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.

Review: Trust No One, by Paul Cleave

416IWDyC2QL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: August 2015

“Since your time with us, you’ve confessed to a lot of make-believe crimes that you remember doing,” Nurse Hamilton says.

“They seem so real to you,” Eric says.

“Two days ago we were in the garden and you told me a story,” Nurse Hamilton says, and she glances at the photo, and Jerry knows what she’s about to say—the same way he always used to be able to predict how TV shows and movies would end one quarter of the way through. Is that where they are now? One quarter of the way through his madness? And the Madness Journal? Just where in the hell is it?

“You told me about a girl you had killed. You said you knew her, but you didn’t say how. Do you remember this?”

He doesn’t remember that at all, and he tries to remember. Hard. He knows that’s a thing people probably tell him, to try and think harder or try and remember better, as if he can tighten his brain muscles and put in the extra effort. But it is what it is, and in this case what it is is a whole lot of nothing. “I remember the garden,” he says. “And… there was a rabbit. Wally.”

“You stabbed her,” Mayor says.

“The rabbit?”

“Belinda Murray. You murdered her in cold blood.”

***

Jerry Grey—better known by his pseudonym Henry Cutter—is the best-selling forty-nine-year-old author of thirteen crime novels, and all told he’s having a pretty shit year. He’s been diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s, a detail he should’ve seen earlier, when his editor first noticed the decline in his work. But it’s going to be okay, because he’s got his loving wife Sandra and daughter Eva by his side, and they’re going to bump up the date on Eva’s wedding to ensure her father gets to walk her down the aisle.

Which would be great, if not for the fact that he’s actually fifty, alone, confined (mostly) to a nursing home, and struggling to remember what year it is. Or why a pair of detectives insist on questioning him about the death of a woman he can’t even remember—and why they don’t seem as interested in the woman he claims he did kill, many years before. Problem with that last part is that the woman he thinks he killed—Suzan with a z—was just a character in one of his early books. But Belinda Murray, she was real, and Jerry’s the prime suspect in her murder. The difficulty, though, rests not just in proving Jerry’s innocence, but doing so while he’s slipping between both time and realities.

Trust No One is Paul Cleave’s eighth crime thriller, and he’s certainly got the formula down to a science. The writing is tight and to the point, if not especially colourful. The mystery itself, with its odd twist and turn at the necessary intervals, is enjoyable right up until the end—save a bit of confusion between who was responsible for what, and some unfortunate predictability, followed by the requisite moustache twirling as the main bad guy proceeds at the climax to reveal his inner asshole like any good movie villain should.

What separates Trust No One from other thrillers, beyond it being set in idyllic Christchurch, New Zealand, is the structure derived from the novel’s central conceit. Due to the Alzheimer’s, Jerry keeps what he calls a “Madness Journal” to document the illness’s progress and how it affects both his life and his relationships with his wife and daughter. Cleave uses this to split his narrative in two—half the book takes place in the present, as Jerry slips more and more out of his reality while trying to figure out whether or not he’s actually a killer, while the other half takes place in the past, written on pages culled from the Madness Journal as Jerry reveals just what the disease is stealing from him. Later on, the Madness Journal becomes integral to the central mystery, and the two halves of the narrative sync up in a quite satisfying way.

There’s much more I could say about the narrative, but I’m hesitant to spoil too much, as naturally, the mystery is everything in this sort of book. And while I enjoyed the story, I do have some issues with it. First, the detectives. From the moment they appear their actions and mannerisms feel stereotypical, their prejudices well telegraphed. Both are content playing the bad cop, though to differing degrees. They hate that Jerry’s a crime writer, that he’s made his living off of the bile they fight day in and day out. While this makes sense, it’s handled in a very two-dimensional way, accentuated by the realization that they just don’t play all that important a role in the story—they’re there to antagonize Jerry, and to be there when he falters, but not to investigate things with any greater depth than that. And I found that lack of external possibility on their part to be rather frustrating.

Second, I was disappointed there wasn’t more done to blur the line between what was real and what was fiction within the scope of Jerry’s world. A couple of scenes from Jerry’s novels are touched upon and clearly filter into the larger narrative, but the narrative’s initial promise hinted at something greater—at a mind broken and unable to find its way out from the myriad worlds he himself created. For the most part, Jerry’s Alzheimer’s causes temporal confusion—he’s often not sure what day or month or even year it is, and as a result where Sandra or Eva are and why Eva won’t call him “Dad” anymore. But given his confusion regarding Suzan, the woman he was convinced he did murder, I expected the novel to go much further in that department, really blurring that line between realities. There was far more gold in those mines than what was brought to the surface…

Despite all this, I enjoyed my time with Trust No One. It doesn’t do anything especially new, and the split-narrative approach works to mask some of its more obvious shortcomings. However, what it does it does well enough, and I nevertheless remained engaged throughout. I suspect it would make a pretty excellent beach read, or something to chew through in short order while on a flight, but its depth is limited. Ironically, its characters feel a little too much like they’ve been cut from a thriller’s cloth, like individuals that could easily have come from any one of Jerry’s books—they just don’t stand well enough on their own.

Review: The Word Exchange, by Alena Graedon

51fAD9zTxnL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: April 2014

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

Details were difficult to confirm; some news reports had started getting garbled, too, and like many people, I’d mostly stopped tuning in. Anchors averred that the disease couldn’t be transmitted by airwaves, but no one knew for certain. And a few scattered reports claimed that infections had happened by phone.

Strangely, most people didn’t seem to suffer symptoms other than aphasia those first few days and weeks. The ones who did, though, got desperately sick, and often very quickly. Some shook. Some raged violently. Some were euphoric, or emptied of emotion. Most were felled by blinding headaches. Nausea, vomiting, weakness, fever. Their bones and muscles ached. All displayed varying degrees of difficulty with language. Progression rates varied; while some succumbed within days, it was said that others lived, even managed to function, for far longer—weeks.

We didn’t understand transmission then, didn’t know that while only one fatal illness was circulating, something else, also highly contagious, was producing similar indications in victims. All we knew was that a virus—what had popularly become known as “word flu”—appeared to move through speech and language. Soon after talking with an infected person, interlocutors also often stopped making sense. Antivirals, even given early, didn’t always seem to prevent death. Of those who survived, many weren’t quite the same after.

***

In the not-so-distant future, books, libraries, magazines, and newspapers have fast been made obsolete—products of a bygone era in human history. They’ve been replaced by Synchronic Inc.’s Meme: a hybrid e-reader/personal computer that feels a little like a supercharged tablet (or, like a lesser version of the Mass Effect omni-tool—not holographic but just as pervasive). Though in existence for only four years, the Meme has sold globally more than 100 million units to date. Now Synchronic is upping their game with the impending release of the Nautilus—a wearable Meme upgrade more invasive than any to come before.

But with the advent of the Nautilus, the world has fallen into chaos. Its coming, alongside the exponential growth of the Word Exchange—an app store for the Meme containing definitions for a nominal cost—has only exacerbated the growing problem of aphasia among the populace, affecting many individuals’ ability to communicate. Battling this “word flu” are Douglas Johnson and his daughter Anana, who work for the North American Dictionary of the English Language, their colleague Bart, and the somewhat elusive members of the Diachronic society—a small group of former booksellers, publishers, librarians, teachers, writers, and editors, among others, who seek to keep all language from falling into Synchronic’s hands. When Douglas goes missing on the eve of the NADEL’s most recent publication, Anana and Bart begin a quest to discover not only Doug’s whereabouts, but also to uncover the extent of Synchronic’s wrongdoing.

Divided into three parts (“Thesis,” “Antithesis,” and “Synthesis”) with twenty-six chapters—one for each letter of the alphabet—Graedon’s The Word Exchange is a thoroughly planned, tightly constructed narrative. Unfortunately, however, it buckles beneath the weight of its construction and stylistic idiosyncrasies.

Let’s make this simple—The Word Exchange is like an elegant version of a Robert Sawyer novel: it’s well written (not something that can be said of Sawyer, but whatever), but ultimately empty. The ideas portrayed exist entirely on the surface; it’s as if, despite detailing a worldwide epidemic, everything that happens in the novel does so within a bubble—the world feels small, as if everyone knows everyone. However, while so many of its characters seem to walk within the same small social circuit, they are not given much in the way of personalities. Sure, we know that Anana is an installation artist, and that Max, her ex, is one charismatic bugger, but for the most part we don’t see this; we’re told it instead.

I harp on this a lot in my reviews, but The Word Exchange is a pretty blatant example of a book that tells readers almost everything without really showing or involving us in what happens. This is especially noticeable when the novel goes to great lengths to describe, in detail, the events of December 7 and the start of the epidemic. Unfortunately, though, it’s a lot of talk and very little action. And as a result, its technophobia, of which we’ve seen similar shades for years, feels muted and tired.

And while I previously mentioned that the novel is technically well written, I did find myself frequently annoyed by the incidents of aphasia present throughout. Yes, this is essential for the narrative, but at times it felt overdone and I found myself wanting to skim over entire sections of awkward, made-up words. Additionally, its use of footnotes are more a distraction than anything else, offering unnecessary asides instead of further intel or detail into the novel’s characters or events. They oftentimes seemed like subtext made text, as if the author felt the need to spell things out for fear the audience wouldn’t come to the same conclusion on their own, instead of simply trusting their intelligence.

The Word Exchange is not a bad book, but it is, sadly, forgettable. It doesn’t really do anything we haven’t seen before in contemporary dystopia. And while at the outset it seems especially appealing to word nerds like myself, any of its quirk or inventiveness is lost amongst what is, in the end, a dry and only marginally intriguing narrative.

Review: Binary Star, by Sarah Gerard

41KICyiLGzL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: January 2015

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

You haven’t eaten for hours. How are you awake? How can you drive?

I’m always awake. I’m always driving toward something.

Right now, I’m driving a line toward the void.

There is work to be done, but I won’t do it. I’ll circle my apartment elliptically burning calories from the kitchen to the bathroom.

I’ll eat a cup of grapes and purge, eat a cup of grapes and purge, eat and purge.

Fall into my hunger but never reach it.

Orbit its atmosphere.

Objects that fall into orbit around Earth can’t stay there forever. They must come down sometime.

These objects experience gravity but acceleration cancels gravity. Therefore, they are weightless.

They orbit for months or years, but without periodic bursts of energy, they start to slip.

Falling to Earth, burning up on the way down.

We never see them hit the ground.

***

Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star is a love story of mutually assured destruction. The nameless narrator, a young woman working as a student teacher studying astronomy, is in a troubling, long-distance relationship with a young man named John; he’s an alcoholic, she’s anorexic (bulimic, primarily).

As the novel begins, the two of them are on a road trip together. Their weaknesses are visible to one another—veritable beacons, to put it mildly—and so they promise to put themselves in check: for the duration of the trip, he won’t drink and she won’t purge. How long this truce of sorts lasts (or doesn’t) is indicative of the hard truth at the core of their relationship: they are their weaknesses; they have allowed their twinned self-destructive tendencies to affect each other—to devour each other.

What becomes clear very early on is that neither one of them wants to, or is willing to talk about their problems. Their weaknesses are crutches, and each is the other’s blockade—without them, they would be forced to actually be honest with one another. Gerard uses the metaphor of the binary star—of two stars destroying one another—to really drive this point home as, over time, the narrator’s obsession with achieving her goal weight of a deadly eighty-five pounds overwhelms her external influences and all possible outlets for support. And as the novella nears its conclusion, she turns increasingly inward, focused on just the one thing that matters—the thing that she believes, if achieved, will suddenly fill her with worth, or a fleeting sense of accomplishment.

While destruction is at the core of Binary Star, it is also a story of bargains—bargains made with a partner, with no intention of being fulfilled due to the bargains made with the self, which supersede all others. These self-made bargains take the form of never-ending one-sided conversations, wherein every piece of food is quantified, judged, and rationalized, with only the barest of necessities making it past one’s lips. The narrator survives, seemingly, on a diet of Adderall, Hydroxycut, and Red Bull; she clings to veganism (and later, veganarchism) as an ideal on which to suspend reason, to offer up as an explanation to anyone, friend or family, who questions the apparent changes to her body; she weighs herself five times a day, stands in front of a mirror, pees, and then looks in the mirror again, turning in profile, to see if in urinating, that unsightly, very human bulge around her midsection has suddenly vanished.

It’s in these details and so many others like them—these conversations and bargains and even occasional arguments with the self—that Binary Star succeeds. As someone who’s struggled with the constant presence of anorexia in my life for over fifteen years, Gerard’s truncated, bladed prose carves an emotional and very truthful swath over its unbelievably tight 166 pages. The narrator’s journey begins beautifully, with a section composed entirely of slightly abstracted poetic verse, before properly introducing readers to its two leads. It ends, however, with what seems like a dark parallel to the opening segment, as broken, nonsensical, somewhat paranoid abstraction—a reflection of a starved mind, a nutrient-skewed individual prone to erratic, dangerous behaviour. The evolution is stark and unflinching.

Several times this year I’ve come out citing my lack of love for narratives eschewing dialogue tags. Again, however, I’m forced to recognize the effectiveness of said tactic. The sense of distance created by the lack of quotation marks throughout helps to portray the narrator’s increasingly anxious, disordered mind. It becomes difficult at times to discern who is saying what, and which conversations are actually happening and which exist solely in her mind. In this way, the eating disorder itself becomes the novella’s unspoken third lead—it takes over, subjugates the narrator’s rational mind, and charts a new course all its own.

As the novella winds down and our narrator gets closer and closer to achieving her goal weight, and as her mind set devolves in tandem, she begins to see herself as shining, though it’s not light coming from within her but the light of the rest of the world passing through her as if she were translucent. She’s not a star; she’s collapsed, a black hole rapidly being swallowed by her own compulsions. I’m not entirely sure where her story ends, but I suspect that’s the point—in reaching her goal, she has in the process lost or destroyed, or aided in destroying, everything around her. To carry the metaphor a step further, her story concludes at the event horizon of the disorder. What’s on the other side remains a mystery.

This is a brutal read, one I related to far more than I anticipated. With a careful, attentive approach to the small quantifications, calculations, and justifications that, in my experience, make up so much of the anorexic experience, Gerard’s Binary Star is an intimate, much-needed window into a world I wish more people took the time to investigate and understand.

Review: Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

StationElevenHCUS2>>Published: September 2014

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was travelling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels. The Travelling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they’d been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.

By then most people had settled somewhere, because the gasoline had all gone stale by Year Three, and you can’t keep walking forever. After six months of travelling from town to town—the word town used loosely; some of these places were four or five families living together in a former truck stop—the conductor’s orchestra had run into Gil’s company of Shakespearean actors, who had all escaped from Chicago together and then worked on a farm for a few years and had been on the road for three months, and they’d combined their operations.

Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, travelling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine. They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again. This territory was for the most part tranquil now. They encountered other travellers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns. The Symphony performed music—classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs—and Shakespeare. They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings.

“People want what was best about the world,” Dieter said. He himself found it difficult to live in the present. He’d played in a punk band in college and longed for the sound of an electric guitar.

***

One winter’s night, Arthur Leander, a Hollywood actor performing King Lear on-stage in Toronto, dies of a heart attack mid-show. That same night, a plane from Moscow lands at Pearson carrying what can only be described as an entire cabin of patient zeros—men, women, and children all sick with a new, vicious, unbeatable strain of the swine flu known as the Georgia Flu. How deadly is it? Forty-eight hours—that’s how long before you die (oh, and you will die—the mortality rate of those affected by the Georgia Flu is 100 percent).

Present at Arthur’s final performance were Jeevan Chaudhary, a former paparrazo now working as an EMT, who tried unsuccessfully to save the dying actor; and a young actress named Kirsten Raymonde whom Arthur had befriended in the days leading up to his death. By the time Jeevan arrives that night at his brother Frank’s apartment, following Arthur’s untimely demise, the Georgia Flu had already begun to spread, kicking off an apocalypse of sorts that would go on to (quickly) decimate the human race.

Picking up again twenty years after the collapse of western civilization, Kirsten is now part of a caravan known as the Travelling Symphony, equal parts an entertainment and survival troupe. They move from town to town, performing Shakespeare and other musical and performance-based selections for what remains of the population of North America. The members of the caravan are skilled hunters, reliant as much on their wits and their artistic abilities as their capacity to kill in order to survive.

Beyond the typical looting and anarchy that takes place in a world where borders between nations no longer exist, there are other problems the survivors of the Georgia Flu must contend with. Chief among them, for the purposes of this narrative, the Prophet—a mysterious young man who has managed to bend an entire town to his will. But the Prophet and Kirsten share an unlikely connection spawned, of all places, from one artist’s need to escape her reality—the world just prior to the collapse—through the creation of a comic book, the titular Station Eleven.

The narrative in Station Eleven trips across time—from months and years before the collapse, to zero hour and the years beyond. Using Arthur Leander’s death as a star around which the other characters orbit, the novel follows a wonderfully non-linear path, tracing several family histories at once, following their individual arcs and filling in the gaps along the way—showing how they’ve survived and in some cases thrived in the two decades since electricity, the Internet, and air travel went away, possibly for good.

At the end of several of these paths is the Museum of Civilization in Severn City—more accurately, in the Severn City airport, where many survivors hunkered down and rebuilt their lives following the events of that first night, when the world as they knew it ceased to be. The Museum of Civilization is a memorial for the past, housing odds and ends, trinkets and technologies devoid of purpose in the new world. Its existence brings to light questions not normally asked in similar apocalyptic narratives, like what happens to chemotherapy patients in a post-apocalyptic setting? Or people on antidepressants? On the airport tarmac, airplane tray tables have been erected as makeshift gravestones (bloody fantastic imagery). Residents of the Severn City airport reflect on the many ways they took their lives, and elements of their lives, for granted—their previous lack of patience, for example (typing “THX” instead of “Thanks” or “Thank you”).

In many ways, the Museum of Civilization is a reflection of the novel itself. Station Eleven presents a soft-spoken apocalypse, one that reads a little like a eulogy for a dead or dying world delivered to the reader as a travelogue. More often than not, the novel appears to take the road less travelled—there is violence, of course, and some of the more agreeable aspects of social conduct are jettisoned for an every-man-for-himself-style of lawlessness, which takes hold as small pocket societies form atop the remains of what came before. More than that, however, it’s a story of loneliness and silence. Of small realizations with dramatic outcomes, such as the knowledge that something so simple as stepping on a nail—a thing easily treated in the world prior to the collapse—will now almost certainly lead to a fatal infection.

Survival is clutch in Station Eleven, as one might expect, but survival isn’t always a 1:1 equation; it isn’t just about getting enough food to eat, or outfoxing potential marauders. It’s about reflecting on what was and finding ways to preserve pieces of art and culture, to carry ideas forward into… well, whatever comes next. This reflection is active within the narrative; the Travelling Symphony presents a melding of the two worlds—they’re a bridge between the artists of the past, and the survivalists and hunters of the future.

By using Arthur Leander’s death as the point around which all the narrative threads appear to rotate, author Emily St. John Mandel is afforded a multitude of opportunities to best explore this narrative of change: Arthur’s first wife, author and artist of the Station Eleven comic book; Clark, a friend of the deceased and the founder of the Museum of Civilization; the life of a social voyeur, as played in his early days by Jeevan the paparrazo; various actors, doctors, hunters, businessmen, and yes, even a self-styled prophet capitalizing on the end times.

Mandel’s vision of the future in Station Eleven is complete, from start to finish. Every thread, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, has weight and purpose to it, and is paid off through the narrative’s events. While treading on some very well worn ground, the novel manages to carve out a path all its own by focusing less on the survival aspects or the threats faced in an ungoverned, vastly depopulated world, and more on what was lost—scientifically, artistically, culturally—the night the Georgia Flu struck in earnest.

Despite the presence of death veining the narrative at every turn, Station Eleven remains unexpectedly beautiful and affirming throughout. This is apocalyptic lit done right—easily a single-sitting read. Highly recommended.

Review: After Birth, by Elisa Albert

61Koe5UF6BL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_>>Published: February 2015

>>Finally got around to it: April 2015

Why couldn’t I just enjoy it? Why couldn’t I be calm and at peace and fulfilled and engorged and certain and calm? Why did lack of sleep make me feel like I was going to die? And why then couldn’t I simply hand the baby over to someone else and take a nap? And why, when he cried, when I had nursed and burped and hugged and kissed and changed and nursed and burped and changed again, when he kept crying, when the crying went on and he wouldn’t sleep and the days unwound sunrise to sunset, when I hadn’t eaten or changed clothes or bathed, when I had no one to talk to, no one to sit with, did I feel like putting him safely down in his crib and walking out into the park and sitting on a bench without my coat on until I died? Why so numb, so incapable, so enraged, so broken?

It’s in your blood, my mother said, and laughed.

Rest for a while, Paul would say.

No, there would be no rest for me. There was no rest to be had. There was no escaping the brutal enormity of it: I had had a baby. I had been cut in half for no good reason, and no number of dissolving stitches was ever going to make me whole again. The hysterical imperative was to Feed Him from Myself continuously, no compromise. I had to be vigilant. Omnipresent. I had fallen victim to a commonplace violence, and now I had this baby and there was too much at stake. I had failed him out of the gate. Deprived him the vital, epic journey through the birth canal, my poor doped-up kitten. Poor helpless boy.

***

A year ago, Ariella—Ari—gave birth by way of caesarean section to a beautiful baby boy named Walker. Ever since she’s been struggling to understand her new self, to come to terms with the ways in which her world, her reality, has been irrevocably altered.

Ari is not alone on this largely unguided journey, but her support base is limited. She and her husband Paul (fifteen years her senior—he an associate professor, she a grad student when they first met) share a home in Utrecht, New York. Paul is an all-around good guy; he loves his wife and new son and is eager to be the best parent he can be. Then there are Crisp and Jerry, a neighbourhood couple Ari relies upon for emotional support, especially immediately following Walker’s birth.

Beyond Paul, Crisp, and Jerry, however, Ari’s world is limited. Her mother died young from cancer, when Ari was in seventh grade, and her relationship with her father is not all that great. Additionally, while we meet many of Ari’s “friends” and acquaintances throughout, as she narrates in non-linear fashion her upbringing and adolescence, she is not one to regularly court, or for that matter maintain friendships. As a matter of fact, she’s openly hostile and mistrusting of most women.

Enter Mina Morris. Mina is a poet and former rock star—bassist for the late-’80s Oregon girl band the Misogynists. One of those bands that never made it beyond small clubs and dive bars yet managed somehow to cultivate a legacy of their very own amongst a small but intensely devoted fan base. At the novel’s outset, Mina is living in Crisp and Jerry’s house while they are away. She’s alone and about ready to burst with a child of her own.

But Mina isn’t just another woman. For Ari, Mina is something of a kindred spirit—someone in whom she sees her own personality (abrasive, quick to judge, even quicker to cut) reflected, even accentuated; with whom she can be vulnerable—to a degree. Ari tests the waters a bit and finds Mina at first cool and disinterested. It’s only after Mina gives birth that she begins to open up to Ari, and the two of them quickly bond over the surreality of their changed worlds and the lives now wholly dependent upon them.

In After Birth, author Elisa Albert employs form first and foremost as a function of emotion. Ari is, in the wake of childbirth, disconnected from the world around her. As her mind ricochets from one extreme to another, she simultaneously appears to embrace and detest motherhood. This fractured mindset is further illustrated by the ways in which the narrative leaps back and forth in time, revealing as necessary the origins of Ari via the lived experiences of both her mother (the “bitch from hell”) and her grandmother, an Auschwitz survivor with a litany of demons of her very own.

The extremes in which Ari vacillates are unsettling for the reader. We’re never comfortable, situated in one place, nor I suspect are we ever meant to be. Albert takes this a step further in the exploitation of italics in place of dialogue tags. This is something I’ve expressed having difficulty with in the past, feeling as if a lack of dialogue tags (quotation marks, specifically) hampers my ability to truly lose myself in a narrative. In many cases, I feel a lack of quotation marks removes some element of personality from a narrative, turning an otherwise engaging work of fiction into something that feels more academic or detached. This was my experience with After Birth, though I absolutely see the merits of said decision—because Ari is detached, removed from herself. Additionally, the use of italics to represent both emphasis and speech helps to blur the line between what’s real and what isn’t, which comes into play when Ari imagines the things her own mother would say to her, the ways in which she’d criticize and devalue her actions as a new mother as if she were still alive and in the room with Ari.

Still, the sense of detachment, as a reader, is present, and I found myself as a result never feeling as if I sympathized with Ari—not completely, and never as much as I wanted to. Another reason for this is the book’s tone. Albert is, to put it mildly, abrasive in her writing. Her characters are as quick as they are sharp; Ari is a verbal blade to the throat, with all manner of fucks at her disposal. Now, ordinarily I like this—Dahlia, titular star of Albert’s last novel The Book of Dahlia, is one of the more outwardly antagonistic protagonists I’ve come across, and I frigging adored her (and by the end, I practically wept for her). Ari’s tone seems at times quite similar to Dahlia’s—very similar, in fact—and just as disaffected (though their reasons are vastly different—Dahlia was dying from cancer). But where Dahlia felt like a singular creation, leaping fully formed from the page, Ari feels more like an echo—like a voice narrating from off the page rather than popping off it of her own volition. Again, while I feel this is deliberate, done in service to Ari’s journey and confusion as a new mother, it doesn’t change the fact that even by the end, with so much of her past and her family’s past laid bare, I was still unable to wrap myself around her as a three-dimensional character. Perhaps this speaks more to my own experiences—while I haven’t personally dealt with cancer, I can at least, to some tiny degree, imagine the ways in which a mind works to rationalize its changed existence and future; but giving birth, even raising a child, is something I can’t begin to fathom, let alone understand on a physical level.

The most “human” and accessible Ari appears is when she’s in the company of Mina. There’s a certain sense of idolatry in Ari’s view of Mina, as a woman so seemingly unafraid by what she’s experienced so far in life, or of what’s to come. Ari feeds off of this strength. And when late in the novel the parameters of their friendship change, Ari employs her well-trained defenses, pushing her plate away, so to speak, rather than allowing herself to cherish her last few bites of Mina.

Despite what I’m sure sounds like a lot of criticism, I still enjoyed reading After Birth. Albert is an incredibly sharp, economical writer, and this novel, interestingly enough, manages to be both fiercely personal, covering subject matter few would be so comfortable being so open about, yet strangely impersonal in form, in how it relays Ari’s experiences to the reader. But perhaps instead of trying to dissect this dichotomy further, it’s best I let Ari speak for herself:

Everyone’s so “worried” about me all the time. I haven’t really “bounced back,” as Sheryl says.

Sometimes I’m with the baby and I think: you’re my heart and my soul, and I would die for you.

Other times I think: tiny moron, leave me the fuck alone so I can slit my wrists in the bath and die in peace.

Review: Hausfrau, by Jill Alexander Essbaum

Hausfrau>>Published: March 2015

“Bored women join clubs and volunteer. Sad women have affairs.”

That’s the statement of a reductionist, Anna thought, but didn’t feel like arguing the point. “You think I’m sad?”

“Knew it the moment I saw you.” Anna asked how that was possible. “A man can smell a woman’s sadness.”

“And you smelled mine.” Anna was offended by the word “smell.” As if sadness could be covered up with roses. As if despair might be washed off with soap.

“Yes.”

“And took advantage of it.” Anna was perturbed and fascinated and something else, though she couldn’t pin it down. Guilty? Found out? Caught in the red-handed act? Something like that.

Archie corrected her. “And responded to it.”

“There’s a difference?”

“You’re not sad?”

This time it was Anna’s turn. “Irrelevant,” she lied. She shifted in bed. Neither spoke for a minute or two. “What do you like about me?”

Archie laughed. “So it’s that kind of talk we’re having, eh?” Anna shook her head and Archie softened. “You’re complicated. You can’t be cracked.”

Like a safe. Except I’m not. “Thanks, I guess.”

“You’re welcome.” They settled onto their backs, each looking up at the ceiling. “Why’d you say yes?”

Now it was Anna’s turn to laugh. “What else would I have said?”

***

Anna Benz is a thirty-seven-year-old American housewife and mother of three (sons Charles and Victor, ten-month-old daughter Polly Jean). She lives in Switzerland with her husband Bruno, a banker with Credit Suisse, and leads a fairly uneventful life: she takes German language classes, has regular appointments with a therapist—oh, and she’s having an affair. We mustn’t forget that.

Told over three months, and spanning several years via flashbacks, Jill Alexander Essbaun’s Hausfrau is first and foremost a tale of disaffection and dissatisfaction. Anna is very much a fish out of water, despite having lived in Switzerland since 1998—in Dietlikon, Bruno’s hometown, near Zürich. From the beginning it’s obvious Anna isn’t content with her life. She is comfortable in the sense that she has a family and her husband is gainfully employed, but her comfort ends there. She has never quite acclimated to her environment, and thus is forced to rely on Bruno more than she’d like in order to navigate Swiss life. And though she loves her children, she never imagined herself as a mother, nor can she say with certainty that she truly loves her husband. She has a “version” of love for him, as she states several times throughout, but not true love—not the genuine article.

This is the crux of the novel: the search for love—the real thing—amidst so many different versions of it. For Anna, this quest entails stepping out on her husband and engaging in affairs with other men—three, to be precise. When we first meet her she’s already involved with her second, Archie Sutherland, a Scottish man she meets in her German language class. Archie and Anna connect more or less immediately, and soon she’s risking everything by going off with him whenever possible to… well, not make love, as love has nothing to do with it, but to fuck (a fact driven home by Archie’s overtly vulgar language—he talks dirty like someone who thinks they’re being erotic when really they’re just gross and indelicate). Because for Anna, there was only one true-blue love: her first affair, with scientist and academic Stephen Nicodemus. It’s her short relationship with Stephen that implanted her mind with a false narrative of what true love looks like—if it even exists at all. And as Anna’s relationship with Archie, and later Karl, continues to pull her away from her family, in sometimes life-altering ways, she is also pulled further toward reflection—on what was, and what might still be were she to decide to walk away from the equally disaffected and controlling Bruno once and for all.

Hausfrau’s structure is a bit intimidating at first. Essbaum jumps around somewhat erratically between several points in time: the present is constantly interrupted by quick sojourns into the past, or to her therapist Doktor Messerli’s office. These rapid-fire jumps in time accomplish several things: beyond simply revealing more of Anna’s personality and indiscretions, they also offer insight into her detached emotional state, compounded by the narrative’s apparent inability to stay in one place for too long. Physically, the somewhat nonlinear structure, broken into such short chunks, helps move the narrative along with a pace akin to that of a thriller or a mystery novel.

While Hausfrau remains an engaging read from beginning to end, Anna herself is a frustrating character, though deliberately so. Despite being apparently well-versed in actually conducting an affair, she’s sloppy and not all that adept at sneaking around. For much of the narrative I assumed that, on some level, this was because she wanted to be caught—to be confronted by her infidelities, as if doing so would provide her with the spark necessary to finally abandon Bruno and find whatever it is she’s searching for. However, when one of her sons accidentally discovers Anna and Archie kissing, Anna goes to great lengths not in concocting some elaborate reason as to why they were together but instead to threaten her offspring, to the point of tears, into keeping his mouth shut about the whole thing. It’s in this late-in-the-novel interaction that Anna’s selfishness (and borderline sociopathy) was fully revealed to me, and any lingering sympathy I had for her went out the window.

Fortunately, sympathy is not a requisite for enjoying a novel, and Anna’s actions were not without a horrible karmic backlash on multiple fronts of which I won’t spoil here. Suffice it to say, the novel did not go where I expected it to, with Charles, the son who saw Anna and Archie together, being used as a will-he-or-won’t-he-spill-the-beans plot device. Without wanting to give too much away, the novel’s final month, November, is brutal, raw, and expertly pays off what has been previously established.

I also appreciated the emotional power struggle that takes place to all sides of Anna throughout. While she herself came across as self-centred and at times quite morally vacant, the characters of Mary, Edith, and Doktor Messerli play pivotal roles as, respectively, the angel and devil on Anna’s shoulders, and the unemotional ethical compass positioned between the two. Their presence offers a set of much-needed emotional counterweights to the men in Anna’s life, all of who seem frequently reticent and one-dimensional.

Hausfrau isn’t a comforting read. The novel is laced with tragedy to varying degrees, and by the time the final chapter is reached, it’s obvious just how much of the narrative has been a slow, inevitable spiral down a drain of Anna’s own making. It is in the realization, near the end, that she was never as alone as she thought, that all her decisions and the cost of her actions, having destroyed whatever equilibrium she’d achieved, were based on something categorically untrue, that the narrative’s tragic underpinnings are painfully laid bare.

When speaking about pain, Doktor Messerli explains early on, “It’s instructive. It warns of impending events. Pain precedes change. It is a tool.” In many ways, this is the thesis for the entire novel. It rings true throughout, echoing through the details of Anna’s first versions of love through to the haunting, absolutely fucking perfect final line, when everything becomes clear to the reader: Anna sacrificed her entire life and the lives of those around her in the pursuit of a version of something she only ever imagined but never actually had.

Review: Crystal Eaters, by Shane Jones

18220681>>Published: July 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

“You wanted to see.”

Remy’s shoulders fold inward and her stomach absorbs a hammer. Sharp pieces of crystal trickle down inside her. She’s never seen a body get this far.

Mom’s face has lost meat the skull once held. And Dad was right, something is wrong with her mouth, as if she chewed bricks. Her eyes are glazed and rust-colored. Soon, her left eye will drip crystals (Chapter 5, Death Movement, Book 8). Her nose is hardened ash that Remy imagines if she touched would crumble. Gray hair gunked with shit fans her pillow. Dad repeats Can you hear us? Can you? Are you okay? and Remy thinks Don’t leave me. Smell of dead dogs. Smell of burning. She peels the blanket from Mom’s feet and sees the skin is a darker red compared to her face and neck, and even her veins, once strong and blue, have disappeared beneath this new red shell. A lack of circulation results in the color red drying everything up, erasing the last crystals in the body (Chapter 9, Death Movement, Book 8). The red is moving toward her chest and aiming to stop her heart.

“You don’t have to be here,” says Dad, in a softer tone now that he’s seen Remy’s reaction. “I know you’ve heard this before, from me, from books, and maybe you don’t believe it, but it’s never been disproved. Parents go and their children step into their place. There’s nothing wrong with just letting that happen.”

***

And then there are the books you desperately want to like, though they just never seem to work, no matter how interesting the central conceit first appears.

Shane Jones’ Crystal Eaters is more of an attempt at crafting a modern-day fable than it is a novel. The story focuses on Remy, a young girl living in a nameless village that believes in the crystal count—that everyone, when they are born, has one hundred crystals inside of them, and that through illness, disease, accidents, etc., their count gradually plummets toward zero—toward death. The count never increases; life moves in only one direction. In many ways, the imagined system is similar in concept to the lives in a video game, though considerably less structured.

Early on, we discover that Remy’s mother is dying—her count is almost down to nothing (reflected physically by the book’s unconventional structure—beginning at chapter 40 and page 183, and counting down to the end). Her brother Pants is in prison, and her father is distant. Therefore, it is up to Remy to do what no one else has ever done and find a way to increase her mother’s dwindling crystal count. Meanwhile, the city—the world outside—is encroaching on the village with abject disregard (and confusion) toward the crystal mine and the village’s seemingly absurd beliefs.

As implied at the start of this review, I had a great many problems with Crystal Eaters. The story offers a unique idea at its core, but it doesn’t manage to grow beyond the gestation stage—the concept just never takes hold. Much of the issue rests with the fact that Jones never seems to fully commit to the strangeness of the crystal count culture. The people in the village, as it is described, see and interact with the crystals, though to the outside world it is a baffling, illogical conceit. And even among the outside world there seems to be different levels of acknowledgement—from the guard who tells Pants that the village’s problem is that it believes in rocks and not God (thereby acknowledging the village’s belief in the crystal count) to the people at the hospital at the end, caring for Remy’s mother in her final moments, who appear to be utterly confused by even the mention of crystals.

To take this a step further, the comment made about believing in God versus believing in rocks illustrates an even deeper problem with this book. Jones presents the city at one point as a godless device—evidence of secular humanistic progress threatening to overwhelm an old-world belief structure (development crushing religion beneath its thumb)—but then introduces the concept of God in the aforementioned conversation with Pants, revealing that the crystals are not, as initially assumed, an analogue for faith versus science/technology/progress, but are their own isolated offshoot akin to a splinter group of a larger faith, one nearing the end of its existence. And then, later, when it’s revealed that while the crystals are the very essence of life to those in the village, they also market them to the outside world for use in jewellery or New Age yoga practices. This again shatters the analogue by stripping the metaphor—the crystals—of any semblance of otherworldly impact or effect, turning them into little more than a trinket.

Short of the outside world feeling confusion at the village dwellers, there’s also little to no indication that they are even grounded within the same reality, and that all that is different between them are their beliefs. The village in this story seems to exist in a bubble, which I found frustrating and negatively affected any hope of narrative cohesion. It’s as if the city (the outside world) isn’t so much a threat to the village as it is a character in a different story altogether. What this all means is that Crystal Eaters never successfully marries its metaphor to the story being told. It never goes far enough with the conceit, preferring to leave it as a surface-level idea unwilling to throw enough of its weight in any one direction. It’s like a designer setting an image deliberately off-centre in an attempt to unsettle its viewers, but not going far enough that it doesn’t appear to be a mistake.

It’s stated somewhere near the start of the book that “The village survives on myth, but myths generally have a root to them, a set of rules, and the village in Crystal Eaters doesn’t ever establish its own rule set, rather it seems to exist both in its mythology, but also attempts to have a place in the real world. Jones attempts to blur the lines with things like the black crystal, which is analogous to both addiction and faith-based reliance (providing the illusory effect of one’s crystal count increasing—like someone getting high and believing they are invincible). But the black crystal is a myth within an already loose mythology, and never seems like anything more than a red herring to distract Remy from the reality of her mother’s approaching death.

I feel as though I could have forgiven many of the book’s storytelling faults had I found more to love with its moment-to-moment writing. Here, too, Crystal Eaters falls unfortunately short. I found little to love in Jones’ often staccato writing. Ordinarily I am drawn to writing that breaks with convention, but in Jones’ case what was left out seemed essential. The conversations feel broken and fragmented, as if critical strands of dialogue have been unnecessarily excised in favour of abstraction. As a consequence of this, not one character voice seems different from another—everyone bleeds together in forced, truncated tones stripped of all colour (which is somewhat ironic given the attempt to flood the world with colour via use of the crystals). I also found much of the sentence structure to be distractingly passive and just not engaging.

When all is said and done, Crystal Eaters feels less like a novel, or even a fable, and more like a short story blown out but not filled out. It reads like the first pass of an idea that might have proven interesting had it been more thoroughly/tonally developed (the imagery is too one-dimensional—throw in the word “crystal” and suddenly everything’s weird and metaphorical!). I do appreciate what I think Jones was going for on a conceptual level, but it just never arrived at its destination for me. The book felt, sadly, like an idea executed but not ever realized.

Review: Rapture, by Kameron Hurley

RAPTURE-COVER-FINAL>>Published: October 2012

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

Fatima scrambled up. She grabbed the paper, shoved it toward her. “Just bleed on it and you’re a bel dame again, Nyx.”

“And you can control me.”

“Nyx, if you knew who we were after—”

“Fuck you. And fuck the Queen.”

“The bel dames made you, Nyx. They can unmake you.”

Nyx started to the door, only half expecting to get a knife in her back.

“It’s Raine al Alharazad,” Fatima said. “Your old boss.”

Nyx stopped in the doorway.

“He’s head of the broederbond now. He went missing three weeks ago. Rain’s always been a disgruntled activist. You knew that. But he showed up here five years ago calling himself Hamza Habib and growing a far larger following than ever before. We think he’ll be elected to the ruling council after the Queen forms the new government, if the boys have their way.”

Nyx let out a long breath, like she’d been punched in the gut. “Raine is dead. I put a sword through him and left him to die in a ditch in Chenja. A long time ago.”

“People don’t stay dead in Nasheen,” Fatima said. “You know that better than most of us.”

***

Seven years have passed since the end of Infidel, the second book in author Kameron Hurley’s Bel Dame Apocrypha. At the start of Rapture, the third and final entry in the series, Nyxnissa So Dasheem—Nyx—the former bel dame assassin/mercenary, is living in exile with former teammate Anneke and her lover Radeyah. It’s a quiet-ish existence, for the most part—following the events at the end of the previous book, Nyx’s team has scattered, each following new (and most importantly separate) paths. But when Mercia, the young ambassador’s daughter who Nyx was hired to protect at the start of Infidel, reappears in Nyx’s life with an offer she can’t refuse, Nyx releases whatever tenuous hold she had over the life she was attempting to build and re-enters the fray.

Nyx is promised a return to the bel dames if she completes a task for Fatima. The job? To retrieve a kidnapped politician and avert all-out civil war. And to bring him in alive—something Nyx hasn’t had all that much experience with.

Rapture sees the world of Umayma at a crossroads. The centuries-long war between Nasheen and Chenja has come to an end, resulting in an incredible number of boys being sent back from the front and deposited on the streets. Simultaneously, the shifters, led to some extent by Inaya, are making a push for safety and equality, demanding that the world see them for what they are. But while this powder keg of civil rights issues festers and percolates, spinning around the disappearance of the aforementioned politician, another threat rises in the form of the First Families who seek to take control of the world they helped to manufacture in the first place. They are ancient, they are legion, and they have the power to remake—and unmake—the world.

Rapture, like Infidel before it, takes a unique approach in telling a single, overarching narrative. Building on the culture introduced in God’s War, the first book in the series, Hurley takes the long road by setting each book years apart from the last (six years between the first two; seven years between books two and three). As a result of this, and Hurley’s exceptional waste-no-time-and-suffer-no-fools approach to world building, Umayma exists and develops off the page. The culture shifts and evolves while we’re not present, forcing us to catch up quick with each window offered into this world.

The same can be said for Hurley’s characters. Most of the cast from books one and two have returned, though their circumstances have changed rather dramatically: Eshe and Inaya are working together fighting for the rights of shifters; Khos, Inaya’s husband, has been abandoned for his wife’s cause; Anneke is briefly seen hosting Nyx in exile. It’s Rhys, however, who is seemingly having the hardest go of things following the tragedy his family faced in Infidel, when his children were murdered and his hands were cut off. Though he and his wife Elahyiah have started a new family, Rhys is unable to move on and let go of his past.

The new cast—Nyx’s new team—is a mixed bag of instabilities and shady pasts. There are Kage and Ahmed, both on the run from those who would hunt them; Eshe, the only returning team member, and Isabet, who is unable—or unwilling—to leave his side; and the bel dame Khatijah and her possibly mad sister (and shit magician) Eskander. Together, the strange and untested group is en route to the wall—a two kilometre high living wall at the end of the world that they must find a way over if they are to retrieve their target. Between their starting point and the wall, however, is a brutal journey that will test—and threaten—each and every one of them.

Rapture, from the very beginning, feels different than the two books that came before. Make no mistake: it’s an excellent book and I damn well loved it. But there’s a noticeable change in tone. It’s an end-of-life book—it very much marks, and feels as though it does, the end of Nyx’s storied, deadly career. The new team never quite gels, but it’s not necessarily supposed to, for the reader or for Nyx. The gathering of personalities she accumulates for this final mission is a combustible assortment of lost souls searching for, or running from, a fight. They aren’t Nyx’s family—they’re barely even her allies. They’re there because they need to be, because she needs them, and because she simply has no fucks left to give. When she stops serving a purpose, so do they.

At the same time, Inaya has abandoned her family for her own fight, and Rhys’s inability to let go of the violence in his past has effectively driven his family away. Across the board, personalities in Rapture have been torn asunder; even in peacetime, those living in Nyx’s shadow are unable to escape the dark.

Which makes the fact that Nyx is tasked with bringing Raine in alive all that much more ironic. Because Nyx is a killer—it’s all she knows. And as if to drive home her lack of purpose in a world moving toward peace, Raine’s kidnapping is proof of one essential thing: that nothing stays dead in Umayma, and that Nyx will never, ever be free from her past—not while she still has breath in her lungs.

As an end-of-life tale, much of what occurs over the course of the book serves as the slow dismantling of everything Nyx was as a person. Every action, every look of revulsion she receives for how she pushes forward, is another chunk taken out of her wall (not-so-subtly personified by the fact that it’s a giant living wall that provides the group with their most visible obstacle).

As with the previous two books in the series, it’s the will-they-or-won’t-they between Nyx and Rhys that offers the story’s most tangible emotional anchor. The two have always been on opposite ends of any and all ethical debates—and that’s to say nothing of the racial and religious divides that have come between them, or the fact that it was bel dames who shattered whatever chance Rhys and his family had once had for happiness. But regardless of their differences, there has always been a connection between them—almost like love without real affection, if that makes any sense. Post-armistice, both Nyx and Rhys are forced to re-evaluate their worth in the world. It’s only through being forced into each other’s paths again after so long apart that the depths of what they feel for one another is ever addressed, as is the impossibility of any future between them. This is beautifully rendered when, near the end, Rhys rushes toward Nyx, embraces her, and says, “I have always been happier without you.” It’s just fucking perfect and says everything necessary about their relationship—that they will always be drawn to one another, for some inexplicable reason, though both know that to act on that would destroy either’s chance at peace.

In Hurley’s kill-or-be-killed world, this is an absolute perfect exclamation of love. And just how gloriously fucked up is that.

There’s so much more I want to say about Rapture, from Inaya’s prison escape that would make Hannibal Lecter proud; to the glorious gore of the blood-thirsty sand that devours people, leaving only empty husks behind; to its Sopranos-ass ending, which manages to be both ambiguous and final—and most importantly, earned, a perfect summation of Nyx’s life, times, and crimes. Rare is the trilogy that succeeds and grows in confidence and quality all the way through to the end. There is little, if anything, to be disappointed about regarding Hurley’s Apocrypha. This is an exquisite series, not to be missed under any circumstances.

Review: My Age of Anxiety, by Scott Stossel

17737025>>Published: January 2014

>>Finally got around to it: March 2015

In short, I have since the age of about two been a twitchy bundle of phobias, fears, and neuroses. And I have, since the age of ten, when I was first taken to a mental hospital for evaluation and then referred to a psychiatrist for treatment, tried in various ways to overcome my anxiety.

Here’s what I’ve tried: individual psychotherapy (three decades of it), family therapy, group therapy, cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), rational emotive therapy (RET), acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT), hypnosis, meditation, role-playing, interoceptive exposure therapy, in vivo exposure therapy, supportive-expressive therapy, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR), self-help workbooks, massage therapy, prayer, acupuncture, yoga, Stoic philosophy, and audiotapes I ordered off a late-night TV infomercial.

And medication. Lots of medication. Thorazine. Imipramine. Desipramine. Chlorpheniramine. Nardil. BuSpar. Prozac. Zoloft. Paxil. Wellbutrin. Effexor. Celexa. Lexapro. Cymbalta. Luvox. Trazodone. Levoxyl. Propranolol. Tranxene. Serax. Centrax. St. John’s wort. Zolpidem. Valium. Librium. Ativan. Xanax. Klonopin.

Also: beer, wine, gin, bourbon, vodka, and scotch.

Here’s what’s worked: nothing.

***

A funny thing happened to me while reading Scott Stossel’s My Age of Anxiety: I started feeling panicked. Not all the time, but in spots, such as when the author offered up an especially humiliating anecdote involving himself, Martha’s Vineyard, and a plumbing situation extracted directly from the deepest, darkest corners of my nightmares.

As a socially anxious person who suffers a great deal from the tension resulting from incidents of second-hand embarrassment, many of Stossel’s stories had me squirming as I read them. At the same time, however, while reading I realized that as much as anxiety in various forms has impacted my life, what I’ve dealt with so far is child’s play compared to the ordeals faced by some. Which I suppose is one of the strength’s of Stossel’s book—it both illuminates and to some degree quantifies the many different experiences and forms of anxiety, and a life led beneath its umbrella.

My Age of Anxiety is part academic analysis, part historical text, and part memoir/tell-all regarding the many up and downs and idiosyncrasies of a life built up and around a multi-headed core of anxieties. Stossel holds nothing back—he disarms the reader with total honesty, diving into his and his family’s histories dealing with neuroses of all shades, with special attention given to his mother’s overprotective, often smothering nature.

From a very young age, Stossel was routinely assaulted by his anxieties (one of the most prominent being emetophobia—a pathological fear of vomit and throwing up). These anxieties and fears, and their impact on his life, are the through-line around which he discusses the very nature of anxiety and its historical development in the psychoanalytical community; the evolution of pharmacological care and treatment; and the philosophy surrounding anxiety and whether it is a result of nature, nurture, or some impossible to pin-down combination thereof. Indeed he states that anxiety “is a function of biology and philosophy, body and mind, instinct and reason, personality and culture,” with no single villain to target or wound to cauterize in order to quell the noise.

The academic aspects of the book are strong. Stossel goes into great depth with respect to the evolution of anxiety—from Freud’s belief that anxiety is a riddle, the solving of which would “throw a flood light on our whole mental existence,” to detractors claiming that anxiety is nothing more than shyness given gravitas, to its eventual inclusion in the DSM—and the cultures and industries that have developed around it. However, it’s the personal accounts that I was most interested in, specifically the well-tread-but-still-interesting details regarding famous creatives who’ve suffered with anxiety and thrived either as a result of or in spite of their condition. The supposed ties between anxiety and creative genius are nothing new, but Stossel grounds them in modern society, referencing the uptick in evidence of extreme anxiety (social or otherwise) in creative types as being related to the work of another author, Barry Schwartz, who discusses in his book The Paradox of Choice (an excellent read) how the possibilities now open to us, as individuals, create a certain amount of anxiety due to the difficulty inherent in deciding our fates for ourselves, and in the increased public image that is so often associated with creative success of any kind.

Overall I wouldn’t say I enjoyed reading My Age of Anxiety so much as I found it illuminating. Stossel’s bare-all approach is both the book’s greatest asset and its most obvious weakness. But I can only cite it as such through my personal experience with the book, which involved being unexpectedly affected by the honesty with which the author relays his history. On a purely informational level, it’s a fantastic read—thoroughly researched and well organized. Definitely recommended, but be warned: it might trigger more than you expect.