Up for Review: The Rabbit Back Literature Society

Hmm, creepy bookish mystery, yes please.

The Rabbit Back Literature SocietyThe Rabbit Back Literature Society by Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

Only nine people have ever been chosen by renowned children’s author Laura White to join “The Rabbit Back Literature Society,” an elite group of writers in the small town of Rabbit Back. Now a tenth member has been selected: Ella, a young literature teacher. Soon Ella discovers that the Society is not what it seems. What is its mysterious ritual known as “The Game”? What explains the strange disappearance that occurs at Laura White’s winter party? Why are the words inside books starting to rearrange themselves? Was there once another tenth member, before her? Slowly, as Ella explores the Society and its history, disturbing secrets that had been buried start to come to light… In Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen’s chilling, witty novel, The Rabbit Back Literature Society, the uncanny brushes up against the everyday in the most beguiling and unexpected of ways.

Originally published in Finnish in 2006, then in English in 2014 by Pushkin Press, The Rabbit Back Literature Society will now be published by Thomas Dunne Books on 20 January 2015.

Links
Author and Book website
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Thomas Dunne Books

Bird Box by Josh Malerman

Bird BoxTitle: Bird Box
Author: Josh Malerman
Published: 13 May 2014
Publisher: Ecco
Source: own copy
Genre: horror, post-apocalyptic
Rating: 8/10

Just in case you don’t read the whole review, let me say this – fucking WOW. One of my favourite 2014 reads, and just as tense, disturbing and terrifying as I could hope a horror novel to be.

Bird Box is divided into two timelines. In one, Malorie lives in a house with two four-year old children, known only as Boy and Girl. She hasn’t seen or heard another living person for years. There are blankets covering the windows. None of them ever leave the house without a blindfold. The children have never seen the sky or left the property. Since their birth Malorie has trained them to listen, to survive blind. Because today, after four years of preparation and indecision, Malorie and the children will leave the house forever and travel blind down the river, to a sanctuary that might not even exist anymore.

In the other timeline, the beginning of this apocalypse coincides with Malorie’s realisation that she’s pregnant. At first she dismisses the news stories of grisly murders and suicides as just another media uproar, but the reports only intensify, and they start coming closer and closer to home. No one knows exactly what’s happening, but after several months a theory develops – there are creatures out there, and one glance at them causes people to attack anyone nearby before killing themselves.

The world falls apart, and eventually Malorie gets desperate enough to respond to an ad about a nearby home offering safety to anyone willing to make the journey there. At the house, she finds a small group of people surviving through cooperation and careful security measures. They have tinned food, a well for fresh water, and a river behind the house that supplies the neighbourhood with electricity. Not only does Malorie find her material needs temporarily sorted, but she finds strength and inspiration in her housemate Tom, a kind, friendly man with the focus and commitment needed to keep their group alive.

But you know, you know, it’s all going to go to shit. Because four years down the line, Malorie is alone in the house with two small children who she can’t even bring herself to name. She’s arranged the furniture and picture frames to cover up the horrific stains she couldn’t clean and cannot bear to look at. Things were once ok in that house, but no matter how careful the housemates are, they will eventually run out of food, and they cannot avoid the creatures outside forever. The creatures never attack people, but they don’t have to. One look at them and you turn into a murderous, suicidal psychopath.

The obvious assumption is that the housemates will get cabin fever and turn on each other. It’s a cliche that I don’t mind too much, but I’m glad this story explores a different route. Naturally, there are tensions and fights, but for the most part the housemates keep it together. So you wait to see where it all goes wrong, and it’s pretty nerve-wracking.

Malerman uses simple scare tactics like this, and I found it deeply, disturbingly effective. For sighted people, the loss of such a basic faculty is extremely debilitating. It’s also very easy to imagine and relate to, and I think that’s part of what makes this book so creepy. Just close your eyes and imagine that there’s an intruder in the house, or that every sound you hear outside is something that could kill you. You can understand the stress and difficulty of a blindfolded character entering a house and spending hours feeling around to make sure that it’s empty, bumping into the dead bodies of previous occupants, covering and closing the windows so that they eventually feel safe enough to open their eyes. And knowing that, even then, they might have missed the thing that will kill them.

You also know that, because the creatures are almost completely silent, they could be watching at any time, walking right beside the person fetching water from well or making the treacherous trip to a neighbouring house for supplies. Some of the scariest moments in the novel come when characters realise that there is something right there with them.

It’s a testament to the terror of hidden monsters. Too often I find horror books and movies disappointing once the monster is revealed and/or the killer’s reasoning is explained. Part of the problem, I think, is that horror is very subjective and what one person finds frightening another person finds unconvincing.

Bird Box however, explores the idea of monsters as utterly incomprehensible. The theory is that “[t]hey’re like infinity […]. Something too complex for us to comprehend” (43). To look at them is to go mad and destroy yourself, because your mind simply cannot handle what it’s seen. Thus, Malerman eschews the whole problem of the reveal, and focuses purely on the devastating fact of the creatures’ existence. We can’t see them, we don’t know what they are or why they’re here, and we don’t need to because they’re already so frightening.

That said, the novel can be extremely graphic. Malerman’s writing style is simple and clear, focusing on brute realities. When people die, they die horribly. As with the monsters and the blindness, this is handled very well. The gore never feels gratuitous or excessive, but it’s always as shocking and tragic as it should be.

The threat of violent death is ever-present, but not because any of the characters are bumbling idiots, thank god. This plot doesn’t need anyone to be absurdly stupid to function. Another thing I like is that the children are highly capable characters with an active role to play. Usually they’d be liabilities, especially at only four years old, and the main character would be faced with the challenge of having to protect these beloved but useless people. Boy and Girl, however, have been so rigorously trained that they’re far better suited to this post-apocalyptic world than Malorie is. Boy’s hearing and memory is so acute that he can listen to Malorie walking around the house and then list forty to fifty locations she went to and sounds she made. So even though they’ve never seen anything outside the house, Malorie needs the children as much as they need her.

Similarly, she needs her housemates in the earlier narrative. Survival depends on their continued cooperation, but she also comes to care for these people who took her in even though she was carrying a baby they would have to deliver and feed. And, as the reader, I cared about them too. Admittedly, some are a bit flat because they’re just there to make up the numbers. but they’re decent people and I was worried about what would surely happen to them.

It’s a tense read – the certainty of disaster inside the house, the uncertainty of the journey down the river. At a key point in Malorie’s journey, she will be forced to open her eyes to take the right route. It’ll be the first time in four years that she sees the outside world, and if she sees a creature she will kill her children and herself. Most of the time there’s just danger without disaster, but when disaster strikes, it’s harrowing. And throughout, there’s the blind terror of creatures no one can let themselves see. I have some criticisms – like the flat characters – but they’re mostly nitpicky or at least didn’t spoil the book for me. This story was exactly the kind of experience I want from horror novels, but almost never get. It’s really got to me, but in a good way. It left me lying nervously awake in the middle of the night, replaying the scariest moments, thinking “Fuck, that was so good.

I have no idea why I like to do this to myself, but if you suffer the same paradox, then you should go read Bird Box.

Daily Reads: 16 December 2014

DR 16122014

It’s that time of year when people start posting their best-of lists, and I tend to start feeling guilty about all the books I never got around to reading. But it’s a good kind of guilt, if that makes sense, because it helps me prioritise my tbr pile, turns my attention to interesting new books I never took much notice of before, and generally just whips up fresh enthusiasm for new fiction. And since I’m looking forward to another kind of good guilt, the kind that comes with having enjoyed too much good food and wine, I decided to post some of the sff lists I’ve been looking at.

Tor.com posted Reviewer’s Choice: The Best Books of 2014. Some very exciting stuff here, especially since the reviewers have listed some lesser-known works. I’m so happy to see SA authors Lauren Beukes and Sarah Lotz there too.

SF Signal’s recent Mind Meld is about the best sff movies of 2014. I don’t feel guilty about not having watched most of these movies, simply because I can’t (there’s only one cinema in Addis Ababa screening new international movies, it only has three screens, and it’s a bit crap). Nevertheless, I love film and I’ll be moving back to SA soon, so I’m adding a couple of these to my must-watch list. Interstellar gets a few mentions, of course, but what I’d really like to watch is Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive, featuring Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston as an old, pretentious vampire couple.

Chaos Horizon is a blog dedicated to predicting the Nebula and Hugo nominees based on statistical modelling. It’s a good place to keep track of buzz books and get a feel for these awards. The latest post is an update on the Nebula 2015 predictions. I feel rather chuffed for having actually read quite a few of these and owning a couple of others, although annoyed that I passed up a chance at a review copy of The Goblin Emperor. Anyway, more items on the list of books to buy.

And finally, not a list, but some awesome news – Saga Press is publishing a Kameron Hurley space opera! It’s called The Stars Are Legion, and ok, it’s only coming out in 2016, but I’m already going all squee. Click through to read Aiden Moher’s interview with Hurley, and find out what kind of mind-blowing weirdness we can expect from the novel. You might always want to start following Saga Press, Simon & Schuster’s new sff imprint, launching in spring 2015. Upcoming titles include books by Ken Liu, Genevieve Valentine and Kat Howard.

 

Daily Reads is my feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments :)

Parasite by Mira Grant

Parasite by Mira GrantTitle: Parasite
Author: Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire)
Series: Parasitology #1
Published: 29 October 2013
Publisher: Orbit
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Genre: science fiction, thriller, horror
Rating: 5/10

How is it that I read two novels about tapeworms this year? This isn’t going to become a trend is it? Because, eww. But at least Parasite isn’t nearly as repulsive as The Troop.

In the near future, SymboGen revolutionises medicine with the creation of a genetically engineered tapeworm it calls the Intestinal Bodyguard. Via one little pill, this parasite takes residence in your small intestine and performs all sorts of useful medical functions – administering chronic medication, secreting natural birth control, preventing allergic reactions, modulating brain chemistry, boosting the immune system etc. With the Intestinal Bodyguard, no one ever has to worry about having enough money for medication or missing doses. By 2027, almost everyone in the world has one, and there are even special models for impoverished communities where food is scarce.

But, unsurprisingly, having a parasite specifically designed to tinker with the human body has dangerous consequences. There are cases of what is referred to as “sleeping sickness” – people unexpectedly shut down, becoming completely catatonic. No one can figure out how to restore them. Later cases show increasing levels of violence. It’s basically the beginning of the zombie apocalypse, except the zombies are called “sleepers” and the problem is a tapeworm, not a virus.

For Sally Mitchell, the Intestinal Bodyguard brought her back from the dead, but in a good way. After driving her car into a bus, she ended up in a coma that no one expected her to recover from. The doctor was trying to convince her parents to switch off the life support when Sally miraculously woke up.

Unfortunately, she wasn’t really ‘Sally’ anymore – she’d lost her entire twenty years of memory, absolutely everything leading up to the car crash, including the basics of how to walk, speak, read, etc. She had to learn everything from scratch and her new personality is nothing like her previous one.

Six years later she calls herself Sal, has a job, a boyfriend, and functions like a normal person, although she is denied the freedom to live a normal life. SymboGen, pays for all her medical care and requires her to come in periodically for a battery of tests. She has to see a psychologist she hates. Despite being an adult, her parents have been made her legal guardians, and they won’t give her permission to move out. This puts Sal in a position that is both difficult and useful as the sleeper epidemic grows worse. She and her boyfriend Nathan (a parasitologist) take the initiative to figure out what’s going on and find a cure.

Parasite was nominated for a Hugo this year, and my rather uncharitable reaction to this was “WHY?”. It’s not dreadful, but it’s not award material. Granted, the Hugos generated quite an uproar this year because some of the nominees were there for ridiculous political reasons, but presumably Parasite wasn’t one of those. I have to wonder if it got nominated at least partly because Orbit made it available as a Read Now file on NetGalley. For those who don’t know, NetGalley is a site that distributes digital review copies. If a book is marked as “Read Now” it means that any user can download it without having to get approval from the publisher. Most Read Now books are obscure titles from small presses. As a Mira Grant (Seanan McGuire) novel from a publisher as big as Orbit, Parasite would have been in demand anyway. As a Read Now available for months, it must have ended up on the reading devices of most of the sff fans on the site. And since it’s a select group of fans who choose the nominees, the Hugos are, in part, a popularity contest. Parasite might have gotten a head start simply because it’s written by a well-known author and a large group of influential readers got a free copy. Also, it’s got enough thought-provoking ideas to capture people’s attention, and it’s entertaining enough that most people would probably enjoy it. Since most of us only have time to read a few of the year’s latest releases, it could easily stand out.

So the lesson here is for the big publishers – if you want your sff titles to be nominated for Hugo awards, mark them as “Read Now”. :D

Anyway, Parasite. I was baffled by the award nomination because there’s so much about the novel that’s either problematic or just not great. It’s messy. The writing is bland. The characters are flat and their emotions are often unconvincing, coming off as melodramatic. They sometimes behave in ways that are silly or senseless. Sal can be surprisingly smart but also unbelievably stupid. There’s one scene where there are sleepers outside her house and she stands around in her bathrobe playing the brainless victim. There are lots of little things that bug me throughout, like when Sal is desperately trying to contact her boyfriend Nathan on a landline as if he no longer possesses a cellphone, or why she has a pathological fear of driving if she doesn’t remember her accident. Overall, this book reads like a B-grade thriller I picked up at the airport. A good B-grade thriller, but not much more than that.

There are two major issues that I want to discuss – Sal’s character, and the structure of the plot. I’ll tackle Sal first. In some ways, she’s fascinating. She’s a 6-year-old adult, trying to live a full life without actually having had one. Who would you be without a childhood? Who would you become, surrounded by people who remember you as someone else? What kind of friendships and sexual relationships would you have when you’ve only had six years to learn how to socialise?

Lots of potential for a complex character here, but Sal is mostly unremarkable. One character calls her the “poster child for dull”, and I agree. Sal talks about being six years old, living in Sally’s shadow and building her vocabulary, but it’s mostly just talk. She might have behaved strangely after coming out of her coma, but now she’s pretty normal and there’s nothing wrong with her vocabulary. She has a happy sex life. People often treat her as if she’s still weird or creepy, but for the reader there’s nothing particularly unsettling about her behaviour. Except the way she tends starts screaming if the person driving her around takes their hands off the wheel or their eyes of the road.

Not only do I feel that she should have been way more nuanced, but I thought the author missed out on an opportunity for serious struggles with identity. Sal is very confident about who she is, and although I’m actually happy for her, I find this unlikely. Her only real difficulties come from other people treating her as a bit of a freak, and her parents treating her like a small child with limited rights and privileges. But what if Sal had identified as male? What if she were gay? What if her parents were less accommodating, perhaps because of cultural or religious beliefs? What if she wanted to do things or live in ways that society found unacceptable? Instead, Sal is is straight, white, middle-class and well-adjusted, and even though her life was totally fucked up, she’s had as easy a time of it as you could hope for under those circumstances.

Then, the structure of the plot. The characters work their way up to two big reveals, one in the middle, and one at the end. However, the reader knows what the characters don’t, so it’s irritating rather than mysterious. You see, the tapeworms are the only notable thing about this future that differs from our present (another reason this book is a bit bland). It’s the technology upon which the entire story is built. So obviously it’s the tapeworms that are turning people into zombies. But this isn’t obvious to the characters and it takes half of a 500+ page novel for them to confirm it.

Then, once they’ve caught up to you, the story sets the process in motion again. When Sal is given the rundown on the connection between the tapeworms and the sleeping sickness, she learns a big shocking twist. For me, the twist was the first really gripping thing to happen in the novel, the first time since I started reading that I thought there was some award-worthy material here. Unfortunately at this point, Sal has had to absorb a lot of terrible new information, and just can’t deal with the new reveal. So she faints, and forgets about it. And because it has some devastating personal implications, she avoids facing up to it for the rest of the book. She keeps referring to something she should remember or figure out, only to get distracted or decide that she has more important things to focus on. Several other characters know all about this thing she’s avoiding, but none of them talk to her about it, even when they should, or have little reason to keep silent. There’s one character in particular who has absolutely no tact and yet she tiptoes around the issue for Sal’s sake in a way that seems absurdly out of character.

Of course, the thing Sal doesn’t want to confront is completely obvious to the reader (you could guess it at the start, if you’re paying attention), so once again you’re waiting for her to catch up. You wait until the final paragraphs, in fact. And this time the reason for Sal’s ignorance feels forced.

On the bright side, the second half is where the novel gets interesting in an award-winning sort of way by presenting us with some very strange ideas and ethical questions. Sometimes it’s hard to take those questions seriously, but at least they’re there. And despite all my reservations, I mostly enjoyed reading this. I huffed and rolled my eyes a lot, but I kept going because I wanted to know what would happen next. I have to give it some credit for having weirdly thought-provoking ideas, and I enjoyed taking a break with a novel that didn’t need me to try very hard. I’m thinking of reading the sequel, for fun. I just wouldn’t nominate it for any awards. If anything, I think the award nomination might actually be detrimental, because it raises expectations that the novel most likely won’t fulfil. Rather just go into it expecting an sf thriller and you’ll be fine.

Daily Reads: 8 December 2014

Daily Reads

Morning all! I’ve got some particularly good stuff for you today.

Tim Parks thinks we should be writing in our books with pens. We tend to treat the written word as sacred, he says, and it impairs our ability to think critically about what we’re reading and engage with it. He finds that his students perform much better after he’s got them reading with a pen in hand. I think Parks had classic and literary fiction in mind here (the ‘important’, intimidatingly authoritative stuff) but it’s still worth thinking about.

As a fairly critical reviewer, I’m already on Parks’s side. I take loads of notes on my Kindle, and I pencil notes in my print copies. I’m still wary of the pen though. I understand his point – the permanency of the ink gives the pen greater authority, thereby giving you more authority, and so encouraging you to think more critically. But these days my print copies are among my most valuable books (signed, limited edition, hardcover), and so I don’t want to write in them with a pen any more than I want my cat to scratch an expensive piece of furniture. I might be willing to try it on a cheap paperback, but I sometimes I lend, sell or give my books away, and the recipient probably wouldn’t appreciate comments in ink.

Still, I appreciate the sentiment of this article. Even though I already leave comments and underline/highlight passages, I love how Parks is encouraging even more – 3-4 comments on every page, underlining everything you love or hate, everything that moves you in some way. It’s not about simply criticising texts, but understanding and engaging with them. When re-reading you could see how your feelings might have changed over the years. I also think that more notes are always better than less for review purposes. Most importantly, more notes can help me learn more about fiction with more in-depth dialogue. What works, what doesn’t, why do I feel the way I do, how could this be better?

Now to pick a book to sacrifice to my pen…

Robert Jackson Bennett reviews Nexus by Ramez Naam over at The Book Smugglers. I’ve never paid that much attention to this book (not for any real reason other than being unable to take note of everything), but Bennett makes it sound absolutely brilliant. I’m totally sold.

Charles Stross laments the lack of cultural estrangement in far-future sf. If a story is set a few centuries in the future, how could a contemporary “Anglophone developed-world middle class lifestyle that lots of folks aspire to” possibly be a universal norm? As he points out, even in “in the context of our own history, we are aliens”. If you travelled back even a century in time, you’d be totally lost, so it’s unlikely you’d feel at home four centuries into the future. Granted, implausibly familiar societies are easier on writers and readers, but Stross makes a good argument for the harder option. Great food for thought for sf writers and readers.

Daily Reads is my feature for helping me get more organised about my online reading, and sharing my favourite posts with you. If you know of something cool you think I should check out, please let me know in the comments :)

Up for Review: The Just City by Jo Walton

I’m really looking forward to this philosophical fantasy novel.

The Just CityThe Just City by Jo Walton (Tor Books)

“Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent.”

Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge,  ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

 

The Just City will be published on 13 January 2015 by Tor Books

Links
Publisher’s website
Author’s website

Devilskein & Dearlove by Alex Smith

Devilskein and DearloveTitle: Devilskein & Dearlove
Author: Alex Smith
Published: July 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: review copy from publisher
Genre: fantasy, middle-grade
Rating: 8/10

When Erin Dearlove arrived at Van Riebeeck Heights to live with her reluctant Aunt Kate, the neighbours all said she was an obnoxious brat, too thin, spoiled, wild-looking, and with a habit of speaking like she’d swallowed a dictionary. They were pretty spot on. Her face was scrawny, her sandy amber hair unbrushed, she used convoluted vocabulary with spite, and she never smiled, because she had no parents. (7)

Erin’s parents were killed in a horrific home invasion, but she tells people they were eaten by a crocodile, and she “found bits of them on the shaggy white carpet of our designer home” (7) Surly and snooty, she shuns the other children in the apartment block. In an impulsive attempt to spite them, she ends up trying to befriend Mr Devilskein, the demon in apartment 6616.

Devilskein is a Companyman, who locks up the souls people bargained with. In his apartment are six doors, each of which lead to another six doors, each with six more doors…. And Devilskein guards the key to every one. He is supposed to keep the keys mixed up so that no one ever has a hope of reclaiming their soul, but Devilskein is a bit of a romantic, and “could not resist the poetry of classifying his keys according to the Dewey decimal system” (44).

That said, he’s still a cruel, dangerous creature. When he sees the shining beauty of Erin’s soul, and realises that she has a living soulmate to boot, he decides to steal her heart to replace his own ailing one, thereby giving himself another thousand years of life. He lets her into his fantastical apartment, where she meets the charming talking cricket Zhou (once a fifteen-year-old envoy from the China’s Mongol Empire), reads the lost works of William Shakespeare, swims in an underwater paradise, and tries to restore the dying section of a beautiful Chinese garden. It’s a dark retelling of The Secret Garden by Frances Jodgson Burnett, but set in the present day, on Cape Town’s famous Long Street.

Devilskein & Dearlove is a lovely piece of fiction. It has all the charm and whimsy of my favourite kinds of children’s fiction, but it’s also dark and unafraid of being brutal. It had me hooked from the first page, when we meet the first of the wonderful characters in the story. Erin would be a difficult child to handle in person, but on the page I immediately cared about her. Her arrogance is so clearly a shield for her immense grief that it’s easy to empathise with her no matter how rudely she snaps at others. When the other kids tell her about the mythical Devilskein, it’s her grief that draws her to his fearsome nature: “Whatever he looked like, she doubted anything could out-monster her hidden-away grief… if he really was a proper monster (not just a hideous recluse), perhaps he could swallow her and her stupid sad heart up” (22).

Devilskein is a combination of unnervingly likeable monstrosity. He looks scary – there are tiny words carved into his face, and he’s missing an ear. He lets Erin  in only because he wants to steal (literally) her heart. He’s a demon with an apartment full of souls, and on top of that he’s hiding a very twisted, dangerous secret. But he also has a big brown poodle named Calvados, he’s good friends with Zhou the cricket, and he loves his vast library of keys like a bibliophile loves signed limited editions. We’re told that “[t]hough thoroughly cruel, he was also thoroughly cultured, and as much as he was lethal, he was equally a romantic” (44).

His unusual relationship with Erin gives her a sense of purpose and enlivens her with fantastical intrigue. She still avoids dealing with her grief, but she starts to come out of her shell of anger and arrogance, and take an interest in things. Her Aunt Kate plays a big role too. Although happily unmarried and child-free, Kate is remarkably patient and caring even when Erin is being difficult. She’s a successful artist, and helps Erin discover an uncanny talent for drawing.

Adding to the feel-good vibes is the immensely likeable Kelwyn, who responds to Erin’s hostility with unflappable friendliness:

The saviour of all manner of damaged frogs, snakes, insects and plants, Kelwyn did not have it in his nature to be petty; he was a generous, warm, good-humoured soul. Nevertheless, he did possess a naughty streak. (15)

Kelwyn teases Erin for being grumpy, but he’s terribly worried about her when she goes to Devilskein’s apartment, given the frightening rumours about him. We’re told early on that Kelwyn is Erin’s soulmate, which I found cheesy, but I couldn’t be too bothered with Kelwyn being so likeable (he spends a lot of time rescuing dogs and cats around the neighbourhood) and all the quirky fantasy going on.

But it’s not all sunshine and happiness, and I wouldn’t like it if it was. Although Erin starts to recover, she never stops using the absurd story she made up about rich parents and a lavish home. If anything it seems that, having discovered the wonders in Devilskein’s apartment, she’s letting the fantasy of her past replace the reality. Furthermore, Kelwyn really does have a very good reason to worry about her, not just because of Devilskein, but because Erin starts sneaking into his apartment and finding things that should stay locked away.

I don’t want to reveal more for fear of spoiling the story, but I will say that I love the way Smith handles it. Even as things start going well in Erin’s life, there’s an undercurrent of real, terrible danger. It’s not that I want her to suffer, but the threat of danger gives the story intrigue and drive. It also gives weight to Erin’s decisions. She enters the story as a victim, lashing out in response to what has been done to her, but the story that follows happens because of the actions she takes. With the help of the people around her, she eventually starts to take charge of her life rather than wallowing in misery. Many of her choices are good, but some of her behaviour is decidedly unhealthy, and she makes some awful mistakes. And one of the things I really love about this book is how seriously it takes Erin’s decisions. What she does has real consequences, whether good, bad or catastrophic. She doesn’t get off easily just because that would be nice and this is a children’s novel.

What also brings this book to life is the way it’s filled with the sounds and activities of Long Street. It’s set almost entirely in the apartment block, and Smith frequently adds in the sounds the characters would be hearing – the traffic outside, the howling South Easter, a baby crying, a boy throwing a ball against the wall. At any moment, the narrative might pause to give us a glimpse of what the non-POV characters are doing – Kate shaving her legs, Kelwyn tending to his plants, a neighbour cooking dinner. Rather than interrupting the tale, I thought these details helped flesh out the world of the novel.

If I have any criticisms of Devilskein & Dearlove, it’s only that the novel introduces a sense of vibrant cultural diversity that it then neglects. We learn that Van Riebeeck Heights is home to a diverse bunch of residents, much like Long Street and Cape Town as a whole. We’re told that Kelwyn’s best friend is a boy named Sipho, who rescues animals with him. But what we end up getting is a novel without any significant POC characters. With the possible exception of Zhou the cricket, other cultures appear only through names or in the aroma of curry, for example, and except for one brief appearance, Sipho is just a voice on a walkie-talkie.

That said, this is still one one of the best books I’ve read this year. It’s enchanting, beautifully written and adventurous. I personally love how dark it can get, but also that it balances that out with simple pleasures and heartwarmingly happy moments. Highly recommended.