Tag: magical realism

Joyce Carol Oates, ‘Fossil-Figures’ (2010)

The tale of twin brothers Edward and Edgar Waldman; the former small and sickly, the latter healthy and successful, having literally been a parasite on his brother in the womb. As their lives progress, the ‘demon brother’ Edgar becomes a Congressman, and Edward remains in the family home, the reclusive painter of a series of grotesque pieces – and an elegant reversal gets underway.

Oates’s prose is dense, with long paragraphs and repeated phrases, which has the effect of putting distance between the reader and events – there’s no forgetting that this a story being told. It heightens the sense of strangeness, and is particularly effective towards the beginning, when one gets caught up in the swirl of words describing the twins in the womb and as young children. Oates doesn’t maintain quite the same level of intensity throughout the story, but ‘Fossil-Figures’ is still a worthwhile read.

Rating: ***½

The Little Stranger (2009) by Sarah Waters

The Little Stranger is my first Sarah Waters book, and one about which I’ve heard mixed opinions. But the proof of the pudding is, of course, in the eating (or, in this case, the reading) – and, wouldn’t you know, I’ve ended up with a mixed opinion myself. Thinking about it, though, that’s quite appropriate; because this is, in a quite literal sense, a mixed book.

Our narrator is one Dr Faraday, a GP in rural 1940s Warwickshire, who becomes involved with the affairs of the Ayreses, a family struggling to keep the estate of Hundreds Hall, going; just as they’re struggling to find a place in the modern world. A series of strange events — the family dog biting a young girl, a mysterious fire, and yet others — puts the household under further strain. The occurrences become stranger still: is there a rational explanation for it all, or could Hundreds Hall be haunted?

The Little Stranger is, then, at once two things: a ghost story, and a portrait of the decline of the landed gentry in post-war Britain. Its problem, I think, is that these two aspects sit awkwardly together — and, at times, may even work against each other. As an evocation of a point in history, I find the novel to be very good: Faraday’s rather stiff narrative voice places the reader effectively in the period — I, for one, never caught a whiff of anachronism — and Waters lays bare some of the pressures (social, economic, and otherwise) at work; be they pressure on the Ayreses to sell off land for property development, of the awkwardness and difficulty of moving between social strata, as Faraday did when he became a doctor.

No, it’s the ghost story which is problematic. Waters keeps things ambiguous — which would be fine, except I can’t quite believe in the ambiguity. For it to work, both the rational and supernatural explanations must be plausible and implausible at the same time. The rational explanations put forward by Faraday and others achieve this: they’re plausible enough to account for what’s reported (Faraday never witnesses anything unequivocally supernatural himself); yet they also seem increasingly strained attempts to explain unusual events away.

The supernatural explanations, however, don’t have the same duality. I can believe, from the evidence in the text, that Hundreds Hall isn’t haunted supernaturally; but I can’ t quite believe that it could be. The house is described as decaying, but it never feels (to me) to be as though it’s more than just a decrepit old house — it never feels truly malevolent. And that makes it hard for me to believe that we’re (possibly) dealing with a haunted house.

But there’s more to this than ‘the ghost story doesn’t quite work’, because the issue cuts to the very metaphoric heart of The Little Stranger. I think Waters is trying to set up a structure where the ‘haunting’ of Hundreds Hall is a reflection of the way that the house has become a millstone around the necks of the Ayres family — in other words, the ghost-story aspect of the novel and its decline-portait aspect should intertwine, should work in harmony. However, since the ghost story isn’t as strong, statements like, ‘This house has sucked the life out of [us]…It wants to destroy us, all of us’ (spoken by Roderick Ayres, the son of the household) come across as heavy-handed attempts to drive the metaphor home (I suspect this statement might seem heavy-handed anyway, but it’s particularly so given the circumstances).

I’m not sure how well the ‘haunting’ fits in general as a metaphor for the family’s misfortune, actually. Hauntings perhaps best represent acute problems — exorcise the ghost, and healing can begin. Yet the Ayreses’ troubles are fundamentally chronic: they’re caused by social changes, for which there can be no ‘exorcism’. So, instead of going hand-in-hand with the tale of decline, too often the ghost story seems like a distraction from it. All of which is to say that The Little Stranger doesn’t work for me as an aesthetic whole.

Yet there are still ways in which the novel does succeed. To give one example, I’ve mentioned its historical portrait; to give another, Faraday is an interesting creation, by turns both a rounded individual and an empty vessel. Sometimes he’s barely there, just a window through which we can view the events at Hundreds Hall; yet the halting growth of his attraction to Caroline Ayres (the daughter of the household) takes a convincing course. In some respects, Faraday mirrors the Ayres family, as his life too is threatened by changes in society (he fears that the coming National Health Service spells the end for private practice); and, in the end, he becomes so bound up with Hundreds Hall that Faraday can be seen as ‘haunting’ the place himself, in a way.

That was my first Sarah Waters book, then: how did it go? I don’t think she achieves everything she set out to in The Little Stranger; but what she does achieve suggests to me that Waters is a very good writer when at her best — so I’ll be reading more of her work in the future.

In This Way I Was Saved (2009) by Brian DeLeeuw

In his début novel, Brian DeLeeuw brings us a story about two boys. One of the boys is real, while the other isn’t – but you may have a hard time deciding which is which. Our narrator is Daniel, who met Luke in the playground, when the latter was six. Luke is the only person who can see him; yet Daniel seems no common-or-garden ‘imaginary friend’, having apparently attained consciousness. Daniel returns home with Luke, to find a household under strain: Luke’s mother, Claire, is fragile, still affected by her own mother’s suicide; when an incident brings matters to a head, she leaves, taking Luke with her.

One day, Claire has a surprise for Luke – she’s bought him a pet dog. This new friend starts to take Daniel’s place in Luke’s life, so much so that Daniel finds his very self disintegrating. In a bid for survival, Daniel tricks Luke into poisoning the dog with some of Claire’s medication. She, of course, doesn’t believe her son when he says that Daniel told him to do it, and takes Luke to see a psychiatrist. Soon after, Luke is able to restrain Daniel, eventually locking him away inside his head, for twelve whole years. But, when Luke is eighteen, Daniel re-emerges – with his own ideas of what Luke should do, who Luke should be.

In This Way I Was Saved is quite a difficult book to evaluate. How do you judge characterisation, for example, when you can’t even trust that the narrator is – well, is, full stop? Well, let’s see: DeLeeuw has created a chilling presence in Daniel, a narrator who’s just that bit too knowing, whose voice is that bit too articulate. Not to mention that his opinions are also pretty vile; Daniel has little patience for humans and their messy emotions: when Luke finds a girl in whose company he can relax and forget his cares, Daniel just takes the view that Luke is being insincere – and the situation Daniel then engineers is not a pleasant one. As a portrait of such a cold individual, the book is a great success.

Yet there’s ambiguity here, too, as it’s possible to read Daniel as being entirely a product of Luke’s delusion. This is a more difficult reading to make, because the narration naturally invites us to view Daniel as a separate entity; and I’m not sure that the novel sustains its ambiguity through to the end. But it’s fascinating to read a scene and see it happening in two different ways simultaneously; DeLeeuw interweaves the possibilities well. The reading of Daniel-as-delusion also deepens the book’s portrait of people and lives unravelling; it’s harrowing for characters and readers alike.

In This Way I Was Saved is not without its flaws. I feel a sense of distance in the progression of the plot – as though it’s happening rather than being made to happen – which I think arises because neither Luke nor Daniel is able to truly drive the story directly. Nevertheless, I am impressed with what DeLeeuw has done in his novel. It’s easy to assume, from the first few pages, that you know who Daniel is and what has happened. I read most of the book thinking, it can’t be that simple – and, happily, it’s not.

No more of that, though, for it’s the road to spoilers. To conclude: In This Way I Was Saved is an intriguing puzzle of a book which takes you into a mind that’s not a comfortable place to visit, but that visit is compelling all the same. Whose mind is it, though? There’s a question to ponder…

Two Stories: Tim Pratt

It’s occurred to me that, if I’m going to do the occasional random short fiction review (as I did yesterday), it might be more interesting to cover two stories at once, to give a point of comparison. So let’s try that, and see how it goes. The author I’ve chosen today is Tim Pratt, whom I’d heard good things about but never actually read – though I’ve had a story collection of his on my shelves for several months, and really must get around to reading it.

Anyway, the first story I’m covering in this review is ‘A Programmatic Approach to Perfect Happiness’ (2009), published in Futurismic. The story is described by the site’s Pail Raven in his introduction as ‘a little Gonzo, a little retro, but all Tim Pratt’. I can’t really judge the last of those yet (though I suspect, and hope, that it’s true), but the first two are definitely right.

This is a robot story that has an air of old-school science fiction about it, but not in a way that comes across as a tired retread or too-knowing pastiche; it’s more that Pratt knows the area in which he’s writing, and uses its history and conventions as a way in to the story he wants to tell. Our narrator is Kirby, a sentient android who has married a human woman, April. Essentially, the tale is a portrait of familial (and extra-familial) relationships, though there are also mysterious ‘emotional viruses’ in the background (April’s daughter Wynter, usually a moody goth, has contracted a virus that makes her happy – which explains why she’s being unusually civil towards Kirby).

What I like about this story is that it’s deceptively light: it’s humorous, but searching questions are being asked underneath humour. I’ll quote a passage which illustrates both of these points (context: Wynter has just explained to Kirby why she is often difficult with him:

“I understand.” I do. Like most of my kind, I am exceptionally good at running theoretical models of human interior experience, and of constructing self-coherent theories of mind.

There’s humour here in the incongruity between the typical human platitude and Kirby’s robotic literalness (I should add that the over-formal diction Pratt uses for Kirby’s voice is just right); but deeper issues are being explored here: is a model constructed inside a sentient computer truly equivalent to human feelings? There’s more elsewhere in the story: if a robot like Kirby can reprogram himself to feel anything he wants, is a robot emotion equivalent (or less genuine? or more?) than a human one, caused by chemical changes in the brain? Then there are the ethical dilemmas, which I won’t get into, because it would spoil the story for you. Go and have a read.

The second Pratt story I read (I should say, I chose these more-or-less at random) is ‘Her Voice in a Bottle’ (2009) from Subterranean magazine. This is a very different tale from the previous one – more serious in tone, magical realist rather than science fiction – but I can see common characteristics: playfulness and seriousness combined, and a sense of putting a well-worn theme to work. I still haven’t made up my mind about the story – not about whether I like it (I do), but about whether it pushes its luck too far.

You see, the protagonist is a fictionalised version of Pratt himself, yet the story purports to be ‘filled with true stories of my life’ (I say ‘purports’ because I have no way to judge how far that’s true), whilst acknowledging and reflecting upon its own fictitiousness. I’m wondering if the piece is too self-referential for its own good… on balance, it probably isn’t, otherwise I wouldn’t be asking myself the question! And, to be fair, the metafictionality (is that even a word?) is integral to the project of the story.

So, we have our protagonist, Tim (for the sake of clarity, I’ll refer to the character as ‘Tim’ and the author as ‘Pratt’), who tells us about his ex-girlfriend, Meredith, who flits in and out of his life like a recurring dream. I use that phrase quite deliberately: she is apparently able to appear and disappear at will; no one other than Tim actually ever meets her; and nothing else is quite as real to him when he’s in her presence.

All this leads naturally to the assumption that Meredith is a product of Tim’s imagination, made flesh only in his own mind; but Pratt knows this, and addresses it directly – coming to the conclusion (as I read it) that whether Meredith is real or not makes no difference, because the effect she has is the same either way. ‘Her Voice in a Bottle’ evokes a kind of young love that’s like a whirlwind, that seems more vivid in later years than it probably (but who can say?) than it was at the time; and the story asks, would you want to return and find out what it was really like, or are you content with your memories, inaccurate though they may be? A fascinating, thoughtful piece. Go and have a read of this one, too.

These two stories are very different, but I found both to be equally accomplished and a joy to read. I really, really do need to read more of Tim Pratt.

Knight Crew (2009) by Nicky Singer

Just when you think there are no new twists to be found on the Arthurian mythos, along comes Nicky Singer’s Knight Crew, which takes place among feuding street gangs in a contemporary British city.

Our narrator is Art who, along with his hot-headed brother Mordec, is a member of the (mostly mixed-race) Knight Crew, rival gang to the (white) Saxons. Tensions escalate between the two gangs when, in the heat of a fight, Art fatally stabs a member of the Saxons – but it’s OG, the leader of the Knight Crew who ends up being held by the police, leaving a power vacuum. Myrtle, the strange old ‘baglady without a bag’, has prophesied that one day, Art will become ‘king’ – and, in due course, he does. But if Art wants to find happiness with his girl, Quin, he’ll have to deal with Mordec’s ambitions; Lance, the dashing white knight who later appears on the scene; and the Saxons, who are out for revenge…

Let’s be clear at the start that Knight Crew is not an Arthurian fantasy – it’s not a case of gangs throwing magic at each other, or anything like that (the only ‘spells’ in the book are periods of imprisonment). Rather, the purpose of the Arthurian references is to dictate the shape of the book. This goes far beyond superficial naming, and into the heart of the issues with which Singer is concerned (for example, knives gain a similar significance to the Crew as Excalibur has as a symbol of Arthur), not to mention the trajectory of the plot (there are signals throughout that all ends in tragedy; this point is probably laboured too much, but still I didn’t foresee what actually happens).

The Arthurian elements also give the story something of a timeless quality – not entirely so, as we’re recognisably in contemporary Britain; but there’s a sense that Knight Crew takes place in its own little world. The city in which it is set is not named – it’s probably London, but the lack of any recognisable place names generates a feel of somewhere to one side of reality. This works well with the bold strokes of the plot; but I was also going to say that it acts as a cushion, even if only in a small way, from the harsh reality of the gangs’ world.

Ah, but it’s not that simple, because the life of the gangs creates its own sense of being in a discrete bubble of reality. The vast majority of the book takes place ‘inside’ the Knight Crew: when the plot intersects with life outside, it is like stepping into another world. One of the key themes of Knight Crew is the power of words to make change, to shape reality; and we see this very clearly in the book – the Crew’s street argot is a way in which they structure their identity, but it proves inadequate for Art as he struggles to come to terms with what he has done: ‘murdered is not the same as merked [street slang for killing]. It’s more serious. More dreadful.’ The contrast between the street language Art uses in dialogue and his more conventional narrative voice is symbolic of the emotional transformation he undergoes over the course of the novel.

Art himself is a pleasingly rounded character, very much a flawed hero. He recognises that he has done wrong, and does his best to change, but never becomes squeaky-clean (he’s not above petty jealousy of Lance, for example). Not all of the characterisation is as sharp, which is fine to an extent (the Knight Crew are all about action, not reflection), but it does leave some of the minor characters hard to tell apart.

I haven’t really mentioned the prose yet; and I should, because Singer writes some beautiful passages – such as this expression of the burgeoning love between Art and Quin [edited slightly to avoid a spoiler]:

I took her then, took her in my arms and pressed my lips over hers as if I could take some of that sorrow and that joy in mouth. She gave herself to me, folded into me, all arms and softness and wanting and no division at all, and that lit something in both of us and we were mad and passionate for a while, tumbling on the earth beside the canal…and under the stars…

I also haven’t gone into much detail about the plot, and don’t really feel a need to. It seems to me that the details of Knight Crew’s plot are less important than its broader arcs; after all, the book draws on one of the most fundamental of all British stories, a story which deals in archetypes. Nicky Singer has brought together the old and new to craft a fable that demonstrates the enduring relevance of even the most apparently well-worn legends, whilst asking questions about the world in which we live today.


I understand that Knight Crew is currently being adapted into an opera, to be staged next year. Now, I don’t pretend to know anything about opera, but I can see this working well; it’s the kind of story that could be told well in song. It’ll be interesting to see the results, anyway.

Cern Zoo: Nemonymous Nine (2009)

Nemonymous, that annual extravaganthus of unattributed fiction curated by Des Lewis, returns for a ninth outing. As ever, the authors involved are listed only on the back cover; they are: Rosalind Barden; Gary McMahon; Amy Kinmond; Tim Nickels; Bob Lock; Lesley Corina; Jacqueline Seewald; Dominy Clements; A.J. Kirby; Brendan Connell; Daniel Ausema; Gary Fry; Mick Finlay; Robert Neilson; Steve Duffy; Geoff Lowe; Stephen Bacon; Rod Hamon; Lee Hughes; Lyn Michaud; Tony Lovell; A.C. Wise; Roy Gray; and Travis K. Weltman. But as to who wrote what, we can only guess for now.

The stories in Cern Zoo are a nicely eclectic bunch; this is true not only of their subject matter, but also of their relationships to the anthologys title, which range from close to non-existent (as far as I could see). Some tales take inspiration from CERN and the Large Hadron Collider, such as ‘Being of Sound Mind’, whose retired narrator finds one day that a young girlk has inexplicably appeared in his house. He tries to work out what’s going on, whilst struggling against the tide of suspicion — and we readers have our own bit of detective work to do, to understand why the narration switches between first- and second-person. I think it’s fair to say that CERN aspect feels a little ‘tacked on’ (though it’s necessary for the story); but the rest is beautifully disorientating — to the very end, we can’t be sure whether all this is just in the narrator’s mind.

Other contributors base their stories around zoos. ‘The Lion’s Den’ tells of strange happenings in a zoo, beginning with a boy throwing himself into a lion enclosure. Of course, he’s set upon and killed — but no trace of him remains, not even a speck of blood. Then the lions are seen outside their enclosure, in places where it would be impossible for them to be — and so on. The zoo-related material in this story is fascinating; if based on actuality (as I assume it is), it reveals aspects of working life in a zoo that I had never really considered. And the events of the plot — and their implications — are powerful, all the more so because they remain mysterious.

Some of the tales use the image of chalk figures like the Cerne Abbass giant. One such story is ‘The Rude Man’s Menagerie’, in which Rebs, working on the remains of her late father’s Michigan tree farm, discovers the chalk figure of a man who appears to have drawn various animals to himself. The man appears malevolent, and Rebs resolves to free the animals — but how? This is a satisfying piece of fantasy that runs on its own internal logic; by the time reality comes gently free of it moorings, one is happy to go along.

In still other stories, ‘Cern Zoo’ (if it features at all) is really just a name. ‘The Ozymandias Site’ takes us to the Moon, where some future species (from the world of Cerne) has travelled to investigate the ‘giant leaping creature that once accompanied [them] in the universe’. No prizes for guessing that we are those long-gone beings; and the expressions of human folly in the story are rather unsubtle. But what makes this talew shine is the way it’s told, as it takes you into the minds of these strange creatures who have five-part personalities in the same body. I don’t think I grasped ‘The Ozymandias Site’ fully (understandable, I think, given the manner of telling!), but the journey was worthwhile regardless.

‘The Devourer of Dreams’ is another story whose voice is the star attraction. A successful writer looks back on his childhood in post-war Suffolk. His father, an innkeeper, suddenly developed a talent for writing, and produced several best-selling books. One day, the boy discovered the macabre secret behind this turn of events — a secret he went on to exploit himself. The plot of this tale is, to be honest, nothing particularly special; but the narrattion certainly is. The author pulls off a difficult balancing-act, creating a voice which convinces as that of someone (albeit elderly) living in the present day, yet has enough of a Lovecraftian touch to give ‘The Devourer of Dreams’ the menacing atmosphere of an old weird-fiction tale.

Last year, I reviewed the previous Nemonymous anthology, Cone Zero (you can read that review here), and thought it excellent. Good as some of the stories are in the present volume, I would say that the overall quality of Cern Zoo is not quite as high — not because there are fewer good stories in the present book, but because a greater proportion (there are 24 pieces in Cern Zoo, as opposed to Cone Zero‘s 14) don’t quite have that extra something (that’s my impression, anyway). So, for example, ‘Dead Speak, with its tale of an investigation into the mysteries of CERN, starts off interestingly, but seems to me to stop before it really gets anywhere. ‘Dear Doctor’ is amusing, but essentially nothing more than a shaggy-dog story. ‘Turn the Crank’, which tells of a mysterious organ-grinder, brings a variation of the ‘malign carnival’ trope into the present day; it works, but does seem a little over-familiar.

It’s worth noting that I am being only half-critical with those exampless; that’s because I’m not talking about bad stories as such, but stories that don’t reach their full potential. For all of these, there are other tales in Cern Zoo that succeed more fully: ‘Parker’ is an intense study of someone getting rather too excited about a pen. ‘Sloth & Forgiveness’ starts with a man climing a tree naked and encountering a talking sloth; it gets away with being ridiculous simply because it never loses its conviction. ‘The Last Mermaid’ is about Carlos II of Spain, and has a heady atmosphere; it hovers on the borderline of being nothing but atmosphere, yet it has a unique ‘flavour’, as it were. On the surface, ‘Pebbles’ appears a slight story, of a girl collecting pebbles from a beach and carrying them away in her jumper; but there are subtle clues which, if I interpret them correctly, hint brilliantly at what’s going on behind the words.

I’ll finish with my personal favourite story in Cern Zoo, which is ‘Artis Eterne’. This revolves around an old pub (‘The Cerne Abbass’) and one of its fixtures, a strange man called Albert; ‘fixture’ is the right word, because he never moves from his seat. He’s there throughout our narrator’s childhood, and still there when he returns for a work conference many years later. Apparently Albert decided literally to ‘live in the moment’, and to see how long he could make that moment last — and it would seem to be working.

‘Artis Eterne’ is a joy to read because so many of its elements work beautifully together. The prose is wonderful; for example:

I was born in the kind of parochial town whose aspirations held it closer to the nearest big city than mere geography. This same giant metropolis held our status as a smaller cousin in careful equilibrium, maintaining and coveting our local charms while at the same time sending out regular raiding parties of young adults who would drink too much and too loudly, making us feel like aliens on our own streets on summer weekends.

This strikes me as a very sharp observation of life in a satellite town in contemporary Britain. And there’s more to enjoy here than just the writing: Albert’s idea captures the imagination, but best of all is how it acts as a counterpoint to the protagonist’s life, and the gravity exerted by his (or her) home town.

I wish I knew who wrote this story, so I could track down more of the author’s work. But I’ll have to wait a while before I can do that. For now, I can — and do — heartily recommend Cern Zoo to you.

For more on Cern Zoo and Nemonymous, including purchase information, visit www.nemonymous.com.

Books from FantasyCon

Three points:

1. I’ve decided to get more into photography — not in any major way, just to practise a bit and see how well I can do.

2. Yesterday, I returned from FantasyCon with… er… ‘a few’ books in tow.

3. I’ve seen other bloggers do ‘books received’ posts, but never done any like that myself.

Combining all these three, I present to you some gratuitous shots of the books I got from FantasyCon. (I know they’re not the best possible photos, but I’m uploading them as they are to record what level I start from with the photography.)

FCon books 1a

FCon books 2a

FCon books 3a

As to when I’ll get around to reading any of these books: your guess is as good as mine…

Perfume by Patrick Süskind (1985/6)

9780141189192L Perfume is one of those books I had heard of by reputation, but didn’t actually know anything about. And now I’ve read it… well, it’s not what I was expecting, but it’s good. I liked it, but saying so feels a little uncomfortable — as well it ought!

Patrick Süskind tells the story of Jean-Baptiste Grenouille, a man with a preternaturally acute sense of smell, but no human odour of his own. Growing up in eighteenth-century Paris, Grenouille begins as a tanner’s apprentice, but soon inveigles his way into the employ of Giuseppe Baldini, the renowned perfumer. Baldini has fallen on hard times, but Grenouille’s unparalleled instinct for concocting scents turns the perfumer’s fortune around, and Jean-Baptiste is subsequently able to leave and become a journeyman.

Over the years, Grenouille learns more of the techniques of perfume-making, and discovers how to manufacture scents that can provoke a certain reaction in people — he can go unnoticed by people, or catch their attention, as he desires. But Grenouille’s wish is for the greatest of all perfumes, the one which will make him adored by — and hence gain power over — all. The secret ingredient of this scent is the essence of innocent girls — and so the murders begin…

Süskind pulls off a very difficult feat in Perfume, which is to write a book about an utterly vile and unsympathetic character, and make it compulsively readable. This is in large part down to his prose style (and, by extension, to John Woods’ excellent translation), which has the feel and quality of a myth or fairytale. The paragraphs are often long, the description often detailed; but in a way that offers depth and flow rather than weighing the narrative down. Süskind is particularly good (as one would hope and expect) at evoking smells: his opening pages are a useful reminder that eighteenth-century European cities would have stunk; more generally, he emphasises the importance of a sense that’s all too easy to forget about when writing and reading fiction.

As a character, Jean-Baptiste Granouille is someone you’d hope never to encounter, the kind of person you’d hope could never even exist. He’s single-minded to the point that his entire being is distorted by his obsession. All this makes Grenouille extremely difficult to empathise with; and the author makes little attempt to help us. Süskind does a lot of telling rather than showing, which has the effect of sealing Grenouille inside his own mind. Even though we see his deepest imaginings, Grenouille remains a cold and distant figure. This is quite deliberate, I’m sure, and in keeping with that fairytale style; it pushes the story slightly out of reality.

Then comes the uncomfortable question: does Perfume make light of mass murder, or at least fail to take it seriously enough? On balance, I would say not; though the issue is thorny. Grenouille gets his comeuppance in the end, but it’s a fairytale kind of comeuppance. I don’t think Süskind dwells gratuitously on the killings, but there is a nagging sense that the idiom in which he’s chosen to write doesn’t allow him to treat the situation with the gravity it deserves.

Still, I think Perfume is a powerful book. Yes, it’s pretty much geared towards doing one thing and one thing only — but it does that thing very well indeed. The book kept me reading to the end, and left me thinking about it afterwards; which is a fine outcome for the reading of any novel.

BOOK REVIEW: Ideomancer, December 2008 (Vol. 7, Issue 4)

Now up at The Fix: my review of the December 2008 issue of Ideomancer. Includes escaping chickens, gods at war in the playground, a factory with a gruesome purpose, a princess with a secret life, the android equivalent of an urban legend, and more besides. And I enjoyed all of it.


BOOK REVIEW: Memoirs of a Master Forger by William Heaney / How to Make Friends With Demons by Graham Joyce (2008)

Over at The Zone is my review of Graham Joyce’s latest novel, which is being published in the UK as Memoirs of a Master Forger (under the name ‘William Heaney’) and in the US as How to Make Friends With Demons (under Joyce’s own name). William Heaney the character deals in forged antiquarian books, and also sees ‘demons’ — but are they real or all in his mind?

Written with Joyce’s trademark elegance (and a generous helping of sly humour), the novel weaves a web of deception and misdirection, as almost no one is what they seem… But now I’m quoting from my own review. Do check this book out; it’s a solid 4-star read.

Read the review at http://www.zone-sf.com/wordworks/memforge.html
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