Review: Perfidia, by James Ellroy (2014)

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books / film / film noir

Musical Accompaniment: “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads

In retrospect, I probably wasn’t ready to fully appreciate Perfidia. For background, about five years ago, I tore through James Ellroy’s First L.A. Quartet over the course of a summer. I first got into them by way of Curtis Hanson’s film adaptation of L.A. Confidential, which remains one of my favourite movies ever, and also through Brian de Palma’s ill-fated adaptation of The Black Dahlia, which I still don’t think is quite as bad as everyone says. I wanted to follow up by immediately reading the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, which was just finishing up right around that time with the publication of Blood’s a Rover, but for whatever reason I couldn’t get ahold of the first two books, American Tabloid and The Cold Six Thousand. So I moved on to other things.

Perfidia cover

Perfidia makes me want to dive right back into Ellroy’s dark imaginings from the very beginning, and to finally follow up and track down the Underworld U.S.A. books. For those of you that haven’t had the pleasure, Ellroy’s (now) First L.A. Quartet charts the twisted, film noir-enfused world of the L.A.P.D. from right after the Second World War till the mid-1950s. Ellroy mixes real life events and personages from the era with the larger-than-life antics of a crew of ne’er do well bagmen, hoodlums and cronies who make up the benighted city’s police force, and also their opposite numbers in the city’s underworld. The Black Dahlia centres around the grisly real-life killing of Elizabeth Short, while The Big Nowhere (my favourite of the bunch) finds the city’s newly-formed Red Squad attempting to quash a Hollywood Communist cell. The aforementioned epic L.A. Confidential features three cops with nothing in common thrown together after a gangland slaying at an all-night diner while White Jazz is a stream-of-consciousness ride into hell with a cop-sanctioned assassin. Characters running through all four of these novels include Mickey Cohen, the real-life mob boss of L.A. (whose story can also be found in the fantastic non-fiction book L.A. Noir by John Buntin) and Dudley Smith, the crookedest goddamned cop in the city, memorably played in the film version of L.A. Confidential by the kindly-looking James Cromwell.

With Perfidia, Ellroy kicks off his Second L.A. Quartet, which will focus on the Second World War years in Los Angeles. The Ellroy universe is essentially kicked off by the discovery of a Japanese family horribly murdered in a relatively swank part of the city on December 6th, 1941. The condition of the bodies seems to indicate seppuku, the traditional suicide practice, but all semblance of normality in the admittedly unusual investigation flies off the handle the next day as the Japanese military attacks Pearl Harbor. Now, with war on everyone’s mind and internment for the city’s Japanese population on the horizon, the case takes on a whole new dimension as the police department’s useful cover for the racist anti-Japanese sentiment that sweeps the city. “Obviously the city cares about its Japanese citizens, look at the time and effort being put in to solve this horrible murder of their number!”, or at least that’s the idea anyway. The truth is a hell of a lot more complicated.

The story is related to us by four narrators: Hideo Ashida, a brilliant young American-born forensics expert, who finds himself in extremely dire straits once the war begins; Kay Lake, a dilettante artist who’s escaped from a hellish prostitution racket and shacked up with a crooked cop; Captain William “Whiskey Bill” Parker, ripped from real life as the alcoholic heir apparent to the L.A.P.D. chief, currently stuck managing the Traffic section; and last but not least, Dudley Smith, the mastermind behind many of the schemes that crop up later on in the First Quartet, at once charming with an Irish brogue and possessed of the most devious mind imaginable.

“That lad shouting racial slurs may be offending Dr. Ashida. Please take him somewhere secluded and kick the shit out of him.” – Dudley Smith

The impact of having Dudley Smith as a viewpoint character cannot be overstated. For readers like me who followed along with the hapless dupes who fall into his web throughout the First Quartet, this is essentially peeling back the curtain on things that were only rumored and briefly glimpsed across two books. If you’re familiar with George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, imagine if the next book featured Lord Petyr Baelish, Littlefinger, as a main character, taking you step by step through his schemes against the Iron Throne. It’s kind of intense. He’s a Benzedrine-fuelled, super-cool Hollywood monster, a brilliant detective who on the one hand exists to fulfill Punisher-esque fantasies of instant justice for the worst people in the world, but on the other hand, cooks up plots of his own which are equally if not ten times as vile.

I do think that the Dudley-centric nature of the plot is potentially a bit of a downfall for Perfidia. You can tell that Ellroy loves the character, and he essentially plays on a whole different level than the other four narrators. For me, Dudley overshadows the rest of the cast, but this might also be dependent on whether or not you’ve read his later adventures, I’m not sure. His, and everyone else’s approach to the racism question is one of the most fascinating parts of the book. The attitude Dudley takes towards someone like Dr. Ashida is one of convenience, of further pawns to be manipulated and cruelly dispatched as need be, with no thought given beyond what’s my next move. Sometimes he takes care of minorities, like his association with Ace Kwan, restauranteur and Tong chief, or in the above paragraph, but other times he threatens and cajoles until he gets what he wants.

Ellroy’s writing moves along at a fever pitch. Consider this scene, where Buzz Meeks, later to star in The Big Nowhere, shows a crowd of gawkers why they shouldn’t mess with a police investigation:

“He ran straight at the mob. He tore down cordon ropes. The blues stood back and supplied room. He hit a knot of sailors, low.

He pulled his belt sap and arced backhands. He came in low and stayed low. He went for their faces. He hit noses, he hit mouths, he hit skulls. The sailors froze. Their gawker comrades stood and watched.

Ashida watched. Meeks was a legendary sap man. His sap featured raised stitching and leather-laced lead.”

The fights and other action scenes are relayed through this calm yet completely descriptive narration. It’s tough to read sometimes, sure, but absolutely addictive and satisfying.

So when I said earlier that I probably wasn’t ready for Perfidia, I think that calls to mind to me the most challenging part of the book. The ideal reader will either be coming in completely cold on Ellroy, or be fully up to date on the events of the First Quartet and the Underworld U.S.A. trilogy, as characters and events from these books are flung at you constantly throughout this narrative. I was neither of these things, sadly. Things that might be huge revelations come to light, but you might not understand the enormity of the situation without this prior knowledge. When various news sources were opining early this year that David Mitchell’s The Bone Clocks might be a bit much continuity for some to handle, I can’t imagine people who had trouble with that being able to keep Perfidia straight in their heads. Ellroy’s imagination is vast and dark, easily comparable to someone like George R.R. Martin, or a David Foster Wallace, and I think this could make Perfidia a little difficult to fully appreciate, at least it did for me.

Still, I am so happy to be back in the squalor and horror that is Ellroy’s Los Angeles. His bebop-lean writing and titanic plotting make Perfidia an instant classic and addictively readable. I can’t wait to see what’s coming up next in the Second Quartet.

Review: Will Starling, by Ian Weir (2014)

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There’s something about the idea of surgery that captures our imaginations. The idea of a person who holds a literal knife’s edge between life and death for a helpless mortal, who’s either tied down or unconscious on a slab? Both of these scenarios hold their own horrors, making this the stuff of great drama. Far from the rich, professional class they embody today, the history of surgeons is until the 20th century pretty barbaric; practitioners were seen as little better than butchers for a long time, and the historic brutality of their profession can lend a nice frisson to horror and thriller narratives to this day. From Frankenstein through to Nip/Tuck and The Knick, the idea of a tortured soul holding the scalpel is still a very popular one in fiction, and with Will Starling author Ian Weir adds another great book to the list.

The eponymous Will Starling started life off as a foundling, a rejected child who grew up in an orphanage in England just before the Regency period began. As soon as he was able to, he ran headlong away from this miserable existence and joined the military. There, he hooked up with a Scottish surgeon named Comrie for five years tour of duty on the Continent as Wellington marched against Napoleon. At the war’s end, Comrie and Starling move to a rough part of London, real Sweeny Todd territory, setting up shop performing the same services for civilians, but a rising star in the medical world steals all of their thunder: Dionysus Atherton. Atherton is wealthy, fashionable and the talk of the town, but when a dinner party he attends goes horribly awry, Will starts to believe that there might be an horrific secret behind the dandyish visage.

The amount of research Weir must have done to fully populate his London astounded me. There’s a brief mention of some informative books he used at the back, but the overall effect is a world that is absolutely drenched in detail, almost as much as it is drenched in blood. The aforementioned horrors of surgery at this time are described in great detail, and by the end the reader has learned also about interesting period funereal practices, the Doomsday Men who steal fresh dead bodies for surgeons to practice on, and the Death House surgeon practice space, which features candles made of human fat. The interesting thing is that none of this is ever played for sheer sensation; there are frightening bits, gory bits and violent bits in this book, but Will Starling never feels like a wallow in depravity and horror.

I’m going to go right back on what I said up there by stating that while the book never feels sensationalistic in the sense that we understand it today, it does recall Victorian sensation novels in its atmosphere of growing dread. As Will begins to learn more and more about the man named Atherton, his suspicions begin to overtake him, and possibly even the reality of the book. It put me in mind of Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey of all things, a sensation novel ancestor: a relatable hero who thinks they’re caught up in events far beyond their ken, and whose imagination blows things way out of proportion. The manner by which the story is being related to us, which I won’t reveal here, also puts the reader on edge, and makes us question the sanity of our narrator.

When I read Weir’s previous book Daniel O’Thunder a while back, I was especially drawn to the colourful language he brought to the story. I think in that book I must have learned fifty new words for punching someone, and in Will Starling I must have learned fifty more for dead bodies. One of Will’s most enjoyable tics as a narrator is that he’s a word fan himself, with an elevated vocabulary that is augmented by reading Samuel Johnson but also makes him look kind of foolish. When Will’s not talking, Weir also uses snippets of news stories, broadsheets, and other period literature to fill out the story, something he also did with Daniel O’Thunder. These breaks in the narration give Weir a chance to flex some other muscles voice-wise, and are a welcome addition to the text. Something else that Weir does in this book, that I don’t see in a lot of historical fiction, is the way he plays with names. Will refers to himself often as “Your Wery Umble Narrator” among other sobriquets, British soldiers are named “Tom Lobster” for their red jackets, this facility and play with words is actually very reminiscent of works dating from this period, but often sorely lacking in books that seek to replicate it.

With the one-two punch of Daniel O’Thunder and Will Starling, Ian Weir has become one of the Canadian authors whose next work I most anticipate. His evocation of the feeling of 19th century London is reminiscent of Tim Powers at his height, his attention to entertaining period detail recalls Pynchon’s Mason and Dixon and his facility with language makes every sentence worth savouring.

Full disclosure: I received a copy of the book in exchange for an honest review.

Review: The Sugar Frosted Nutsack, by Mark Leyner (2012)

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The Sugar Frosted Nutsack cover

“Even those who consider all this total bullshit have to concede that it’s upscale, artisanal bullshit of the highest order.”

About a year ago, I thought that it might be difficult to summarize the plot of Thomas Pynchon’s latest novel, Bleeding Edge. This line of thinking feels very quaint to me now, as I’ve entered what I’m going to call the “Post-Nutsack” era (P.N.) of dealing with strange storylines due to Mark Leyner’s masterful book The Sugar Frosted Nutsack. It is potentially one of the most complicated and ridiculous things I’ve ever read, but for the most part, I loved it.

I’ll say up front that this will probably be one of the most divisive novels I’ve ever reviewed for this blog. People on Goodreads either seem to love this book or they absolutely despise it, depending on whether or not they can fall into its groove, which vacillates wildly between religious monotony, schoolyard-level humour, in-depth examinations of sexual fetishes, and parodies of academic bullshit writing. I can’t really blame people who fall into the latter camp, even though I’m coming out here as strongly pro-Nutsack. I can completely understand someone giving up on this book, as it seems deliberately intended to annoy you a lot of the time. Luckily, for me anyway, the fun parts outweighed the annoying ones.

Perhaps the best way I’ve come up with to describe The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is as if Hesiod’s Theogony was being read out to you by someone who has just taken ecstasy and stayed up all night watching cartoons, or if The Rape of the Lock was made into a Pixar movie and set in the world of the Jersey Shore. I’d whole-heartedly recommend everyone reading the prologue of the book at least, some of which has been hosted online by Vice Magazine. Here, Leyner lays out his new pantheon of gods, who have names that recall lucha libre stars or characters in turn of the century comic strips: El Brazo, the God of Virility, God of Pornography, God of Urology; Fast-Cooking Ali, the God of Platitudes and the inventor of “woman’s ass”; Mogul Magoo, whose portfolio originally encompassed only bubbles, but eventually came to include any time something envelops something else; La Felina, Goddess of the Downtrodden, the Despised Ones and the Sans-culottes. There are many others, too many to list here, but a lot of the fun of the book comes from the hilariously low-key adventures of these deities.

These gods, who live at the top of whatever tower is currently largest in the world (at the time of the book’s printing, this was the Burj Khalifa in Dubai), are obsessed with one Ike Karton, a recently-unemployed butcher living in New Jersey. Ike is beloved of the gods, and later on it is suggested that he’s the only man on Earth who even knows of their existence, so I guess this makes sense. The main narrative (if you want to call it that) of The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is presented as an epic saga that revolves around one morning: After waking up, Ike decides he doesn’t want to eat anything really “breakfasty” for breakfast, electing instead to go to a restaurant for a tongue sandwich. Ike has a conversation with a waitress, writes a narcocorrido for his band The Kartons to perform, hangs out with his daughter’s drug-dealing boyfriend Vance, and then he gets assassinated by Mossad sharpshooters while standing on his stoop. Pretty straightforward, right?

While the actual actions that happen in the human world are relatively simple, your enjoyment of TSFN will come from whether or not you enjoy the litany of things that occur meta-narratively around the story. When I said “epic” above, I really meant it: in the world of TSFN, the story of Ike’s last day on Earth is primarily delivered to audiences by blind, drug-addled bards, who imbibe nothing but Sunkist Orange Soda and bang on the empty jugs with heavy tchotchkes to maintain a rhythm during recitations. The book shifts genres and writing styles constantly, with an arch, cerebral tone throughout that talks about reactions to the epic, the history of its recitations, academic treatises about the epic, an interview with a couple who has just seen the epic, a radio call-in show, an online message board, etc. I actually really lucked out, I think, by listening to this book as an audiobook, as hearing the story read by its author is at least meta-narratively the way it was intended to be. The recording also does some fun stuff with sound, like a few sequences that are read backwards.

“This is Ike the chimera, the hybrid beast with the severed head of a bard and the sugar-frosted nutsack of a hero.”

Like in the above line, which comes in the middle of a dissertation of Ike Carton as a classically doomed epic hero, much of the humour in The Sugar Frosted Nutsack comes from the juxtaposition of highfalutin’ academic language with absurd content which is often riddled with swears and juvenile jokes. In this, TSFN resembles the work of Monty Python, who often used vulgar language in the middle of something seemingly very proper and important, or Kurt Vonnegut’s Breakfast of Champions, which I think is this book’s closest ancestor. Leyner is incredibly skilled at miming things like academic gobbledygook, a TV Guide entry, or even rap lyrics. His call-and-response songs about big-dicked, blind, drug-addled bards from Jersey City are definitely less embarrassing than say, Don DeLillo’s similar “songs” in Cosmopolis. At least when Leyner name drops MF Doom or various dubstep artists, you get the sense that he knows what he’s talking about on that front at least as much as he does similar references to classic sculpture and the great works of the 19th Century. Not so DeLillo, in my opinion. Leyner shares with Thomas Pynchon a love of trashy, to-the-minute pop culture references: Pynchon’s tossed-off allusions to Pokémon and Nelly’s “Ride Wit Me” in Bleeding Edge would not feel out of place in TSFN in the slightest.

The narrative is also under attack throughout by one of the gods, XOXO. XOXO is the god of fucking around with people, and throughout the story it is implied that he is attacking the book itself by inserting “military-grade ass-cheese”, or useless digressions. To me, this recalled Nabokov’s Pale Fire, where the crazed fanboy Kinbote inserts his own recollections and arguments into a poem that literally has nothing to do with him at all. Great stuff, and by the end I kind of felt myself sympathizing with XOXO. The Sugar Frosted Nutsack feels fractal, like it could conceivably keep replicating itself and repeating itself forever, and if you think about it, the end of the book is the destruction of its world, isn’t it? This is the endgame that the Invisibles had in mind in Grant Morrison’s classic comic book series of the early Nineties, but here XOXO‘s attempts at derailing the narrative feel like a desperate attempt to stay alive.

As you might have surmised, The Sugar Frosted Nutsack is probably not for everyone. The ideal reader of the book would be someone who enjoys Nabokov, Pynchon, Vonnegut and DeLillo equally as much as say, Masters of the Universe, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! or Gødland. Could this be you?

Review: The Bone Clocks, by David Mitchell (2014)

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Bone Clocks cover

WARNING FOR SPOILERBABIES: There are some things that could be construed as spoilers in this review, so be aware.

The inside flap of The Bone Clocks posts a glowing review from Publishers Weekly, which poses a seemingly-important question: “Is The Bone Clocks the most ambitious novel ever written, or just the most Mitchell-esque?” Since I’ve not read every novel ever written I can’t in all honesty answer the first question, nor can I the second as I’ve only read most of Mitchell’s oeuvre at this point, but this quote attests to the crazy hype surrounding this release, doesn’t it? Not since Abrams and Dorst’s magnificent S. from last year have I felt such a huge marketing push behind a book, and it seems like every major newspaper that still has a book section felt the need to review this so I guess it worked. I’ll guess on both of these questions, why not: 1. No, The Bone Clocks is not the most ambitious novel ever written. I’m no big fan of A Dance to the Music of Time, but it’s certainly much more ambitious than this one; 2. Wondering if a novel is working in a style reminiscent of its author’s other books is a stupid question, but yeah, it’s pretty Mitchell-esque.

Clocks features six narratives coming one after another, moving forward in time from the mid 1980s to the mid 2040s. It is reminiscent of Mitchell’s story layout for Cloud Atlas, although I preferred the way each of the segments in that one stopped suddenly and had their stories concluded only after we moved through all the later time periods. I’m reluctant to tell you much about each of these sections, as even the titles might spoil some of the book’s enjoyment, but the grand narrative surrounds Holly Sykes, who in 1984 is lighting out on her own from the small English country town of Gravesend after a fight with her mother. When Holly was small, she thought she heard something she called “The Radio People”: voices inside of her head that often gave her premonitions of events to come. She even saw one of the radio people, but this was explained away as being a “daymare” and was cured when she went to meet the kindly Dr. Marinus, whose name might be familiar to readers of some of Mitchell’s other books.

Later story sections include the early ’90s adventures of Hugo Lamb, a kind of Patrick Bateman-in-training who is going to a pricey college with some much richer friends, who he often fleeces for cash in poker games and other shady deals. Hugo and his gang end up at a chalet in Switzerland, in an entertainingly amoral sequence that recalls the best of Bret Easton Ellis. We also encounter Ed Brubeck, a war reporter whose story takes place simultaneously at a Sykes family wedding and the streets of Iraq post-2004 invasion. My favourite segment of the story is about Crispin Hershey, whose status as the “Bad Boy of English Letters” is in check as his latest novel fails to cause much of a fuss either financially or critically. The fifth sequence of the book is where I started to become a little ambivalent to the whole project as you’ll see later on. This is where the title of the novel is explained, though, and some of the seemingly-impossible events from earlier sections are revealed to be mere skirmishes in a war that we learn has been going on for centuries. The last part of the story catches up with Holly in a believably dark near future ravaged by climate change and new diseases, foretelling the world of Cloud Atlas.

So when Publishers Weekly asks if Clocks is “the most ambitious novel ever written”, what they’re actually referring to is the amount of intertextuality in this story. In addition to how bit players in one sequence become much more important later on in the novel, like how a character in Hugo Lamb’s story is a die-hard Crispin Hershey fan, there are many references to other books in the Mitchell canon. Again, as I’ve only read most and not all of these (for the record, I’ve read Black Swan Green, Cloud Atlas and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, and I really enjoyed all of them), maybe I was missing the whole feeling the novel was trying to evoke in me. Clocks is a magnum opus, an ur-book that ties all of Mitchell’s prior books together under a new theoretical framework, and as far as I can tell it basically makes sense? I actually grew to resent this device by book’s end. In cases when I knew which book he was referring to, I had to wrack my brain to remember who exactly this character was in that story, often ending up at Wikipedia. When I didn’t know who he was referring to it didn’t really detract from the plot, exactly, I just knew based on some of the names and descriptions that these bit players would be really cool in other books presumably. This became somewhat jarring in the end.

Intertextuality is not exactly a new thing, no matter how much PW was impressed by it. Comic books do this all the time, with characters from other series appearing in other people’s books, often with an editorial note saying “for more on this exciting person, check out issue x of y”, but this sort of thing isn’t unheard of in the world of literary fiction, either. Thomas Pynchon’s books, for one, have recurring characters like Pig Bodine, the Traverse family and others.

With that out of the way though, for the most part I enjoyed the style of the book. Mitchell’s knack for interesting characters and dialogue that evokes a specific moment in time is convincing throughout. He moves easily from the mind of a disaffected teenage girl in Thatcher’s Eighties to a crusty early-2000s war reporter to a douchey has-been author with the greatest of ease. My main issue with the story comes from the resolution of the device that connects all of the characters in this book, and indeed now all of his characters in all of his books. While I feel like I don’t need my hand held when it comes to explaining characters with magic powers, which the two factions at war in the course of this saga, the Horologists and the Anchorites, both possess, I think the blase nature with which Mitchell tosses off concepts at will in the fifth section of the novel renders them less powerful than they ought to be. I don’t want a Back to the Future II-style chalkboard chart explaining how every person is able to release their inner power and throw fireballs, put up shields, etc. but a little more explanation, a few more encounters in the ostensibly “real” world of the first four segments, would have gone a long way in making the fifth bit feel more real, more lived-in.

So is this the most David Mitchelliest David Mitchell novel? I think I still prefer Black Swan Green of his books that I’ve read, and Cloud Atlas‘ better fleshed-out universe was the most entertaining for me, but I think if you’ve enjoyed all the prior books you’ll get a lot out of this one. Just don’t get your hopes up that it’s the greatest, most complex thing ever, because it’s really not. As I mentioned before, J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst’s S. from last year was a much more complicated and beautiful thing, and of course we can’t count out Infinite Jest when talking about complicated novels. Still, The Bone Clocks is a very entertaining, high-concept fantasy novel, one that really recalled Roger Zelazny’s Nine Princes in Amber (has anyone else made this connection?), which is high praise indeed.

Review: Of Dice and Men: The Story of Dungeons and Dragons and the People Who Play It, by David Ewalt (2013)

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books / role-playing games

Musical Accompaniment: “Ready to Roll”, by Flashlight Brown


I’m not entirely sure for which audience David Ewalt’s Of Dice and Men was written. Is the book intended to be picked up by absolute newcomers to the concept of Dungeons and Dragons, or tabletop roleplaying altogether? Is it supposed to be of interest to people who already play, but are interested in the story of the game’s creation? Or is it for readers interested in a memoir of a lapsed geek coming back into the fold, trying out different activities for his own edification?

Of Dice and Men combines three elements in an attempt to give readers a sense of Dungeons and Dragons’ past, present and future. Ewalt crafts a concise history of TSR, the company that first released the game, while laying out his own experiences coming back to tabletop role-playing after a long absence. In an attempt to help readers understand all facets of the gaming world, Ewalt visits a display of ancient boardgames, attends a wargaming convention, becomes a LARPer and finally visits Lake Geneva, the birthplace of D&D. Interspersed among these chapters we also find the fictionalized adventures of some of Ewalt’s own player characters, mostly focusing on his 15th-level cleric Westlock, who battles vampires in a dystopic future Earth.

Of the book’s three features, by far the most interesting and best-written is Ewalt’s look at the history of the game itself. Starting with a brief look at military wargame culture in mid-century America, Ewalt spins a solid yarn around the lives of Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson, the two men whose combined genius in rules and story laid the groundwork for what was originally called “The Fantasy Game” and later D&D. Ewalt works at Forbes, and the facility with which he makes corporate intrigue around the later years of Tactical Studies Rules and the falling out between the two fathers of the game gripping reading is to be commended. Ewalt interviews many of the key players left over from the early days, and digests TSR’s press releases and sales data to give us a sense of just how big the D&D phenomenon grew in the late Seventies and early Eighties. Some great nuggets are dug up around the time of the “Satanic Panic” (one of the United States’ frequent lapses into moral absolutism), which in the early Eighties made parents around the country think that D&D was a gateway drug into occult rituals, human sacrifice and devil worship. This is around the time that Mazes and Monsters was released, a TV film now remembered mostly for being an early Tom Hanks vehicle, but at the time fuelling this supposed crisis around the game.

As can be expected, this massive outcry made the game irresistible to bored teens worldwide, and the company in turn became flush with cash. This led to some entertaining and extravagant purchases around the TSR office, as a bunch of nerds who started a game about pretending to be wizards are potentially not the most prudent financiers as it turns out. Ewalt’s ease at explaining the business narrative makes corporate power plays between Gygax and the company’s investors compelling reading, even if I would have liked a few more details on how the Dungeons and Dragons cartoon show came into being. I would even love to see a movie based on this material, actually.

Less successful for me, though, were the other two facets of the book, the combination of Ewalt’s re-entering the fantasy role-play world and the dramatizations of his own characters’ adventures. Of Dice and Men starts off incredibly slowly with an extended chapter which makes abundantly clear every bit of trivia about D&D readers could be expected to know for the rest of the story. Concepts like player characters, stat points, Dungeon Masters and the like are laboriously explained, and I feel like, in the wake of the massive popularity of MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, the average reader probably has at least some sense of what these things are. Given the fact that the cover features a large 12-sided die and marks Ewalt off as a “level 15 cleric”, I can’t see someone even picking up this book without having at least some sense of these concepts. Ewalt then relates his experiences as a young person playing D&D, and how he eventually quit playing in college for fear of being called a nerd. While he explains the things that brought him back into the fold as an adult, what he doesn’t do is really give a sense of how D&D is becoming less of a stigmatized hobby. He also has some weird prejudices, especially towards Live Action Role Playing (LARP), which fall by the wayside as he gains more experience in the modern-day gaming world.

Interspersed here are bits of dramatic fiction set in the various worlds Ewalt plays in. While they were relatively inoffensive to start, eventually these vignettes began to grate on me as they ham-fistedly tried to find equivalencies in Ewalt’s real world travels. It’s a cute idea, but I think it could have been scrapped. I worked at a comic book store for four years, so perhaps the novelty of having someone tell you how cool their elven ranger is has potentially worn off on me, but again, I can’t imagine an absolute newcomer being interested in this sort of material either. It all ties back to my confusion with who this book is actually for. It’s far too inside baseball on the history of TSR and the early days of D&D to really be of interest to a newbie, but it also takes great pains to explain the simplest of concepts, potentially alienating people who’d be interested in that history. It is trying to be all things to all people, and it should have just picked one concept and stuck with it.

This is the first book I’ve reviewed on this blog that I listened to as an ebook. While a professional acts out the fantasy adventure sequences, Ewalt provides narration for the rest of the book, and he is a decent reader. While he’s prone to a bit of overeager excitement when talking about the extent to which peoples’ lives are shaped by D&D, and some of his pop culture references are annoyingly obvious, on the whole it was a good choice for him to read his own work, I think.

Review: Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer (2014)

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Musical Accompaniment: “Where the Wild Roses Grow”, by Nick Cave and Kylie Minogue

Annihilation cover

“If I showed you the roses, would you follow?”

The twelfth expedition set out thirty years after the mysterious appearance of “Area X”. All women this time out, the unnamed explorers numbered among them a psychologist, an anthropologist, a surveyor, and a biologist, our narrator. The Area, which once featured a coastal town, is now an Eden untouched by human industry, full of interesting new flora and fauna, and potentially more secrets than that. The eleventh expedition ended in tragedy, much like many of the previous ones, but the four women (who numbered five before the linguist got cold feet) were determined to unlock the Area’s secrets for good. They could not imagine what lay in store for them…

Area X is under the control of an organization known as the “Southern Reach”, which gives this great new series by Jeff Vandermeer its title. Annihilation is the first of three short Southern Reach novels that will be released in 2014, and if the first one is any indication of quality, readers will be in for a treat all year long. Annihilation combines dread and cosmic horror like that found in the works of H.P. Lovecraft with interpersonal dynamics between characters and sheer visceral thrills reminiscent of Stephen King at his best. For whatever reason, the clinical depictions of nature gone mad in the Area recalled to me sequences from Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, much like the last book I read, The Slynx by Tatyana Tolstaya, although it also put me in mind of the dreamworld landscape found in Christopher Nolan’s Inception. The concept of a small area that suddenly changes and goes down its own evolutionary path also recalled an arc in Rick Remender’s excellent run on X-Force from a few years back, when the team returned to the world that gave Fantomex his origin.

All of this is to say that Annihilation is a very good book indeed, a slice of paranoia-inducing, creeps-giving horror that gripped me from beginning to end. I was initially a little put off by the dry, “by the book”-style narration delivered to us by the biologist, but I soon found it a comfort compared to what it could have been. Annihilation is definitely influenced by H.P. Lovecraft, but thankfully omits the overwrought vocabulary and hysterical feel of those stories, preferring instead to lay out its horror for readers in an easy to understand fashion that does not grate. Also like in Lovecraft’s work, journals make up a large part of the story, and I really appreciated how Vandermeer was never sidetracked by this device. He kept his focus on the biologist and her story throughout, and while it easily could have been a collection of journal entries this book never turned into a collection of found works like the annoying Night Film from last year did.

Vandermeer hits you with fascinating concept after fascinating concept, page by page. While we learn next to nothing about the Southern Reach organization in this volume, their management techniques in Area X are on full display in the person of the psychologist, who is revealed very early on as using post-hypnotic suggestion on the rest of the group to keep them in line. No sooner is this revealed, though, than the existence of new animals in the Area is discovered, and then writing made of living beings, and so on, and so on. It’s exhilarating to see so many fascinating new ideas spiraling through the book, each of which could easily have been a short story of their own, if not a novel. I also loved the dynamics between the four women exploring the area. They were instantly recognizable as a group of professionals who may or may not see eye to eye on everything, and this essential humanity is very useful as the plot becomes more and more crazy and weird. I’m intrigued to learn more about the previous expeditions, as the goal of the twelfth one seems mostly to be an offering to the Area, a new cross-section of humanity for it to interact with, and I’d like to see what the previous experiments in this vein were as well.

I don’t want to say too much more about this perfectly-sized volume, as I’d like to encourage all of you to check it out on your own. I’ve already got the second book in the Southern Reach trilogy, Authority, and I can’t wait to tear into it.

Late to the Party: The Slynx, by Tatyana Tolstaya (2000)

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The Slynx cover

Two hundred years after the great Blast, people still live around Moscow as best they can, they’re just a bit different now is all. Sure, there’s been some Consequences out there, but some of them are cool, like Nikita Ivanich’s ability to blow flames out of his mouth, or Head Saniturion Kudeyarov’s illuminating eye-beams. Not everyone is stuck with cockscombs growing out all over their body, or whatever the hell it is going on with that guys with all those extra appendages. Benedikt could even pass for a pre-Blast person, if it wasn’t for the stub of a tail sticking out from his pants… Benedikt’s got a pretty great job in the rechristened Fyodor-Kuzmichsk; it’s his job to recopy the poems, tracts and decrees laid down by the boss, Fyodor Kuzmich, Glorybe. Now if it wasn’t for that damned Slynx out there, in the woods, making everyone paranoid, things would be just about perfect in this post-Apocalypse. Just about…

The Slynx, which I picked up on a whim, is also the first book I’ve ever read from New York Review Books’ immaculately designed collection. It will definitely not be the last. I knew nothing about this book, but the cover copy referenced both Pale Fire and A Clockwork Orange and the setting sounded kind of like Roadside Picnic, so I was in. I could not have been happier with this decision. The Slynx delighted, surprised, and astounded me at every turn of the page.

The Anthony Burgess comparison is valid. Before the story starts there’s a brief glossary detailing a few of the new terms Tolstaya will use throughout the rest of the story. These words are simple, evocative, and soon become second nature to the reader. The rest of the vernacular spoken by the unfortunate denizens of future Moscow, though, is a quarrelsome, bouncy sort of speech, at once completely engaging, hilarious, but also monstrous when you think about it for more than five minutes. There’s a lot of talk of ridiculous games and violent occurences, but the engaging narration staves off what could have been a The Road-style exercise in murder-wallowing. Tolstaya’s use of language recallsthe best of Vonnegut, especially Cat’s Cradle, with its internal consistency that doesn’t put the reader off for not knowing exactly what’s going on at all times.

Benedikt is a fun character to follow around. He’s a braggart who’s deeply stupid, but also very endearing. As the story progresses, Benedikt’s true love of reading, first at his work being a scribe, later as an agent of the government confiscating books, becomes almost an addiction, much more important than the various women he lusts after, or the family he marries into. Every reader will see a bit of themselves in Benedikt, hoarding away volumes with zealous tsundoku abandon like that episode of The Twilight Zone. It’s endearing the way that he reads every single bit of pre-Blast literature with the same abandon and reverence, be it a nursery rhyme or one of the many works of Russian poetry found throughout the book.

That reliance on pre-Apocalypse poetry was really the only part of the book I didn’t love, but I realize that this is more of a personal failing than anything. I had the exact same problem with Roberto Bolaño’s The Savage Detectives, references going way over my head. At least in The Slynx there’s an appendix telling you who wrote each poem, if you want to track it down, and there’s the nice bonus that few of the characters in the story would know any more than I do. I also feel like Tolstaya’s less interested in doing metafictional jokes with her references than Bolaño is, but again I don’t really know for sure.

I really like the lo-fi way Tolstaya increases the weirdness of the setting, chapter by chapter. First it seems like the only domesticated animal people have anymore is mice, which serve as primary foodstuff and currency. But then you start finding out about peoples’ Consequences, their mutations, and you have to add that to your mental image of the scene, that it looks like Mad Max meets Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters. Then you discover that the Degenerators people use as beast of burden are basically just men in horse costumes, and that people who survived the initial Blast haven’t aged anymore, and so on, and so on. Tolstaya combines this absolute mastery of her setting with an absolute defiance of “regular” heroic narratives of the Joseph Campbell/Hero With a Thousand Faces school. The story is full of twists and turns, and I’ll go on record as saying I didn’t see many of them coming at all. Maybe Campbellian monomyth never really caught on in Russia in the mid-90s?

The Slynx is a fabulous book, a must for fans of the above-mentioned authors, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Tarkovsky’s film Stalker, the video games based on Stalker, or even the Fallout video games. Basically, if you’re looking for a good time in the post-apocalypse and you’re getting tired of standard narrative conventions, seek this one out.

Review: The Weirdness, by Jeremy P. Bushnell (2014)

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The Weirdness cover

Billy Ridgeway’s not in the greatest shape at the moment by any stretch of the imagination. An aspiring author, he spends most of his time either making artisanal sandwiches for the better-off-than-he-is who frequent the shop he works at, or trying desperately to get his writing published. On the eve of his first launch party, after finally getting a story in at a small literary magazine, Billy wakes up to find a strange person in his apartment: the honest-to-badness Devil. The Lucifer Morningstar of legend turns out to be kind of cool though, having brought with him some fantastic coffee, and after a brief PowerPoint presentation he asks Billy a simple question: what would you do to become a famous author?

So begins The Weirdness, the appropriately weird first novel from Jeremy Bushnell. The story read to me as a combination of the metaphysical world posited by Richard Kadrey (Sandman Slim) and Toby Barlow (Sharp Teeth, Babayaga) mixed with the mumblecore-hipster sensibility of Lena Dunham’s Tiny Furniture. The characters are for the most part very self-centred aspiring artists, with Billy’s girlfriend Denver being a notable exception as she’s already been recognized as a talented filmmaker. I reckon I would have got a bit more enjoyment out of this facet of the book had I more experience of the Brooklyn literary scene, but the determination and hustle showed by some of the characters in the story were pretty recognizable from people I know in the book world. I don’t know what it is about New York City novels that kind of turns me off, perhaps it’s the need to have everyone be a neurotic stress case all the time? I never get tired of this sort of thing in Hollywood stories, though, so I really have no idea.

I also appreciated the exaggerated influence of blogs and the bad buzz they can generate in this aspect of the story. It begins with Billy’s writing being panned by Anton Cirrus, editor of “Bladed Hyacinth”, even before his debut reading even goes off, and then descends from there. The pettiness and posturing of some aspects of the “literary” blogosphere read incredibly true to me, especially with the overly verbose and preening voice used in the first post.

The titular “weirdness” worked a bit less for me overall. I appreciated the shaggy dog aspect of the story, with things starting off relatively strange (having Satan show up in Billy’s house, a literary magazine with sinister motives) and getting even weirder from there. I felt by the end though, once superpowers have developed and magic incantations start flying all over the place, that the seriousness required by the premise had been lost. The characters, perhaps reflecting the mumblecore-tinged world in which they live, are just so damn blase about everything,  it started to drive me a little nuts. There’s not much in the way of anyone having to reconcile their psyches with the amazingly over-the-top events of the story, they all just take it in stride, even though they’ve changed physically in many ways by the end.

The book also does that kind of strange thing where at the beginning of the chapter a few key phrases are highlighted before the prose starts again, which is something that you’d see more often in a story from a hundred years ago, or at least in Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. I often wonder what the point of this stylistic technique is in a modern-day story, but I do admit I kept a finger at the front of the chapter to flip back and see what the connections were.

Overall, if the idea of a book that posits getting ahead in the overly dramatic and cutthroat NYC lit scene against the literal end of the world sounds like fun, this bit of Weirdness might be up your alley.

Late to the Party: The Player of Games by Iain M. Banks (1988)

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The Player of Games cover

You could say I’m a fan of games. I’ve played video games for as long as I can remember; one of my earliest memories growing up is going to buy an NES with my parents at a toy store down in the States. We had to climb a fence to get in the store, as we were on the complete wrong side of the building and didn’t have a car, and it was pretty intense for a three-year old. When I worked at a comic book store, I got heavily into tabletop role playing games, chiefly Dungeons and Dragons, but also some lesser-known games like Unknown Armies, and Paranoia. I own a fair amount of board games now, mostly Fantasy Flight products, but the sad thing is I can’t point my finger at one and say that I’m very good at it. If I had to choose, I’m probably better than average at Twilight Struggle and Ticket to Ride, but apart from that I’m kind of an easy mark. I’ve never stayed awake through a whole eight-hour game of Twilight Imperium, and the endless dicking around that accompanies the supposedly fast-paced The Resistance bores me to tears every time.

The second book in Iain M. Banks’ Culture cycle (following Consider Phlebas, reviewed previously here), The Player of Games, is about someone who’s my polar opposite in this regard. Jernau Morat Gurgeh is a master gamer: indeed, the “Morat” in his name even means as much in the Culture’s language, Marain. As noted in my last review, the Culture is a far-future human society which has melded almost entirely with machines. Great AIs known as Minds run the show for the most part, and humans spend their time in search of hedonistic pleasure, swapping genders almost at will and drugging themselves with whatever genofixed concoction suits their fancy. Gurgeh lives on a Culture “orbital” named Chiark, a gigantic structure that resembles Larry Niven’s Ringworld, or the place all the rich people lived in last year’s film Elysium, and there he’s the champ at basically every game imaginable, even teaching game theory to students. In the post-scarcity world of the Culture, you can focus your entire existence on these sorts of pursuits without worry, and while he seems happy on the surface, Gurgeh is looking for something that will prove a challenge.

That challenge comes in the form of the Empire of Azad, a rival civilization whose existence the Culture has kept under wraps to the general public. The Empire’s entire society is controlled by use of a game, also called Azad,  played every few years. Your status in the Empire is determined by how well you did at the last tournament, and whoever wins the whole thing becomes the Emperor. The rapacious, competitive nature of the Empire is cultivated by its higher ups all being skilled game-players, and this unorthodox system is exactly what compels Gurgeh into action, as it’s so different from the anarchy and seeming carelessness of the much more decentralized Culture.

This was a ripping good read as, unlike Consider Phlebas, this time out we are subsumed right into the strange and exciting world of the Culture, and are able to live vicariously through its people. Gurgeh is a relative innocent in many respects, at least compared to the people of Azad, who are continually scheming and plotting against one another. In fact, one of the reasons Gurgeh leaves Chiark to go participate in the game is because he’s blackmailed into it, and this is such a rarity in the Culture that the very concept must be explained to him!

The world of Azad will be familiar to us, as its barbarity is not too far removed from our own miserable existence, at least as compared to the Culture. While it is initially an exciting place for our sheltered hero, as the veils come off and he gets more involved in the game he soon experiences the abject misery and inequality most of its people toil under. In an especially intense sequence, Gurgeh’s handler during the game, a sentient drone named Flere-Imsaho, shows him the varying levels of depravity the upper classes enjoy watching on television as they move up the ranks. It’s basically the endgame portrayed in the movie Videodrome, violent entertainment breeding more violence except even more explicit somehow. The stakes are pretty high for our main character.

There’s an interesting use of voice in certain sections of the novel, as the heretofore unseen narrator butts in and starts explaining concepts to the reader that will make for dramatic irony later on. This includes fun stuff like how the three-sexed Azadians carry children to term, and how they’re to be addressed when speaking about them (short version, male, female, and the bisexual “apex”, plural “apices”). It jarred me out of the story at first, as it’s different from the strict third-person narration found in Consider Phlebas and the only other Culture novel I’ve read so far, Surface Detail. I wonder if this writing technique brings Iain M. Banks closer to the style he uses in his non-sci fi persona, Iain Banks. I’m not entirely sure, but I’m game to find out once I lay hands on some non-“M.” books.

Like Consider Phlebas, I found Player of Games to be an intensely cinematic reading experience, and even though Banks doesn’t find himself able to completely explain the Azad game (with good reason, I think), I was still imagining how it’d look “onscreen” throughout. The story is a bit more cerebral than the swashbuckling adventures found in Consider Phlebas, but Gurgeh’s metamorphosis into a more Azadian, more brutal person mimics Horza’s gradual reconciliation with the Culture’s worldview. Where I found the previous novel to be a new spin on the pulp tropes of the Astonishing Tales era of science fiction, Player of Games is more of a novel of ideas in the mode of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation books, although with much more interesting use of language, character and etc. than those staid tomes. Highly recommended, even if you’ve never read a Culture novel before.

Late to the Party: Anno Dracula, by Kim Newman (1992)

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Anno Dracula cover

I’d heard about Anno Dracula for a long time before actually getting my hands on it. When I was in high school, one of the big genres I liked to read was alternate history. I worked my way through Harry Turtledove’s work up to that point (Guns of the South and Ruled Britannia were especially good), devoured Philip K. Dick’s masterwork The Man in the High Castle, and found one of my favourite short stories of all time in Bruce Sterling and Lewis Shiner’s “Mozart in Mirrorshades”. By far the best in my opinion was a novel by Eugene Byrne and Kim Newman called Back in the U.S.S.A., which chronicled the state of the world after America’s Communist revolution in 1917, where Eugene Debs takes the Lenin role while Al Capone is cast as the U.S.’s Stalin. In the back of that volume, I saw an ad for a book called Anno Dracula, which has only recently come back into print.

Anno Dracula is another work of alternate history from Newman, one that provides a lot of the same pleasures as Back in the U.S.S.A., where part of the fun was figuring out who was a real person and who was fictional. In the 1888 of the novel, Victorian England is in the throes of becoming a vampire-run state after the wedding of the Queen to Vlad Tepes, aka. Dracula, a couple of years earlier. As Prince Consort, Dracula has made vampirism fashionable amongst the upper classes, and the more physical advantages of increased longevity and strength have also filtered down to London’s poorest in an example of trickle-down necronomics.

Charles Beauregard, a  still-“warm” spy working for an organization known as the Diogenes Club, is brought into an investigation into the murders of vampire prostitutes in Whitechapel by a maniac known only by the nom de guerre of Silver Knife. During the course of his investigation Beauregard meets Genevieve Dieudonne, a French vampire from a different bloodline than Dracula’s, who runs a halfway house/hospital for newly-turned vampires and joins forces with him to crack the case.

Much like the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill, Anno Dracula is a rollercoaster ride through Victorian-era and Victorian-set genre fiction, although in this case primarily vampire fiction for obvious reasons. Unlike certain recent volumes of League (Black Dossier and Century: 2009 especially), I found Anno Dracula to be a coherent, engaging story and not just a list of knowing in-jokes waiting to be explained by footnotes.

I do feel, though, that I would have gotten more out of it had I read Bram Stoker’s Dracula recently, as many of the main characters are survivors of that book; hilariously in the AD universe Bram Stoker himself is declared an enemy of the state for his relationship with Abraham van Helsing, and is shipped off to a concentration camp. An extensive list of the book’s references can be found on its wiki page; I was especially pleased to have been right on the money with my guess regarding Blacula.

I enjoyed learning about the day-to-day workings of an England controlled by vampires in much the same way as I enjoyed the first part of the underrated film Daybreakers. It’s fun to see the restrictive Victorian mores and taboos opened up ever so slightly to accomodate feasting on blood, but still leaving things like handing your calling card to a footman, or gentlemen’s clubs where not a word is to be spoken. You can really tell that Newman has done his research, both into pretty much every vampire book and movie currently in existence, as well as general Victorian life.

The new printing of Anno Dracula comes complete with an extensive afterword, footnotes for the myriad references, an alternate ending, a short story set in the same world, and a snippet from a screenplay of the book. While a nice addition, I can’t say that any of these were really big selling features for me, but they might be of interest to those who read the original incarnation. I did really enjoy the short story, “Dead Travel Fast”, as it featured Dracula learning how to drive a car and that idea’s pretty damn adorable.

There’s three books that follow Anno Dracula in the series, and I’d like to pick them all up, starting with this world’s take on the First World War in The Bloody Red Baron. If you’re a fan of well-thought out vampire fiction and alternative history that respects the intelligence of the reader, I’d definitely recommend this book.