constructed, and stolen.

It’s of some curiosity as to whether Pétronille Fanto, or some version of her, ever existed in the first place. From her introduction, Fanto’s appearance seldom changes—she almost always resembles that of a fifteen-year-old boy, even after more than a decade has passed. As the story progresses, more and more she appears the voice of Nothomb’s doubts as to her own writing and success. This is driven home in sequences such as when Nothomb goes to London to interview dame Vivienne Westwood and is met with an obstinate, disinterested subject who would sooner have Nothomb walk her dog for her than entertain any one of the author’s questions. In the aftermath of this unfortunate meeting, Nothomb calls Fanto and offers to pay her way to London—seeking Fanto as if she were a switch the author flips to silence whatever questions she might have regarding her worth.

In many ways, the novel’s thesis is isolated in a motto ascribed to both Christopher Marlowe and the titular Pétronille: Quod me nutrit, me destruit (That which nourishes me destroys me). Nothomb writes about her career and the literary scene into which she has inserted herself as a nervous child might discuss a popular group into which they’ve been drawn yet still feel isolated from. In Fanto, she’s given her doubts and loneliness a name and a career all its own, one that directly questions and confronts her own concerns toward the Paris literary scene and its aggressively bourgeois leanings. In Pétronille, the author finds new ways in which to strip her skin for the audience, revealing increasingly personal depths—something that she continues to do seemingly effortlessly, and with exceptional skill.

Review: Mouthquake, by Daniel Allen Cox

9781551526041_Mouthquake>>Published: September 2015

>>Finally got around to it: October 2015

Our conversations are magical. Stutterer and deaf person, we have such interesting ways of communicating. We meet somewhere in the middle of the other’s irregular speech. He lipreads my thoughts through a stutter, and I read his through his slur. When we speak to each other, Eric stares at my mouth, and I stare at his hands. I don’t understand sign language so he doesn’t sign to me, but his fingers still try to decode what he’s saying. He can’t help it.

He places his hands on my neck to feel the vibrations. Sometimes I think he knows what I’m going to say a few seconds before it comes out. And sometimes, maybe even before I know what I’m going to say. I place my hands on his sternum, not to feel the vibration, but to feel the pain in his sighs and what happens between words. He’s a breathy one. Having a conversation with him engages so much of our bodies. It’s so sexual. I think the real reason we talk is to have an excuse to fondle each other. We’re real pervs that way. I wonder if I’d love Eric as much if he were a hearing person. And I wonder if he wonders the same about my speech.

***

Mouthquake, Daniel Allen Cox’s fourth novel, is very much about memory and those locked away; and is itself, in both writing and structure, a bit like a memory—fractured and disseminated in uneven shards like a breadcrumb ouroboros.

Taking place in Montréal in the 80s and 90s, the novel follows our protagonist, belaboured by a stutter, as he, imagining himself a German Shepherd a la The Littlest Hobo, befriends a mysterious local figure—the Grand Antonio, a large, woolly mammoth of a man who pulls buses with his hair and sells postcards of himself alongside such luminaries as Dean Martin, Carly Simon, Johnny Carson, and even, mysteriously, Marilyn Monroe to unsuspecting passers-by.

Immediately, Cox’s novel blurs the line between realities with surreal, often poetic descriptors—in sharp contrast to its stuttering protagonist. For example, when referencing the Grand Antonio:

“He laid a hand on my head, which made me still. When he patted my toque, it felt like I was being bashed by a warm, raw steak. When he laughed, it sounded like the engine of a bus in trouble.”

The extensive, colourful language used throughout syncs with the narrator’s experiences as a stuttering child, one who learns to see the world more cohesively through sound and music. In the novel’s second and strongest section, taking place in the 1990s, he is introduced to his other half—a deaf young man named Eric. Together they discover different modes of communication as the narrator further explores the correlation between his experiences, his sexual appetite, and different forms of physical punishment and how it all relates to the construction of his identity.

I’ll be honest, I struggled with this book. I’ve enjoyed Cox’s work in the past, especially the incendiary and awesome Krakow Melt; however, as I read, I discovered that the narrative of this book simply wasn’t sticking with me. I found myself wanting more from Mouthquake’s young narrator than the book seemed willing to provide.

As beautiful as much of Cox’s language is, it comes in this instance at the expense of its characters—ultimately, I thought the narrator somewhat impenetrable, and as a result the novel had a difficult time maintaining my interest. I’ll readily admit that part of this, I think, has to do the perhaps unfair expectation that the concept introduced near the novel’s close, that people are songs in and of themselves, would resonate more deeply than it does. Instead it feels like a rather brilliant idea not successfully executed throughout. In other words, given the premise, I think I expected more of a synaesthetic approach to theme and identity.

It’s a strange thing to be reviewing a book, knowing that there is quality to its writing and to the story being told, but having been unable to connect to it—and, if I’m honest, feeling as if there was more attention paid to its construction of a sense of time and place than to developing its characters or what links them to one another. In the end, while I appreciate that each of Cox’s novels (of which I’ve read three) feel radically different from one another, Mouthquake washed over me with unfortunately little impact. I really wanted to like this book, but I just couldn’t find anything in which to sink my teeth.

Review: Armada, by Ernest Cline

ZZ48DF98EC>>Published: July 2015

>>Finally got around to it: September 2015

The Moon Base Alpha hangar bay was a breathtaking sight. The curved walls of the armored dome around us were lined with hundreds of gleaming Interceptor drones arrayed in the belt-fed launch racks that would fire them out into space like bullets from a high-velocity gas-powered machine gun. These were the drones we had been brought up here to pilot, I realized. We would use these very ships to wage war with the enemy when they arrived here, just over five and a half hours from now.

In that moment, I felt like Luke Skywalker surveying a hangar full of A-, Y-, and X-wing Fighters just before the Battle of Yavin. Or Captain Apollo, climbing into the cockpit of his Viper on the Galactica’s flight deck. Or Ender Wiggin arriving at battle school. Or Alex Rogan, clutching his Star League uniform, staring wide-eyed at a hangar full of Gunstars.

But this wasn’t a fantasy. I wasn’t Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon or Ender Wiggin or anyone else. This was real life. My life. I, Zackary Ulysses Lightman, an eighteen-year-old kid from Beaverton, Oregon, newly recruited by the Earth Defense Alliance, had just been reunited with my long-lost father on the far side of the moon—and now, together, we were about to wage a desperate battle to prevent the destruction of Earth and save the human race from total annihilation.

If this were all just a dream, I wasn’t sure that I would want it to end.

***

When is a story not a story? When it’s a masturbatory pastiche of pop culture references built atop the bones (i.e., ripping off) of better, more original narratives, and almost literally nothing else. When it adheres too closely to the old adage of plagiarism being theft from only one source, while research is to steal from many.

When it brings absolutely nothing new to the table—nothing original, no cleverness or evidence of thought and analysis beyond what’s on the surface, and not an ounce of fun to be found anywhere in its three hundred-plus pages.

Such was my experience reading Ernest Cline’s second book, Armada, which has the distinction of being, so far, the most disappointing, embarrassing, and at times infuriating novel of the year. And this from someone who quite sincerely enjoyed Cline’s first novel, Ready Player One.

And let’s talk about Ready Player One for a sec, as what that novel employed to pretty decent effect is at the core of what obliterates Armada from being anything remotely resembling a worthwhile read. I’m referring, of course, to the references.

To anyone who thought the obsessive, almost encyclopaedic amount of references to video games, film, television, and other assorted pop culture ephemera in Cline’s first novel was overwhelming, distracting, or just plain annoying… well, I’ve got some bad news for you, as Armada dials that shit up far past the threshold of good taste. And it’s in these references that all the novel’s problems are laid bare—including the attempted use of said referential material to mask its startling inadequacies (for example, every single woman, including the main character’s mom, being a skeletally sketched, manic pixie nerd dream girl). So let’s go through the book’s problems one giant red X at a time.

First up, the novel’s base narrative. It’s been said before but it bears repeating: this book is The Last Starfighter, WarGames, and Ender’s Game smashed together and repurposed as if it were the remains of three different types of deli meat rolled up as one and re-sold to the public (that’s how they make hot dogs, right?). The story follows Zack Lightman, a somewhat unhinged teenager with a history of schoolyard aggression, a love of video games, and a mother who loves and supports him and his nerd obsessions, many of which she shares. Zack’s father Xavier is thought to have died in a “shit factory” explosion when Zack was just an infant. (Spoilers, and also posted in the segment above: his death was a fake-out. For reasons, apparently.) Zack spends the bulk of his time when not working his after-school job at a Gamestop-like store playing the online flight sim Armada with his two best friends, and generally wishing his life amounted to more. Which, of course, it will, when the sim is revealed Ender’s Game-style to have been real-life training for the upcoming alien invasion that will decimate the planet, unless a plucky, sugared-up cavalry of the world’s best gamers can rally to save the day.

Armada is the hero’s journey filtered through a pop culture lens spanning almost four decades of content. Cline employed this same trick in his previous novel; in Ready Player One, however, the pop culture odds and ends had merit—the obsessive amount of detail presented through its references all played into the larger narrative, of uncovering a trail of Easter eggs left by an eccentric child of 80s and 90s multimedia and culture. While often overcooked, much of this content felt as if it had a reason for being there within the scope of that narrative. This is not the case with Armada. Take a look at that segment I quoted at the start of this review, where Cline jumps from one reference to another like a kid filling a plastic bag with one five-cent candy from every bin in a store. This is not an isolated incident; this is the norm—the entire book is a barrage of one reference after another, many repeated (there was a moment where I read one Master Yoda quote too many and audibly told the author to fuck off while sitting alone in my apartment), and few if any having an actual point within the context of the scene. Rather than being read as yet another encyclopaedic love letter to the shit from Cline’s (and my) youth, the sheer number of references smashed together reads as if the author could not decide or set himself to just one thing through which to make his point, which in turn reads as if he himself did not have an actual emotional ties to any one scene in this novel, as every scene is being compared to ten different things at once, forcing the reader to sift through and figure out what the author really feels or intends for you to feel in any given moment. And even then, not a single reference is delved into with any degree of analysis—it’s all there on the page for the author to show us the veritable shit ton of stuff he can rattle off, in hopes that we’ll be so stunned by the amount of content and accrued “knowledge” that we won’t look for the meaning beneath any of it, of which there is none. The references are manic in how they’re flung out, with no thought to the narrative’s artistic or emotional ambitions.

This shit is nerd-by-numbers—in place of developing an authorial voice, Cline’s writing distracts and infuriates by relying on surface-level comparisons for everything without taking even a moment to scrape beneath that first layer for some shred of actual substance. At one point, when referencing the construction of a military base, a character states, “The team of engineers who designed and built this place were in a huge hurry, so they borrowed from a lot of existing designs.” To which I only had to laugh, because no shit—everything in Armada feels as if it’s been pulled from something and somewhere else, but with no consideration as to why or how it actually fits within the world.

Next up, the women. There aren’t any. Actually, let me rephrase that: there are human females in this narrative, but they don’t actually exist unto themselves. They’re all kind of magical in that they don’t really have their own personalities or ambitions within the narrative; rather they exist as objects to pad out the gender balance. And the ones that are given anything at all to do (which isn’t saying much), are Zack’s mother, Pamela (who, of course, reminds him of Ellen Ripley, or Sarah Connor, or…), and Lex, whom he meets when first learning of the very real danger facing Earth from the invading alien Europans. And what’s Zack’s immediate reaction to the cooler than cool Lex? Basically, like she’s a unicorn in the woods:

I did a double-take at her. No one had ever gotten the Iron Eagle/Peanuts mash-up in my call sign without me first having to explain it to them—including Cruz and Diehl. I felt a strong urge to reach out and touch her shoulder, to confirm that she was real.

Here and throughout Cline falls into the very easily avoided trap of treating nerd girls like they are mysterious and almost non-existent, so much so that when one finds an elusive girl who’s intelligent, funny, AND likes video games, she must be touched and fawned over—otherwise she’s not real, just a figment of the imagination.

This shit is so very tired.

And when other women are introduced, they too are spouting references like there’s no tomorrow. Cline attempts to differentiate a bit by giving Whoadie biblical and Shakespearean quotes to rattle off instead of just the usual litany of may-the-force-be-so-say-we-live-long-and-prosper, but then goes on to say that all those interesting quotes were her uncle’s and not necessarily compiled via her own interest or volition, which helps ensure that most if not all of the women in this narrative exist as either a repository for the same information as the guys, usually provided to them by men, or they are themselves objects of wonderment and fascination. And yes, Lex and others do get to kick a fair amount of ass in the not-that-climactic end battle (I seriously wanted to skim the battle scenes as they are grossly overwritten and void of rhythm), but they don’t ever feel as if they are there for anything but to back up the men (and in the case of Pamela, to be worried, to patch up her wounded thought-dead husband, and then to get knocked up by him after getting over, in record time, the fact that he abandoned their family so many years prior, regardless of the reason). And in the end, despite how cool Lex is presented as being, she vanishes almost as quickly as she’s introduced, sits out much of the meat of the book’s second act, and in the close is there to make sure Zack gets his happy ending.

However, in this arena I will afford Cline a small—very small amount of leeway: none of the characters, male or female, really feel as if they have much in the way of their own voices or personalities. They are so thinly drawn, their histories and memories constructed by way of the art and creations of others, that in every instance the characters feel as if they exist only to give voice to the author’s own obsessions and not to have any personal development of their own, on or off the page. It’s like watching a film or television show and seeing every character introduced as “Ernest Cline as So-and-So.” His characters aren’t characters but cardboard cut outs designed to show us as readers just how clever and well read/watched/played he is.

Every now and then we see a spark of self-awareness in Cline’s writing with respect to the gender differential, such as when during a conversation about how men supposedly make the best fighter pilots, because of such historical figures as Maverick, Goose, and Iceman from Top Gun, a young woman responds by saying, “You’re aware that those are all fictional characters, right?” Sadly, this moment evaporates as quickly as it occurs, with no evidence that this comment causes any of the guys, or anyone in general, to take a step back and realize how deeply their obsessions have bled into, and in some ways usurped their realities.

And resulting from all this is the sense that Cline is not ironically commenting upon nerd culture and the problems therein, but bathing in the culture’s shortcomings. He employs gamer stereotypes, like how we supposedly sustain ourselves on a diet consisting purely of Cheetos, Slim Jims, and Diet Mountain Dew, and like how our most pertinent conversations have to do with what is the more badass weapon: Sting from The Lord of the Rings or Mjolnir from Thor. By about a hundred pages in, I was severely annoyed by the non-stop assault of references and more references that almost always seemed to divert from the larger narrative; by the end, I was feeling embarrassed by my own obsessions and gaming- and film-based interests. It’s as if a dyed-in-the-wool “old school” nerd, fifty years from now, was sitting around a campfire, reciting to a crowd of his most loyal mouth breathers about the one time his singular obsessions mattered a hot damn to anyone but himself.

So much of what’s wrong with this book comes from feeling like Cline is not so much searching for or working to figure out his voice, but cribbing it from others instead of doing any heavy lifting himself. It’s kind of like how in the mid-late 90s we saw a whole bunch of Tarantino-style rip offs following the unexpected success of Pulp Fiction. However, most of those copycats failed because they assumed the trick was simply tossing in a fuckload of references and asides, and to be all edgy with curse words and racial epithets, thinking that did the job, when it wasn’t in the plethora of shit being tossed out at viewers but in how and why it was used. And to that end, as much in what wasn’t used as what was—just because you can compare your character to Luke, Apollo, and Ender doesn’t mean you have to, and certainly not all fucking at once. But then, it’s easier to say “this person is like this, this, and this,” than it is to tell us who they really are, for you, the author, on the inside, just like it’s easier to pull a Yoda quote out of one’s ass for the umpteenth time rather than write an original joke or rely on actual character-to-character interaction, without the façade of their obsessions to fall back on.

Possibly the most infuriating thing about the whole book, however, is that in spite of everything I’ve said, there was a moment where crisis could have been averted, at least to some small degree. As the narrative hurtles toward its end, the heroes come to the realization that the invading aliens were responding to the humans by basing their attacks, and indeed much of their attacking force (including its built-in weaknesses), on the media they’d absorbed from transmissions from Earth. They’ve watched Hollywood and the entertainment industry as a whole showcase and glorify mankind’s aggression toward not only itself but to invading alien forces time and time again, and are using that to dismantle Earth’s meagre defences:

It almost seemed as if the Europans were unable to differentiate between reality and fiction. Either that, or they were intercutting the two on purpose, in an effort to make some kind of point.

Of course our pop culture-obsessed protagonists figure this out, realizing they’re being tested (before being flat-out told they were being tested in the conflict’s final moments). But instead of looking inward and seeing what’s happened, understanding that the content our species has put out into the universe can be construed as representing a barbaric and incredibly violent species with limited analytical depth, and then having our main characters turn that magnifying glass on themselves in order to realize that their obsessions with such things are all they amount to and that not one of them has taken the time to go any deeper than first-level passion with any one thing, Cline sidesteps having his characters make any sort of introspective analysis. In this, the narrative glorifies obsession with pop culture while ignoring the critique, analysis, and investigation into such things that lead to personal growth independent of simple, base-level obsession. The material is there for analysis, but Cline instead opts to pander to the audience, thereby reducing the value of the content within and his ability to command reference to it at the drop of a hat. As much as women are treated as objects, so to is the stuff Cline claims to love so dearly—it’s there to pad out the book’s word count without adding to its cultural currency.

This isn’t a book; it’s a list of what not to do if you want to write about nerds and nerd culture in today’s day and age. It’s as much about the actual cultural implications of such passions and interests as The DaVinci Code is about the actual tenants of Christianity. And to top it all off, the ending is rushed and emotionally manipulative—or should I say, it attempts to be manipulative, but has not done the ground work to carry it off. What I mean by this is that we’re told Zack’s dad died when Zack was young, only to discover midway through the story that not only is Xavier alive, but that he is the top-ranked Armada pilot in the world and will be leading the attack on the invading Europans. Zack gets a couple of scenes with him, but then during the first part of the final battle we’re led to believe he’s killed himself, going off on a kamikaze run against one of the lead alien ships. He survives, though, and Zack is able to save him and have a shred of hope that he’ll be able to piece his family back together again, only to have his father engage in a second suicide run during humanity’s final push, and this one actually succeeds.

See? Emotional manipulation, whereby extreme actions are used to attempt to get us to feel shit for a character we barely know, already feel next to nothing about, and then are tricked—twice—into thinking dead. All of which leads to us not actually caring when he’s dead for real.

We don’t even have time to wonder whether or not we should grieve, however, as the conflict shudders to a stop and an A.I.-ex-machina reveals itself as having built the Europan armada to test whether or not humanity is ready to join the Sodality, an intergalactic sisterhood of races a la the Citadel in Mass Effect. And Zack, being the hero, alongside dear old dead dad, who helped stop humanity from revealing themselves as the ultimate aggressors unworthy of association in this super secret galactic clubhouse, is made humanity’s mouthpiece, ending the war and ushering in a new era of human prosperity so fast you’d think the author was creeping close to his set page limit.

Fuck, even at the very end, when the A.I.-ex-machina reveals that this is just the first step humanity will take, and that in time it will take another… it’s not a reference to Sagan’s Contact, it’s just a rip-off.

It’s interesting to have looked at this book immediately following Sassafras Lowrey’s Lost Boi, which posited a modern-day queer punk Peter Pan who hasn’t so much succeeded in avoiding growing up as he exists in denial to the changing world around him and how he himself is changing alongside it, whether or not he’s willing to acknowledge it. Cline, meanwhile, intentional or otherwise, has crafted a novel based entirely about not growing up and, in fact, living through the media of one’s past. Simply having fun obsessing over video games and movies is fine, but as one gets older and experiences more of the world, for those passions to become elevated beyond the level of mere hobby—to be treated as art—they must be looked at in a different light, one that places said media within the surrounding world and not set apart from it. In its startling lack of analysis, Cline’s novel is actually quite depressing, as it appears oblivious to its own stark limitations and lack of critical thought. In this sense, Cline’s Armada is a Neverland unto itself. This is not a good thing—it paints the author as having not thought all that hard about his own story.

Right about now you probably think I’ve been too hard on a book toward which many will shrug their shoulders and say, “but it’s just supposed to be fun, right?” And that’s fine—if you can turn your brain off and have a blast with Armada, more power to you. But Cline, whether by design or by circumstance, has become something of a forward-facing voice for nerd culture’s literary ambitions. There aren’t many authors I can think of using fiction to really deep dive into our generation’s pop culture love affairs, at least to this extent. And maybe it’s unfair to place that weight on Cline’s shoulders, and I get that. But these are the conversations that are happening right now. They have been for years, and are currently, with no thanks to shitstorms caused by GamerGate and the Sad Puppies and other gaping, enflamed assholes crying foul when faced with any mention of equality, equal representation, or academic/critical depth relating to video games, science fiction, fantasy, or any number of their prized obsessions. And to be clear, Cline’s book doesn’t cater to any one of those horrid misappropriations of sperm. But neither does it do anything to further the conversation in the right direction. Armada is not misogynistic, but it is oblivious; it’s not unreadable, but it doesn’t engage. If anything, it feels like an immediate response to the success of Ready Player One, but without as much care given to its execution or style; Cline’s use of references is a one-trick pony, only this pony is dead and Armada is the thing pulled from its festering corpse.

 

Review: Lost Boi, by Sassafras Lowrey

LostBoiCover>>Published: April 2015

>>Finally got around to it: September 2015

Finally, after not getting useful answers out of Pan, Wendi asked him where he lived. Pan’s eyes glittered as they always did when he talked about Neverland, about us bois. He told her that we had our own warehouse, a paradise we were always working on, patching the shot-out windows, hanging swings and slings, and about the day we added hammocks for each of us to sleep in amongst the rafters with our pigeons. Pan told Wendi he had a pack of bois who jumped at his command, who had sworn themselves to him and wore his cuff. He told her we too loved stories.

I don’t know exactly what Pan promised Wendi in that little pink bed. Probably nothing more than adventure, with his crooked grin and the way his eyes twinkled when he talked about the things they could do together, but he locked a leather cuff around her wrist that night. It had been enough for me; there was no reason to think it wouldn’t have been enough for her. Later, Wendi said that he told her about grrrls, how there weren’t any of them in Neverland ,and how lonely that made him, us. How there was something special about a grrrl like her, something she could give him, us. Pan talked of how we would cherish and worship her, how she would always care for and feed her bois. “I love the way you talk about grrrls,” Wendi whispered through glossed lips, placing her hand on Pan’s denim thigh. She tried for a kiss, but Pan was already distracted, looking out the window to check on Erebos. Pan didn’t want a grrrlfriend, he wanted a Mommy to tuck him in and put him in his place, but he would never had said that last part.

***

With leather daddies substituting for pirates and loyal carrier pigeons in place fairies, Sassafras Lowrey’s Lost Boi is a trans/genderqueer punk interpretation of J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan that, while at times interesting and quite well written, is more a transposition than a subversion of the text.

The book, narrated by Pan’s “best boi” Tootles, follows the introduction of Wendi and John Michael, who Pan convinces to abandon their security at the Darling’s halfway house for girls in order to follow him to his industrial warehouse paradise of Neverland. Once there, John Michael, an acknowledged tomboy, is inducted into the “Lost Bois,” Pan’s loyal, battle-hardened followers. Wendi, meanwhile, becomes a Mommy not just to the bois but to Pan as well—an ideal of a grrrl elevated to a position of authority amongst the bois, to fill a void they deny needs filling by the absence of their “true” mothers, and their pasts represented therein.

Pan himself is described in the pages of Wendi’s journal as being genderless, with baggy sweatshirts, work pants, and red hair. He’s the “street” to her coifed, educated demeanour; when she enters Neverland, she immediately helps clean up the Lost Bois’ act, so to speak, encouraging tidiness and responsibility as she attempts to disperse her love to the entire group, and to Tootles in particular.

But Pan isn’t interested in a Mommy who wants to upend the status quo. Originally, he appears to envision Wendi slipping into the established narrative as an addition to their cast, not a director unto herself, which is exactly what she reveals herself to be—someone who lusts after Pan and the freedom Neverland represents, but is also unable to divest herself from the outside world and the presence of time always ticking by, aging the lot of them whether or not they are willing to admit to its effects.

For Pan, though, Neverland’s stability hinges on two things: loyalty, and the power of make-believe: “When you became Pan’s, you swore an oath that you would never doubt or question him. That’s what kept the magic alive.” As such, when a boi decides for one reason or another to grow up, Pan acts as if he forgets their very existence. It’s as if they’re pawns knocked off a chessboard, never to be played or battled with again.

There’s much to like in Lowrey’s interpretation of Barrie’s Peter Pan mythology: Hook’s obsession with good form even as his leather daddy pirates do “battle” with the Lost Bois; the crocodile reimagined as heroin, fairy dust as cocaine; the mermaids as a group of fucking tough femmes living on a boat they’ve named the Lagoon. However, it’s the reimagining of the Pan character himself that I found most intriguing.

The original story is a children’s fantasy, with Pan representing a child’s fear of aging, of growing up and being foisted into the adult world of responsibilities, careers, finances, and mortgages. The Pan in Lowrey’s novel, however, is no fantasy; this Pan is a sad, almost tragic figure that hasn’t managed to avoid growing up so much as he’s managed to separate himself entirely from the world outside Neverland’s walls. When Pan appears near the novel’s end, long after Wendi, Tootles, and the other Lost Bois had departed Neverland to grow up and re-enter the world they’d run from or been abandoned by in the first place, his hair is wisped with grey—he has clearly aged, even as he propositions another young woman to come away with him and join him in Neverland. There’s a distance to Lowrey’s Pan—a lack of willingness to accept the world for what it is. This is at once beautiful and unsettling. His life is his and his alone; it exists in a bubble limiting exposure, and more critically, growth.

While occasionally lacking in subtlety (every now and then Lowrey takes an extra, unnecessary step to explain the process of transposing original facets of the Peter Pan story with hir own—“Fairy? Pigeon? There is magic everywhere around you, but most people are too busy being grownup to notice it.”), Lost Boi is an oftentimes intelligent, well-crafted inversion of a classic tale. But perhaps its greatest achievement is also one of its simplest and most straightforward—the repurposing of Neverland, from a fantasyland apart from the world to an abandoned warehouse very much within it. In doing so, Lowrey strips Pan and the Lost Bois of some of their power—their agency remains intact, but the glamour they’ve placed upon the world, the illusion that helps them to see the safe confines of the world Pan has helped construct for them, is forever threatened by the mere fact that it exists within the greater, gentrifying world that can at any point encroach upon their safe haven. Theirs is a fantasy in the sense that it’s a bandage curling up at the edges—it hasn’t yet lost its stickiness, but it might one day, and when that day comes all their wounds, Pan’s especially, will be displayed for the rest of the world to see.

Review: The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishiguro

{D04B7CAE-8E0D-452B-9227-931DB8A993FB}Img400>>Published: March 2015

>>Finally got around to it: August 2015

‘Ah, the mist. A good name for it. Who knows how much truth there is in what we hear, Mistress Beatrice? I suppose I was speaking of the stranger riding through our country last year and sheltered here. He was from the fens, much like our brave visitor tonight, though speaking a dialect often hard to understand. I offered him use of this poor house, as I’ve done you, and we talked on many matters through the evening, among them this mist, as you so aptly call it. Our strange affliction interested him greatly, and he questioned me again and again on the matter. And then he ventured something I dismissed at the time, but have since much pondered. The stranger thought it might be God himself had forgotten much from our pasts, events far distant, events of the same day. And if a thing is not in God’s mind, then what chance of it remaining in those of mortal men?’

Beatrice stared at him. ‘Can such a thing be possible, Ivor? We’re each of us his dear child. Would God really forget what we have done and what’s happened to us?’

‘My question exactly, Mistress Beatrice, and the stranger could offer no answer. But since that time, I’ve found myself thinking more and more of his words. Perhaps it’s as good an explanation as any for what you name the mist. Now forgive me, friends, I must take some rest while I can.’

***

Upon finishing Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, his first novel since 2005’s Never Let Me Go, I found myself pondering the litany of poor-to-“meh” reviews that populated the Internet right around the time of the novel’s release, not to mention that whole kerfuffle over whether or not it’s genre—the author claims it falls squarely to the “lit” side of things. (And while I do see Ishiguro’s point in making that distinction, I really do believe this to be fantasy—it’s just very light fantasy with, given its propensity toward overarching metaphor, a strong, market-friendly literary undercoating.) Pondering because, to be frank, I thoroughly, unexpectedly enjoyed my time with this book. I wouldn’t necessarily say I loved it, but, well, it’s pleasant, all the way through.

That’s it. Pleasant. Non-offensive and elegant in its presentation. This is not a case of a heavyweight literary author deciding to venture into uncharted territory and upend the genre status quo; no, it feels a little like an experiment in tone—as if Ishiguro had been searching for a new venue in which to toy with the ramifications of memory and obfuscation. It just so happened he found said venue in Arthurian times, where following a war between the Britons and the Saxons a strange amnesia-causing mist has descended upon the countryside like an obscuring veil draped over an entire land mass.

The story follows an older couple—Axl and Beatrice—as they decide to depart the small community in which they live, to journey to a neighbouring village to find their son, whom they’ve not seen for years. Though Axl and Beatrice have been together for quite some time, their shared history is full of holes perforated by the aforementioned mist. Along the way, they encounter a Saxon warrior named Wistan and his charge Edwin, a young boy exiled for having been bitten, supposedly, by an ogre. Additionally, they are met by Sir Gawain, an Arthurian knight who, along with his faithful steed Horace, seeks to rid the land of the she-dragon Querig—the beast responsible for the mist clouding the thoughts and minds of all in the land.

There is conflict, however, as Wistan has also been charged with ending the she-dragon’s reign. And both men being so prideful, their shared goal, of which only one of them can complete (for the sake of honour, or something equally pointless and hubristic), causes their brief union to splinter, revealing, in doing so, Sir Gawain’s ulterior motives.

The she-dragon’s breath, however, is merely the device that sets in motion the novel’s more interesting and important narrative—the slow realization that Axl and Beatrice’s past, hidden from them for so long, might not be as they imagined, bringing to the foreground the question of whether or not they are who they think they are, and whether their true selves will stay together once all is revealed.

There’s nothing in any of the above description that screams “new” or “ground-breaking,” and that’s all right. The Buried Giant walks very familiar fantasy territory, but it does so with a light touch that, as I’ve stated, worked quite well to evoke a sense of place—not so much one’s place in the world as among this small group of characters. It effortlessly inserts the reader into Axl and Beatrice’s relationship. Their quest is, on paper, a simple one; however, it’s how and when Ishiguro slowly, deliberately extracts pieces from within the gaps in their memories that provides the narrative with its heft, soft-spoken though it is. To this end, the novel’s final revelation—that of their son’s fate—while not especially surprising, is handled gracefully and forms a tight thematic bow around the entire piece.

Simplicity of detail is this novel’s strength—it plays with fantasy as if the genre is a colour in an overall palette and not a type of paint altogether. As a reader who seldom reads fantasy, I liked the light dipping of the toes into genre conventions without diving right into the deep end of the pool. I can understand why it might have frustrated some, but The Buried Giant certainly worked for me. As stated, this is a tone piece, more than anything else, and to that end it succeeds.