A review of Chimpanzee by Darin Bradley

Chimpanzee: A NovelChimpanzee: A Novel by Darin Bradley
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

So if you took Twelve Monkeys, add The Time Traveler’s Wife but subtract the time-travel, multiply by 1984, factor in Strange Days and divide by Fight Club, you get Chimpanzee. (Wow, that required some intense concentration. Had I had a PhD it would have been easier – maybe I do, and it was repossessed.)

Honestly, I fell into this novel with gusto. The prose is tight, so tight sometimes you wish he’s just let loose with some florid flourish, but Bradley’s prose is straight-edge, sharp as a tack. The narrator has a PhD in cognitive science and philosophy (or something…) so a lot of the work is steeped in this first-person’s clever-dick POV, but it’s not showing off: it’s central to the plot.

Well, sort of.

The world is crumbling, this sort of failed-capitalist leading to failed-socialist nightmare dystopia, errday errthang is falling to pieces, people are having their educations repossessed like some clockwork orange therapy, and anyone defaulting on their loans becomes a slave to the state. There is a revolution fomenting, a black market currency rising, censorship is the order of the day, everyone is afraid of taxes and government intervention and there is no spoon and the cake is a lie.

There is not much action either, but there is this love story. That’s one of the things that kept me going, the love story is close to the bone, tempered by the greyness of time and hardship, a sort of realism, a sort of deromanticising which is romantic in itself. (The flashbacks grow gap-toothed, memories collapse, crumbling the foundations of a love story, à la Eternal Sunshine – truly poignant)

The plot is dense, moves along smoothly, the prose is so clever and yet nebulous (imagine a philosopher painting the world as his mind falls apart) I found myself getting into it just because I like the sound of the guy’s voice.

The thing about The Time Traveler’s Wife, Fight Club, Strange Days and 12 Monkeys, is that the ending was always so spectacular you were left kind of breathless, gasping like a fish out of water. The ending to Chimp is a little flat in comparison, specially given the scale of the conclusion, the actual events, all seem muted by the character’s distant POV. That clinical distance is an interesting device, and creates this space for commentary, humour, and poignant moments, but also takes us away from the action a little.

I am a sucker for action, but it wasn’t a deal-breaker, this is a strong novel with rich characters who I wanted to understand, wanted to see unfold. Highly recommend, I’ll be keeping an eye out for Bradley’s work in the future.

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A review of Jason Kirk’s Reverb

Reverb: PoemsReverb: Poems by Jason Kirk

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Reverb, Jason Kirk’s poetry chapbook published by Mad Peeps Press, is unashamedly experimental. It experiments with layout, typology, punctuation, rhyme scheme, spacing and line-breaks… This poet likes to stay off the beaten track. This is a love it or hate it, polarizing kind of work, indeed, like Marylin Manson or Japanese anime. Visually, the Kindle’s formatting demons caused a lot of damage here: only the longest lines are broken in landscape mode, but the best experience is on a full-size computer screen or, as always, on the printed page.

Reverb is fragmented and dense with wordplay, taking the epistolary format to spin it into something entirely new. Subject and agent, writer and recipient – here the shifters, the signified, are part of the process, literary devices in their own right: the traditional “Dear Sir/Madam” crosses over into the figurative (“Dear velvet felt feathers down”), to later devolve into the utterly cryptic: “Dear & Then”. Even the date line becomes part of the poetic process.

The narrator/letter-writer is at one point a monkey, at another a whale, and in one case a 13th century italian poet, Cecco Angiolieri. The Pathetic Southern Right, the whale-song, is among my favourites, an eco-friendly lament wrapped in satire: “This is what’s truly paralyzing, / Ladies and first mates, I’m merely awaiting / Your harpoon.” Flu Hammers captures in reader-friendly terms the experience of being physically ill, offering between the lines a meditation on seasonal change (with some grumbling and complaining thrown in, because what’s a flu except an valid excuse to complain about everything). Love-themed poems have a haunting edge, and Emergency Monologue, another favourite, is visceral and really communicates the paradox and conflicting feelings of an intense experience (namely, bleeding in an emergency room).

Though most poems seem to work together, interacting to colour the entire collection, they are worlds apart. The epistolary format is not consistent, and to me, not truly that effective. The poetry is strong, but playing too hard to get for my taste. The poet knows his language, but the artifice of striving for “original” layout and transgressive punctuation/grammar/syntax seems to hinder, rather than facilitate, the reader experience. One poem is half-erased and titled “The Rest was Burned with Liquid Fuel […]” – in this instance the brokenness, the challenge of understanding, makes sense in the context. However, often the brokenness, the rule-bending, seems to me an affectation. What I really enjoyed was the absurd edge, the raw emotive power and of course the humour, the quirkiness, which drew me in. No need to bend over backwards, the words should suffice.

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A review of Jason Bredle’s Carnival

CarnivalCarnival by Jason Bredle

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Bredle is a weirdo. Dancing along the poetry-prose divide like a cat creeping on a wall, this little collection is very much “out there”. Thirty or so pieces, almost all paragraph form, no line breaks, just well-balanced sentences. What’s to like: surreal, magical imagery and symbols that place you in the familiar. What’s not to like: surreal, magical imagery and symbols that just don’t mean anything to you, and thus are merely weird.

Fine by me, I love weird.

Poetry collections aren’t something you read in a single sitting, anyhow. Rather, you take nibbles and put the wrapped cookie back in your pocket. If we push the metaphor, with poetry, you can vomit up some cookie to eat it all over again. Tastes a bit different every time; semi-digested.

There’s the one about the water-park (Splash Country). There’s the one about the Carnival. These capture an essence of place, a sort of aura, and create a pleasant patchwork of sensation, and a lot of comedy wrapped in the unreal: “Do you think it’s hard to lactate without a nipple?” “I won a racist prize in a crying contest.” Then there’s some deeply personal thorns that draw a little blood. Gravitron rides, candy-floss-coated kids and water-slides, and in passing, just a half-thought, a mention of the girl the narrator knew he would never see again after that day. Mixed into the fruity-loop madness, there’s black and white too: “If I could, I’d tattoo your name on my skeleton.”

There’s recurring imagery that just made me grin broadly, reading in the Metro, probably looking like a lunatic. The miniature horse that keeps biting Giancarlo (I can’t help but imagine Giancarlo as Raoul Duke’s attorney, Doctor Gonzo); the guy in the scissor store, Mr. Scissorsby; Doctor Wolf-Puma, head of the animal bites ward of the hospital; and the neighbour’s cat, recurrent kidnap-victim… The poems travel, too: abroad, airports, suburbia, domestic life, theme parks, space, a rooftop poolside party in Vegas. It’s Americana, for sure.

Seuss meets Disney meets Tim Burton meets Timothy Leary, maybe. Some may complain that it’s just a lot of the same, rehashing, milking a dead cow – I recommend not trying to take it all in one sitting. I liked it, in small doses. The collection holds together, the pieces speak to each other, and there is a sense of narrative, even if it goes off the rails at every intersection. Who needs rails? This is poetry we’re talking about.

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A review of Howey’s Wool series

Wool Omnibus (Wool, #1-5)Wool Omnibus by Hugh Howey

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Wool was originally a short story, a standalone project that really holds its own. I heard about the ruckus Howey was making in the self-publishing world – apparently sold 20 000 Kindle copies in a single day – and had to see for myself. I’m happy to say it was worth the hype.

Wool #1 is the heart-crushing tragedy of Holston, the “sheriff” of a stratified community (colour-coded, Huxley-style) living in a buried Silo in a mysteriously eco-shattered future. It’s the story of a man driven insane by mourning. The post-apocalyptic backdrop unfolds methodically, little nuggets of “fact” trickling through just when they are needed, but what really moves me is the character, Holston, and only by association the terrible reality that has pushed him to these extremes. It’s a nasty reality, full of treachery, corruption, and conspiracy. Sweeping landscapes are painted with only a few words: the claustrophobic atmosphere in the silo, the NASA-type suits required to brave the toxic air of the outside, the drab fields seen through grimy camera feeds, their only contact to the outside world. Cleaning these camera lenses with home-spun wool pads is where the series takes it’s name, and the symbol is a loaded one. As always with good story-telling, this one is purely character-driven, a close third-person narrative that shifts protagonists, each individual tale loaded with emotional power. It’s hard to put down.

No more spoilers, and besides, the plot is thick with suspense, twists and turns and aliens (just kidding: no aliens); once you get a taste, I suspect you’ll be hooked. After a gut-wrenching, powerful ending to Wool #1, which seems like a closed loop, Howey takes us through another 4 volumes of great drama, tight world-building and of course, the dystopian novel’s bread and butter: corrupt, oppressive Authority. The dramatic pacing never slackens for a second. Wool’s is not the explosive, poetic, waxing-lyrical madness of Simmons or Miéville or Iain Banks (which I love: a whole different kind of magic), but rather a simple, effective, pared-down prose that reminds me of Orwell, HG Wells or Vonnegut.

Even if you aren’t really into the whole post-apocalyptic fiction thing, give the first volume a shot. Chances are you’ll fall head-first into Silo 18 and it’s a thrilling ride all the way down. Also, it’s over 100 floors deep so it’s a long, long way down: a prequel trilogy is out, a sequel trilogy in the works, movie rights are sold, Ridley Scott in the director seat (after Prometheus, he has a lot to make up for), and I, for one, am pretty excited about this end of the world.

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A review of Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One

Ready Player OneReady Player One by Ernest Cline

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Ready Player One is the best piece of fiction since the Bible.
Now I have your attention; it’s probably not, but it is one of the best YA fiction novels I’ve read since Ender’s Game (which was good enough to break free of that pesky label and is now quite rightfully considered a cult classic). Cline’s first novel won the Prometheus Best Novel Award 2012, and Warner has the movie rights. Not a bad start…

Though the prose may have a “light reading” edge to it and is definitely geared to a geek-friendly readership, it remains a riveting dystopian novel with fun, likeable characters and impeccable pacing. The real power of this book is that Cline works with tropes, symbols and icons that define “Generation Y” culture, crafting an entire virtual world made up of gaming, pop culture and TV trivia; what’s more, he does it Like A Boss. The “Matrix” in this story (the fully-immersive MMORPG that the Internet has become) feels like Wonka’s chocolate factory had it been imagined by Dan Simmons. It’s Tron on steroids – the original, not the Disney abomination.

On the surface it’s just a good YA story with bad guys, a warm-hearted protagonist and some feel-good morals thrown in; the clever framework of a real-life Game (flashback to Michael Douglas…) means you keep your eye on the prize. But if you have a palate for the culture of gaming, geekdom, cartoons and low-brow television, then this surface gives way to a depth of detail and “No-waaay” moments where you want to call up your schoolmates from years gone by to say “Dude: I’m on a full-size planet made of videogame arcades.” Cline has put his childhood daydreams on paper. WoW-style battles, Star Wars dogfights and old-school RPG puzzle action… It’s just fun, plain and simple. The kicker is that with the embedded world it felt, somehow, believable. I was a more than a little sadface when I flipped to the last page, and that says a lot.

Epic Win, Mr Cline.

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A review of Spens’s Death of a Ladies’ Man

Death of a Ladies' ManDeath of a Ladies’ Man by Christiana Spens

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Serialized on 3AM Magazine, DOALM has just come out in Print with Galley Beggar Press, and I recommend it highly. Overall: rich characters and a very grounded, real-world plot. Stylistically it delivers clean, sometimes stark and always measured prose, a narrative that stays close to the protagonists and takes it’s time without being long-winded, a pleasure to read.

I was fascinated by the relationship between Adrian and his estranged, cynical wife, a matured (almost rancid) sort of love tainted with disdain and desperation that I felt was all too real; the shortcomings they both seemed to accept in each other: the politically-correct alcoholism; the prescribed narcotics; the adultery (it’s a hard knock life for the upper-crust…). The London setting is not just a backdrop but a relevant character that comes through strongly, giving us a portrayal of England that is dark without being depressing, sometimes even comical in its brush with satire, and speaks volumes in between the lines.

There is something tragic about this tale (well, obviously, it’s about death and disgrace and some generally despicable people) but Spens is forgiving in her portrayal, giving us the ugly but also the softer side, the frailty beneath the cold, hard surface of things. After all, even the worst of us are only human.

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A review of Yann Martel’s Life of Pi

Life of PiLife of Pi by Yann Martel

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Pi Patel is a quirky, endearing narrator who’s issues of culture shock and displacement will resonate with all travellers and expats. The introduction to the novel, a short bio of Patel’s life, was a Rusdie-calibre digression, beautifully contracted and though funny, felt deeply sincere. It creates a narrator/reader bond that you just don’t see that much these days.

Life of Pi is wildly colourful, full of life, just tiptoeing the edges of magical realism. Without delving head-on into the surreal, as with magicians GM Marquez or Toni Morrison, Martel does infuse a sense of breaching the impossible, of crossing a line into a place where the power of the mind shapes the world (quantum physicists will agree, it’s not that far-fetched). The plot and pacing are simply a testament to Martel’s skill, suspense driven forwards relentlessly; and he does it with only one “human” character for at least 3/4 of the novel. Hat’s off.

Something truly atavistic is triggered in my mind when I read about a more or less normal (bonus points for urban, city-dwelling) character being thrust into a world where Nature is king; the ocean, the jungle, the tundra, the deserted island… Think crazed family in Mosquito Coast, think Jack London’s pansy londoner in Sea-Wolf, think little Mowgli… When you “see” a common mortal being confronted with the elemental power of nature, having to fight for survival in the arena of the Gods, you root for them, you cheer, you scream obscenities at their enemies. It’s an archetype that spills across all borders, one that most can relate to, and Martel truly brought something new and truly poetic to the “Man VS Wild” theme. Pi Patel on his lifeboat was I think a game-changer.

I hope the movie lives up to the reputation (Ang Lee, you watch your step now), and I’ll be reading this again soon. Also, the author’s first name really has a nice ring to it, in my opinion.

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