Thursday, 16 November 2017

Book Review | Strange Weather by Joe Hill


One autumnal day in Boulder, Colorado, the clouds open up in a downpour of nails, splinters of bright crystal that tear apart anyone who isn't safely under cover. 'Rain' explores this escalating apocalyptic event, as clouds of nails spread out across the country and the world. Amidst the chaos, a girl studying law enforcement takes it upon herself to resolve a series of almost trivial mysteries... apparently harmless puzzles that turn out to have lethal answers.

In 'Loaded' a mall security guard heroically stops a mass shooting and becomes a hero to the modern gun movement. Under the hot glare of the spotlights, though, his story begins to unravel, taking his sanity with it...

'Snapshot, 1988' tells the story of an kid in Silicon Valley who finds himself threatened by The Phoenician, a tattooed thug who possesses a Polaroid that can steal memories...

And in 'Aloft' a young man takes to the skies to experience parachuting for the first time... and winds up a castaway on an impossibly solid cloud, a Prospero's island of roiling vapour that seems animated by a mind of its own.

***

"After writing a couple seven-hundred-page novels back-to-back," Joe Hill has it in the afterword to his electric new collection, "it felt particularly important to get lean and mean," (p.436) and Strange Weather is exactly that: it's not long, and damn it, it's nasty.

A striking selection of novellas ranging from the playfully apocalyptic to the wickedly political, Strange Weather starts with an actual flash in 'Snapshot,' the unsettling story of a boy who crosses paths with a man in possession of a magical camera. This old Polaroid captures more than just those Kodak moments, of course: it captures the very memories of those moments, in sum leaving its subjects with holes in their souls.

Michael Figlione is just a kid when 'Snapshot' begins, so when he sees his old babysitter Shelly Beukes walking around the street they share, barefoot and swearing, he assumes she's simply senile. As a decent human being he does the decent thing and takes her home to her husband, who gives Michael ten bucks for his trouble. It's only when he goes to the local truck stop to spend his earnings and sees a creepy guy pointing a camera like a pistol that Shelly's seemingly insane story—about a man who's been stealing her essential self, picture by painful picture—starts to make sense.

Gripped by this suspicion, Michael stands guard over a sleeping Shelly later that same day, determined to catch the so-called Polaroid Man in the act. And he does, ultimately. But the story doesn't end there... though I rather wish it had. Economical in its narrative and affecting in its Stranger Things-esque setting, the first half of 'Snapshot' is stunningly done; sadly, the second section struck me as superfluous: slow and unfocused except insofar as it speaks to the themes at the centre of Strange Weather.

There is, to be sure, some seriously weird weather in this collection: between the storm that rages on as Michael confronts Shelly's tormentor in 'Snapshot,' the cyclonic blaze that looks likely to raze the town where the next tale takes place, the custardy cumulus the lovelorn protagonist of 'Aloft' lands on and the razor-sharp rain that gives Strange Weather's final fiction its name, the pathetic fallacy is in full effect in all four stories. But in terms of connective tissue, another, markedly more meaningful motif pervades these pieces: the struggle to let go of what we've lost.

What Shelly has lost is obvious; what Michael loses, less so. George Kellaway, the accidental hero at the heart of 'Loaded'—a straight story suggestive of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in December of 2012—has lost his family. The restraining order his wife has taken out against him means he's also had to sacrifice his right to bear arms. But he still has a gun, by gum! A gun he's horribly happy to use when a woman who's been abused by her boss opens fire in the middle of the mall where Kellaway works.

Bodies promptly drop, including those of a Muslim woman and the bundled-up baby Kellaway mistook for a bomb—not to mention the only other witness to the incident. That guy gets one in the head as well, because otherwise, Kellaway would be in a whole bunch of trouble. As is, he has a good story to tell the first proper responders; a tale as tall as time that leads people to believe he saved the day instead of devastating it.

Celebrated as a hero by the media-savvy mayor, Kellaway is soon sitting for interviews, and starting to hope that not only will he get away with multiple murder, perhaps he'll even get his family back. But as the irregularities in his account start to surface, things take a terrible turn. "Kellaway felt like a bullet in a gun himself, felt charged and ready to go off, to fly towards some final, forceful impact. Loaded with the potential to blow a hole in what everyone thought they knew about him." (p.161) He does just that in a conclusion so unbearably brutal that it chills me still.

It's a shock to the system when Strange Weather's darkest story segues into its slightest and lightest, 'Aloft,' which follows a fellow on his first skydive. He isn't your everyday daredevil, however. "Aubrey has always been scared of heights. It was a good question, why a man with a dread of heights, a man who avoided flying whenever he could, would agree to jump from an airplane. The answer, of course, was maddeningly simple: Harriet." (p.254)

Harriet is "the girl [Aubrey] wanted as he'd never wanted anyone else," (p.300) and as the dismaying details of the pair's relationship to date are doled out, readers will realise that 'Aloft' is their story. Their story just so happens to wrapped around a particularly peculiar premise. You see, Aubrey doesn't make landfall with the love of his unlucky life. Instead, his dive terminates early when he loses his parachute on a semi-solid cloud that looks and feels like it's made of "acre after acre of mashed potato." (p.301) Stranded on this desert island of sorts, he must to come to terms with his feelings for Harriet, and her feelings for him, if he's to have any hope of touching terra firma again.

That 'Aloft' is the most whimsical of Strange Weather's four stories is fitting, considering it was written in the back of a notebook containing the finale of The Fireman basically because Hill hated "to see so much paper go to waste." But, as the author himself explains, it was 'Rain,' the collection's closer, that "arose from a desire to spoof myself and my own sprawling end of the world novel." (p.436)

'Rain' really is rather a lot of fun, particularly as it pertains to the White House's comments on the catastrophic change in climate that results in a hail of nails:
The operating theory—lacking any other credible explanation—was terrorism. The president had disappeared to a secure location but had responded with the full force of his Twitter account. He posted: "OUR ENEMIES DON'T KNOW WHAT THEY STARTED! PAYBACK IS A BITCH!!! #DENVER #COLORADO #AMERICA!!" The vice president had promised to pray as hard as he could for the survivors and the dead; he pledged to stay on his knees all day and all night long. It was reassuring to know that our national leaders were using all the resources at their disposal to help the desperate: social media and Jesus. (p.348)
It's a testament to Hill's not insignificant abilities that even here, in the midst of this rather ridiculous apocalypse, there remains resonance. Its protagonist, one Honeysuckle Speck, is haunted by the loss of her sweetheart, who was one of the first to fall victim to the disastrous downpour. Unable to accept Yolanda's death, she determines to deliver the news to her other half's father, which means navigating a stretch of highway that showcases the slippery grip civilisation has on society. Turns out all it takes to cause a collapse is—snap!—some strange weather.

I found the conclusion of 'Rain' is a touch too tidy; similarly, 'Snapshot' suffers from this occasional proclivity of Hill's, this inclination to offer answers to unasked questions. It's telling that 'Aloft' and 'Loaded' are Strange Weather's strongest stories: their ambiguous endings allow them to live past their last pages. That one is wacky and wonderful while the other's twisted tragedy proves all too easy to believe evidences the tremendous diversity of this collection. If NOS4A2 and The Fireman were Hill's Salem's Lot and The Stand, then this, dear readers, is his Different Seasons: a demonstration of his range and readiness to tell the hell out of any tale, be it supernatural or straight, silly or completely serious.

***

Strange Weather
by Joe Hill

UK Publication: November 2017, Gollancz
US Publication: October 2017, William Morrow

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Monday, 13 November 2017

Book Review | The Power by Naomi Alderman


All over the world women are discovering they have the power. With a flick of the fingers they can inflict terrible pain—even death. Suddenly, every man on the planet finds they've lost control.

The Day of the Girls has arrived - but where will it end?

***

In the periphery of The Power, a series of seemingly meaningless scenes shine an ultra-bright light on the core concerns of Naomi Alderman's astonishing new novel. These blink-and-you-might-miss-'em moments lay bare the working relationship between a pair of daytime television presenters whose respective roles reflect the devastating developments depicted in greater detail in the rest of the text.

Tom and Kristen are ineffably familiar figures, at first—as is their dynamic as a duo. The former is a moderately handsome middle-aged man who wears expensive suits and steers the show's serious segments; the latter is an improbably beautiful young woman dressed not to impress so much as to suggest whose most significant responsibility is to introduce the weather on the ones. In short, Tom is the host with the most, and Kristen is his sexy sidekick.

But when man's dominion over the wider world wanes, the parts our presenters have played to date are recast. Unwilling to accept this essential reversal, Tom has a live-on-the-telly tantrum. He's promptly replaced by Matt, a great guy, apparently, who's "a good ten years younger than Kristen." Matt laughs attractively and silently suffers "a gentle hand on his knee" while Kristen—now in less clingy clothes and finally wearing the glasses she's needed all these years, if only to give her gravitas—downright dominates their conversations.

The Power isn't about any of these people, particularly, but their changing situation effectively illustrates the revolution that results from the discovery of an organ of electricity in women.
To start with, there were confident faces on the TV, spokespeople from the CDC saying it was a virus, not very severe, most of the people recovered fine, and it just looked like young girls were electrocuting people with their hands. We all know that's impossible, right, that's crazy—the news anchors laughed so hard they cracked their makeup.
Crazy as the idea may be, it seems to be real. The first few viral videos of the eponymous power in practice are followed by hundreds and then thousands and then hundreds of thousands of others that aren't so easily explained away. The aforementioned organ of electricity—"a strip of striated muscle [named] the skein for its twisted strands"—isn't even exceptional, it appears. Every girl in the world has it, or will have it, and it can be "woken" in every older woman.
A multinational group of scientists is certain now that the power is caused by an environmental build-up of nerve agent that was released during the Second World War. It's changed the human genome. All girls born from now on with have the power—all of them. And they'll keep it throughout life, just like the older women do if it's woken up in them. It's too late now to try to cure it; we need new ideas.
Mayor Margot Cleary, one of The Power's four principle perspectives, thinks she might have them. She starts a private military corporation—ostensibly to train women in the ways of using their skeins sensitively, but if she so happens to end up with an army afterwards, then so much the better. An army might be hella handy in the coming months, especially if the men who see the power as a problem do what some of them are threatening to and declare war on women.

Monday, 23 October 2017

Book Review | The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente



Inside a small Yorkshire parsonage, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have invented a game called Glass Town, where their toy soldiers fight Napoleon and no one dies. This make-believe land helps the four escape from a harsh reality: Charlotte and Emily are being sent away to a dangerous boarding school, a school they might not return from. But on this Beastliest Day, the day Anne and Branwell walk their sisters to the train station, something incredible happens: the train whisks them all away to a real Glass Town, and the children trade the moors for a wonderland all their own.



This is their Glass Town, exactly like they envisioned it... almost. They certainly never gave Napoleon a fire-breathing porcelain rooster instead of a horse. And their soldiers can die; wars are fought over the potion that raises the dead, a potion Anne would very much like to bring back to England. But when Anne and Branwell are kidnapped, Charlotte and Emily must find a way to save their siblings. Can two English girls stand against Napoleon’s armies, especially now that he has a new weapon from the real world? And if he escapes Glass Town, will England ever be safe again?

***

Having brought The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making all the way home with the fabulous final volume of said series last year, Catherynne M. Valente is back with another magical middle-grade fantasy primed to delight younger and older readers alike.

The Glass Town Game takes its name from what is initially a bit of whimsy: a make-believe battle between twelve toy soldiers and whatever creeping evil its creative wee heroes conceive. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne are all itty bitty Brontës, but together, if you please, you can call them the Bees. And when the Bees wish to escape the weight of the world—a world in which they've already lost their beloved mother and two of their sisters who got sick at School—they take to the room at the top of the stairs of their upstanding father's parsonage:
It was hardly more than a drafty white closet, nestled like a secret between Papa's room and Aunt Elizabeth's. But the four children ruled over it as their sovereign kingdom. They decreed, once and for all, that no person taller than a hat-stand could disturb their territory, on penalty of not being spoken to for a week. (p.6)
At play, the Bees are at least at peace, but when The Glass Town Game begins, the Beastliest Day—the day when Charlotte and Emily are to be sent away—is almost upon them.

"Though School had already devoured two of them, Papa was determined that his daughters should be educated. So that they could go into service, he said, so that they could become governesses, and produce an income of their own." (p.18) This was not so deplorable a goal in the early nineteenth century of the Brontës' upbringing, but none of the Bees—excepting perhaps Branwell, the lone boy of the bunch—have anything nice to say about the Beastliest Day. Indeed, they dread it—not because it may be the death of them, as it was for Maria and Lizzie, their much-missed big sisters, but because it shall surely signal the last gasp of Glass Town.

As it happens, however, there's one last adventure for the girls (and the bully of a boy they sometimes feel they've been burdened with) to have in the realm they created in the room at the top of the stairs, and it promises to be an adventure like none other—an adventure that beggars belief, even.

Thursday, 19 October 2017

Book Review | Release by Patrick Ness


Adam Thorn doesn’t know it yet, but today will change his life.

Between his religious family, a deeply unpleasant ultimatum from his boss, and his own unrequited love for his sort-of ex, Enzo, it seems as though Adam’s life is falling apart. At least he has two people to keep him sane: his new boyfriend (he does love Linus, doesn’t he?) and his best friend, Angela.

But all day long, old memories and new heartaches come crashing together, throwing Adam’s life into chaos. The bindings of his world are coming untied one by one; yet in spite of everything he has to let go, he may also find freedom in the release.

***

Happy as I hope we all are, on the whole, I expect each and every one of us has lived through a few bad days too.

Now I don't mean those days when we have to deal with death or ill health or anything actively awful. I'm talking about those days that just suck a bunch; those days when nothing seems to go your way. Maybe it starts with a letter from the taxman and spirals up, up and away from there. Maybe the milk is spoiled so you can't have your morning coffee. Maybe traffic makes you late for work even though you left early. Whatever the particulars, these are the days when everything that can go wrong does go wrong, and damn your plans.

These days doesn't destroy us, because we're reasonably well adjusted human beings. Tomorrow's another day, we tell ourselves. It's not like the world is ending or anything. But it is in Patrick Ness' ninth novel. Like The Rest of Us Just Live Here and More Than This before it, Release is a smart and sensitive standalone story that mixes the mundane with the magical in order to underscore the extraordinary qualities of the ordinary. It's a brief book about a bad day as bold and as beautiful as any finely-honed tome about the rise of Rome.

The bad day I've been banging on about is had herein by a young man called Adam Thorn. Adam is a pretty typical kid. He's never done drugs or caught an STD or seen a psychiatrist or displeased the police. He probably did decently at school, and he's definitely been holding down an alright job at a warehouse run by an Evil International Mega-Conglomerate in the several years since. He doesn't deserve to be miserable, but he is—in large part because of his family.

They fuck us up, our families! They don't mean to, but they do, and Adam's family is no exception to that regrettable rule. His father's a pastor at The House Upon the Rock, his mother is Big Brian Thorn's number one one fan, and his older brother Marty does God's Work as well. Naturally, none of these things should stop them from caring for Adam like a good family would, except that he's gay, and with this, they are not okay. "There was always a wound, it seemed, kept freshly opened by a family who also kept saying they loved him."

Thursday, 12 October 2017

Book Review | Sea of Rust by C. Robert Cargill


Humanity is extinct. Wiped out in a global uprising by the very machines made to serve them. Now the world is controlled by One World Intelligences—vast mainframes that have assimilated the minds of millions of robots. But not all robots are willing to cede their individuality, and Brittle—a loner and scavenger, focused solely on survival—is one of the holdouts.

Critically damaged, Brittle has to hold it together long enough to find the essential rare parts to make repairs—but as a robot's CPU gradually deteriorates, all their old memories resurface. For Brittle, that means one haunting memory in particular...

***

C. Robert Cargill's first novel since the darkly delightful Dreams and Shadows duology is an intimate epic that plays outs like War for the Planet of the Apes with machines instead of monkeys. A soulful and stunningly accomplished work of science fiction set in a wasted world ruled by robots, Sea of Rust is a searching yet searing story of survival.

Sadly for our species at least, survival isn't in the cards. Sea of Rust takes place some time after the massacre of mankind, and as such, it has "a writhing mass of pseudo flesh and metal" (p.332) as its cast of characters. That includes our protagonist, Brittle: a Caregiver model manufactured to keep a widow company during the last days of the human race who has no-one but herself to care for now. But such is life in this devastated landscape:
The Sea of Rust [is] a two-hundred-mule stretch of desert located in what was once the Michigan and Ohio portion of the Rust Belt, now nothing more than a graveyard where machines go to die. It's a terrifying place for most, littered with rusting monoliths, shattered cities, and crumbling palaces of industry; where the first strike happened, where millions fried, burned from the inside out, their circuitry melted, useless, their drives wiped in the span of a breath. Here asphalt cracks in the sun; paint blisters off metal; sparse weeds sprout from the ruin. But nothing thrives. It's all just a wasteland now. (p.3)
A wasteland it may be, but Brittle—with most of the map memorised and emergency caches stashed away all over the place—braves it on a damn near daily basis. You see, the Sea of Rust is a lawless land, by and large, and to survive, you have to scavenge. To wit, Cargill's book begins with Brittle hot on the heels of a failing service bot who's here for the same reason as she: to replace his own broken bits and bobs. But Brittle's both wiser and wittier than Jimmy. She convinces him to shut down voluntarily, supposedly so that she can assess the damage to his dying drives. Then she scraps him for parts: an emulator, a sensor package and a battery. "All in all, it's a great haul." (p.16)

And that's Sea of Rust to a T, readers: it's dark, but it does has a heart, because in truth, Brittle could have just killed Jimmy. From a distance. Quickly. Instead, she took his impending death personally, and gave him hope before prying out his precious processor.

Tuesday, 10 October 2017

Book Review | Acadie by Dave Hutchinson


The Colony left Earth to find their utopia—a home on a new planet where their leader could fully explore the colonists' genetic potential, unfettered by their homeworld's restrictions. They settled a new paradise, and have been evolving and adapting for centuries.

Earth has other plans.

The original humans have been tracking their descendants across the stars, bent on their annihilation. They won't stop until the new humans have been destroyed, their experimentation wiped out of the human gene pool.

Can't anyone let go of a grudge anymore?

***

What do you do when you've burned every bridge, dithered over every significant decision and looked askance at every last chance? Why, if you're Duke, an unusually lawyer who blew the whistle on the Bureau of Colonisation for bad practice, you eat and drink your way through your savings until a stunningly beautiful woman called Conjugación Lang turns up at your table with a solution to your otherwise unsolvable problem:
"What if I were to offer you a way off this howling nightmare of a planet? Right now." 
"You have some kind of magic spaceship that takes off through seven-hundred-kilometre-an-hour blizzards?" 
She wrinkled her nose and grinned coquettishly. "Oh, I have something better than that." (p.26)
And she does. Something Better Than That turns out to be the name of a tattered old towboat sitting in Probity City's spaceport. "The words [...] were sprayed on the side of the tug in Comic Sans, which really was the least of the little vehicle's problems. It looked as if it could barely get off the ground on a calm midsummer's afternoon, let alone reach orbit in the middle of an ice storm." (pp.26-27) But looks, as Dave Hutchinson's twisty new novella takes pains to teach its readers repeatedly, can be deeply deceiving.

Something Better Than That ultimately does just what Conjugación promised: it almost instantly spirits Duke off to the Colony, a distant solar system several million souls have made their home under the leadership—like it or lump it—of Isabel Potter, a previous professor of molecular biology at Princeton known by the Bureau as "Baba Yaga, the Wicked Witch of the West. [Duke] actually knew someone who had invoked her name to make her children go to bed. She was Legend." (pp.36-37)