Snowblind by Christopher Golden

Snowblind Christopher GoldenTitle: Snowblind
Author: Christopher Golden
Published:
 
21 January 2014
Publisher: 
St Martin’s Press
Genre:
 
fantasy, thriller
Source: 
own copy
Rating:
 4/10

A vicious blizzard hits the small New England town of Coventry, bringing with it far more than severe cold and power failures. Scary ice monsters move through the storm, stealing away the living, and feeding on the souls of the dead.

Twelve years later, the citizens of Coventry are still mourning the loss of the eighteen people who died in that storm. Detective Joe Keenan still wishes he could have saved the two boys who died when they tried to go sledding. Doug Manning lost his wife Cherie, and has turned to crime as he struggles to make ends meet thanks to the recession. Ella and TJ are also struggling to keep their restaurant – and their marriage – afloat. Their daughter Grace was unexpectedly conceived on the night of the big blizzard, but TJ also lost his mother. Jake Shapiro still had nightmares about the death of his little brother Isaac. Their mother Allie not only mourns the loss of her son, but also the death of the man she was falling in love with.

Now another a huge blizzard is coming, and some people are acting even stranger than usual. The ghosts of the dead have returned, and they’re taking over the bodies of the living. But their sudden return to life won’t last long, because the ice men are coming to take back what’s theirs.

Well, as you can see from my rating of 4/10, I didn’t particularly care for this one. I liked the prospect of a ghost story reminiscent of Stephen King, but it’s very bland. It’s more of a drama about love, loss, friendship and family than a horror novel. The ice monsters are creepy, but they’re mostly there to facilitate the more personal stories. They kill loved ones, the loved ones come back as ghosts and are reunited with the living, but then the ice men threaten to take them away again. The ice men have very little time on the page – they appear briefly during the first storm, and again at the climax of the novel.

If you’re wondering about the ghosts who return, well they’re not creepy, with the slight exception of an old woman who possesses the body of an 11-year-old girl, but acts just like a blunt, disapproving old woman. All the other ghosts are really just trying to spend some time with the people they loved and lost.

However, they’re also hoping to hide from the ice men, because the ice men can only get to them when the storm is at it’s worst, but if they escape they’ll be able to live again. Obviously, this raises the issue of using someone else’s body, but although this is mentioned often it’s not really explored even when one ghost starts a sexual relationship that the body’s owner could not have agreed to.

There’s also quite a serious question of conflict between the ghost and the host. Obviously the living wouldn’t be willing to give up their lives, their friends and relatives wouldn’t be willing to accept the change and it’s hugely impractical, especially when there’s an old woman in a child’s body or a child in an adult’s body. On the other hand, for the ghosts to leave means returning to some kind of icy hell where they’ve spent the last 12 years, and no one wants to tell someone they loved that they have to go back to hell. However, not all the living relatives are told this, and the standard refrain is that the dead are dead and they can’t intrude on the living. A simple solution slapped on a complex problem. I understand the characters are often in desperate situations, but it still feels like this is handled too lightly. It reminds me a lot of Hitchers by Will McIntosh, but although I didn’t enjoy that book much either, I think it took a much more serious approach to this issue.

I also think it’s a pity that all the ghosts are so normal. Twelve years in hell with ice monsters and they’re still perfectly sane? It would have been much more interesting if they were fucked up and manipulative, and the living were torn between finding the people they’d lost, and finding out that those people are now monsters themselves. But no. The focus is the mundane reality of broken relationships and grieving people rather than the ways the supernatural world might affect that.

So once I realised I was not going to get what I’d been promised, I tried to just settle down with what I got – a story about ordinary folk in small-town America who have been through hard times. But I must admit, that’s not the kind of story I would ever pick up, and Christopher Golden is no Stephen King (who can make small-town stories interesting). I felt like I’d read about all these people and their relationships before in some other book. None of them are particularly memorable, and Golden writes them with a ton of boring, useless details, like the colour of their hair or their experience with microwave popcorn. Occasionally there’s something important, like the fact that Joe is haunted by the fact that he couldn’t save those two boys in the last snowstorm. Most of it, however, is just padding and does absolutely nothing to flesh out the characters.

I didn’t particularly like the overall feel of the book either. The blurb claims that it “updates the ghost story for the modern age”, but three’s nothing particularly modern about it. It feels like it could have been set at any time between now and 1960. There are references to contemporary media and technology, but none of it is important. Pictures of the ice men aren’t posted on Facebook or Twitter, no one compares facing monsters with gaming, no one tries to find out how other people around the world might have dealt with this (the ice men go wherever there is severely cold stormy weather). If you wanted to change this novel so it was set in the eighties, you could just alter the relevant details without making any difference to the plot or characters.

At the same time there are lots of things that make the book feel old-fashioned, like the use of the words “fisticuffs”, “fretting” and “flick” (as in “a flick with a young Denzel Washington”). Doug tells us how he “remained loyal to the [TV] station for as long as he could remember paying attention to the news” because the newsreaders are always “people who seemed real, like you’d bump into them on the street and they’d say hello”. Doug isn’t even an old man – he’s in his thirties or forties. I’ll admit that I might just be biased because I Iive online as much as I do in the real world, I was born in a city and I’ve never spent more than a day in a small town anywhere, so this book seems strangely quaint. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s definitely not “for the modern age” and the younger characters often seem out of touch.

So yeah, I was disappointed and mostly bored. I think anyone looking for a good horror novel is going to feel the same. You might enjoy it if you’re interested in the simple stories of ordinary folk in small-town America, with a dash of scary fantasy to make things a bit more interesting.

Review of The Execution of Noa P. Singleton by Elizabeth L. Silver

The Execution of Noa P SingletonTitle: The Execution of Noa P. Singleton
Author: 
Elizabeth L. Silver
Publisher:
Crown Publishing
Published:
 11 June 2013
Genre: 
crime, mystery, drama
Source:
 eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating:
 7/10

I know I did it. The state knows I did it, though they never really cared why. Even my lawyers knew I did it from the moment I liquidated my metallic savings bank hoarded in the bloated gut of a pink pig to pay their bills. I was lucid, attentive, mentally sound, and pumped with a single cup of decaffeinated Lemon Zinger tea when I pulled the trigger. Post-conviction, I never contested that once.

When Noa P. Singleton was put on trial for killing Sarah Dixon, she never took the stand in her own defence, and the state’s weak, melodramatic case was enough to give her the death penalty. Now, after a decade in jail and her execution date six months away, Noa is suddenly approached by Sarah’s mother Marlene. At the trial, Marlene stated that Noa was exactly the kind of person the death penalty was designed for. Now, she offers to use her considerable influence as a high-powered attorney to get Noa granted clemency – life in prison instead of death.

In exchange, Marlene wants Noa to prove that she’s reformed, specifically by revealing the all the details that she never confessed during the trial – her motives and the specifics of what happened that day. Whether or not Noa deserves to be on death row, they both know that she was put there for the wrong reasons. Marlene sends her lawyer Oliver to speak to Noa, who begins telling her story, from the very beginning when her mother dropped her as a baby.

Which is kind of funny in the black way that Noa sometimes laughs at things if only to avoid crying about the way her life has turned out. This is a mystery novel, but it’d be more accurate to think of it as a tragic life story that led to a murder and a death sentence. At ten-months old (I’m rather sceptical about the idea that Noa has memories from such an early age, but whatever) Noa’s mother accidentally dropped her from the top of a second-floor stairway. Too embarrassed to admit what happened, she made up a ridiculous story about an intruder and proceeded to wreck Noa’s crib and the house as evidence for her lie.

In true Freudian style, Noa repeatedly looks to her past to explain or contextualise the later events of her life. This incident is mentioned several times, particularly because of her mother’s bizarre attempt to cover up the truth, as Noa has done. Being dropped as a baby is also the first in a long line of mishaps and tragedies that characterise Noa’s life. She was raised by a single mother who frequently changed boyfriends. She suffered a disastrous miscarriage, requiring an emergency abortion that left her unable to have children. She dropped out of college soon after and proceeded to do absolutely nothing with her life. Later, Noa’s estranged father gets in touch with her and tries to build a relationship with her. He’s an ex-con and a recovering alcoholic who is very obviously a relapse waiting to happen.

Although this sounds more like a drama than a crime novel, most of Noa’s story, down to the sad little details, eventually ties in to the murder, the trial and her sentence. A lot of it ends up being misused in the trial, which seems more like a soap opera than a serious legal procedure.

It turns out that Noa is actually the one writing the story we’re reading, doing her best to explain how she ended up on death row, why she never defended herself, why she committed murder in the first place. She sometimes suggests that she’s an unreliable narrator – revealing that a story she just told is a lie, or leaving out important events and details – but you get the impression that if she has misled you, she will eventually tell the whole truth. In between her biographical chapters, she also describes her conversations with Marlene’s lawyer Oliver (a sweet twenty-something who, unlike Marlene, is very serious about helping Noa), details about the death penalty in America, comments on how the trial was conducted (like the way the jury was frequently asked to ignore statements from witnesses, or how she was demonised as a bitter, barren psychopath), life on death row and so on.

Partly because Noa is the author here, your sympathy falls with her, the confessed, convicted murderer. She manages to be the heroine rather than the villain, even if you don’t quite like her (she’s certainly not cute and fluffy). If there is a villain of any kind, it’s Marlene, the mother of the murder victim. Noa says she “had never known Marlene to possess even a quarter of a heart, let alone a full one”, and even when accounting for the fact that Marlene is shown from Noa’s perspective, she really does seem to be a stone cold bitch. Her motives for wanting to get Noa granted clemency are purely selfish – she wants a means of getting the truth, and she wants Noa to spend the rest of her life wasting away in jail rather than being given an early escape. Which is a perfectly understandable attitude toward the woman who shot your daughter, until you realise that this is simply an example of Marlene’s cruel selfishness. The narrative actually includes some letters she writes to her dead daughter, but these don’t elicit sympathy so much as reveal Marlene to be the unstable, controlling woman that Noa warned us about.

I want to make a few comments on the writing and narrative style. The novel is easy to read, but Silver often makes attempts at being poetic that tend to be confused or just fall flat. Oliver actually criticises Noa’s metaphors at one point: “Lovely, Noa,” he said, spitting a bit of scoff my way. “Taking a poetry class via the post?” Based on that you could say that this style is a voice Silver crafted for Noa, but sometimes Marlene does it too.

Another thing I wanted to mention is that a couple of chapters are little more than lists. Between telling her life story, Noa gives us trivia related to her experience at the trial an in prison – excuses people make to avoid jury duty, final words of people who’d been executed, final meals. Some of this is interesting for a short while, but it quickly gets tedious without adding anything to the story. It’s also unclear where Noa gets this information, since she’s stuck in prison with few connections to the outside world.

But flaws aside, this is a pretty good read and an impressive debut novel. I loved the way the main characters’ psychology unfolded as the novel progressed, with all their twisted issues about family, guilt and atonement. It moves relatively slowly for quite a while, but by the last quarter or so I was anxious about how it would turn out. If I’d read it in print instead of on a Kindle I’d have had to stop myself from ‘accidentally’ glancing at the final pages. And any mystery that has that effect on me has done its job.

 

Review of Falling Man by Don DeLillo

Title: Falling Man
Author: Don DeLillo
Published: first published in 2007; my edition published in 2011
Publisher: Picador
Genre: drama, literary fiction
Source: review copy from the publisher via Pan Macmillan South Africa
Rating: 4/10

On September 11 2001, Keith is caught in the chaos of the falling towers. He wanders dazed and injured, carrying a briefcase that doesn’t belong to him. A helpful stranger picks him up, but instead of asking to be taken to the hospital, Keith goes to Lianne, his estranged wife. She opens the door to find him covered in ash and blood with slivers of glass in his face, and that’s how he comes back into her life.

Because his apartment was close to the towers and is too unstable to live in, Keith moves in with Lianne and their young son Justin. His return to family life and the tragedy of the planes has subtle but profound effects on the couple and those close to them. No politics intrude on this story. Rather, you’ll find a very intimate study of the emotional and psychological effects of 9/11 on a handful of people whose lives were affected by the event.

The attacks have thrust them into a different existence. In the first few pages, when Keith is wandering through the chaos immediately after the attacks, DeLillo describes the atmosphere as “not a street anymore but a world, a time and space of falling ash and near night”. Keith’s sense of the world is reduced to “figures in windows a thousand feet up, dropping into free space, and the stink of fuel and fire, and the steady rip of sirens in the air”. Time is frequently described in reference to the attack, eg. “three days after the planes” (8).

Keith does not seem traumatised by his experience. Instead, it acts as a catalyst for a personality change. He starts to take his life more seriously, and become more self-aware.

“It was Keith as well who was going slow, easing inward. He used to want to fly out of self-awareness, day and night, a body in raw motion. Now he finds himself drifting into spells of reflection, thinking not in clear units, hard and linked, but only absorbing what comes, drawing things out of time and memory and into some dim space that bears his collected experience.” (66)

Lianne actually seems more shaken than Keith, more needy. She runs a weekly group therapy session in which she facilitates writing exercises for patients, but she comes to rely on the sessions for personal reasons. She’s also a freelance editor, and when she learns of a book that predicted the attacks, she wants very badly to edit it, even though she’s warned that the book is extremely dull and the job will feel like a death sentence. At home, Lianne becomes deeply disturbed by a neighbour playing Middle Eastern music. She finds it incredibly offensive in the wake of the attacks, and eventually reacts with violence.

It’s Lianne who sees The Falling Man, a performance artist who suspends himself from buildings, mimicking the pose of the famous figure that was photographed falling from one of the towers, choosing that death over burning. She struggles to understand his motives, as does everyone else. Is he a “Heartless Exhibitionist or Brave New Chronicler of the Age of Terror” (220)?

Keith, too, seems like a ‘falling man’. When the north tower fell, Keith felt as if “[t]hat was him, coming down” (5). Discussing his renewed marriage to Lianne and the way their relationship seems easier and calmer now, he remarks that they’re “ready to sink into our little lives’ (75). As with the performance artist and the man who leapt from the burning tower, this concept of falling isn’t necessarily a bad thing. If Keith was floating aimlessly before – no long-term relationship, a job he was about to lose and didn’t care about anyway – then the attack has brought him down to earth, into a more stable existence as a husband and father.

He seems ready to accept the marriage and family life and he failed in before. Keith had been a serial adulterer, and his marriage to Lianne disintegrated in constant fighting. Lianne’s mother Nina says that “Keith wanted a woman who’d regret what she did with him” (12) and is critical of Lianne’s decision to marry the man. If Nina was right before, it seems that the attacks will require her to form a new opinion of her son-in-law.

While the attacks have a unifying effect on Keith and Lianne’s relationship, it causes friction between Nina and her long-time lover Martin. They often argue about the motivations about the attacks, usually from a religious perspective, bringing the novel as close to politics as it ever comes. I was surprised to find that the story included the perspective of a terrorist named Hammad, who is on one of the planes. His narrative goes back to his training and eventually brings us back to the day of the attacks. There’s a strong sense that the terrorists’ extremism is somehow fake, forced. The trainee-terrorists are told to grow beards, Hammad reflects on the way this has affected his sex life and at one point leaves a meeting to jerk off in the bathroom.

 

One the most remarkable features of the novel is the way DeLillo refrains from describing the emotions of his characters, their facial expressions or even from using exclamation marks. It’s incredibly minimalist, using mostly dialogue and detail, rather than adverbs and adjectives, to show us who the characters are and how they relate to one another. For example, we see the tension between Lianne and Nina in Nina’s clipped comments about Keith, the way Lianne later gets back at her mother by interrogating her about Martin, and the way the women often talk over each other, not quite responding to what was said before.

I appreciate this subtlety, to an extent. I often wish that writers could be more crafty by using actions, dialogue and small revealing details to do the work of showing who their characters are and what they feel, rather than simply stating that they’re speaking angrily or sarcastically, that they’re smiling or frowning. It makes emotions and personalities feel organic, rather than attached like cut-out clothes on cardboard dolls. It’s much a much harder way of writing of course, but if properly done, the effects can be infinitely more powerful for the reader.

DeLillo’s skill in writing this way is often felt, but unfortunately the emotion in Falling Man mostly ceases to be subtle and becomes simply flat and boring. If I pictured the characters I inevitably saw blank-faced people standing around, barely moving, speaking in monotones, never looking at each other. They seemed inhuman, just cardboard cut-outs wearing words. I tried instead to take an interactive approach and invest them with the kind of emotion that I thought they should be feeling. I wondered if perhaps this was DeLillo’s intention – to create an emotional space that the reader would then fill. His way of addressing the myriad complex reactions to the victims of 9/11, perhaps. If that’s the case, then this book might be better appreciated by those who have strong feelings about attacks, or who have some personal connection to it. And that’s not me. I hadn’t heard of the World Trade Centre until the towers fell. I was in grade 11 and studying for a major biology exam, so although I heard the news I was so preoccupied I didn’t see a picture until the next day. If it wasn’t such a dramatic kind of event and if it hadn’t happened to the USA, it might simply have faded to a vague memory.  Now, I know of it as a great tragedy, but one among many other great tragedies in our greedy, violent world, some of which are far worse but often less dramatic or less documented.

The result is that Falling Man evoked very little in me and I found most of it hopelessly boring. I kept thinking that there must be more interesting, evocative stories to tell about the 9/11 attacks, and much more interesting characters to tell it. Besides the novel’s lack of energy, I was also dragged down by its many minute details. Such details can be vivid, revealing and haunting, but they can also be banal, and in this case it was almost always the latter. Keith exercising his injured wrist, the different ways in which he played poker with his buddies, Keith and Lianne worrying about their son – I could not have cared less.

I gave Falling Man four stars for the bits of exquisitely elegant writing, but I could give it no more because reading it was an experience in emotional lethargy, with no real story or insights to give the novel a sense of life. If that was intentional, fine, but then it’s intended for someone else.

Review of The Fourth Wall by Walter Jon Williams

Title: The Fourth Wall
Author: 
Walter Jon Williams
Published: 
13 February 2012
Publisher:
 Orbit, a division of The Hatchette Book Group
Genre:
 drama, mystery, thriller, science fiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 7/10

Sean Makin is a washed-up actor. As a child he was a household name; now he’s getting beat up and humiliated on the crappy reality TV show, Celebrity Pitfighter. His big break comes when he gets an interview with Dagmar Shaw, who made a fortune in the gaming industry making “Alternate Reality Games”. Dagmar has now turned her attention to film. She’s got a big budget to make a revolutionary new kind of movie, and she wants Sean as its star.

It’s exactly what Sean was dreaming of, even though the production is beset by danger and tragedy from the very beginning. When Sean arrives for his interview with Dagmar, he’s almost run over by a hulking black 4×4, and that’s just the first in a series of attempts on his life. Soon, people on set start getting killed. Is it because of Dagmar? Her personal history is stained by terrorism and the deaths of friends in shootings and bombings. She also has a reputation as a woman you should never fuck with. Then again, some have noticed that all the victims were at a very memorable party six years ago, on the same night that the hostess, Timmi, was killed. Her husband Joey (whose career collapsed after his wife’s death) is directing Dagmar’s movie, which seems like more than just a co-incidence. Or do the deaths perhaps have something to do with Sean, who for years has kept secret the fact that he was the one who killed Timmi? But regardless of motive or murderer, nothing is going to stop this movie from being made, not when it promises wealth, fame and power to those involved.

This is the third book in the “Dagmar” series. I asked the publisher, Orbit, if it was necessary to read the first two books and they told me that The Fourth Wall was in fact a good option for new readers. I certainly didn’t get the feeling that I was missing something important. However, it’s obvious that Dagmar has quite a history to which this novel has several references, giving you good reason to read This is Not a Game and Deep State. Both are written from Dagmar’s perspective, whereas here she’s a secondary character.

The Fourth Wall is primarily about Sean, and he’s got the most interesting story to tell. As a child, Sean was the beloved star of a family sitcom, and spent his childhood showered with wealth, fame and all the toys he wanted. As he got a bit older he picked up stalkers, groupies and prostitutes, lost his virginity before he’d had his first kiss, and at 15 was dating 21-year-old girls who got him into clubs so that he could get them into the VIP rooms. However, this meant that for most of his childhood he had a tough fulltime job, playing a typical American child when he’d never actually had a typical childhood.

Then, at 18, his career collapsed. Sean is a talented and hardworking actor, but his career was undermined by his looks:

I have a condition called pedomorphisis. Basically it means that while the rest of my body has aged normally, my head has retained the features of an infant’s. Plus my head is really, really huge. When I was a kid the condition made me cute. I had a big head with huge brown eyes, and my extra-babyish features vastly increased my audience appeal.

But at 16, Sean “was beginning to look a little odd”. At 17, he was six foot two and “beginning to look freakish, like a sinister bobblehead doll leering unexpectedly at you from the dashboard of someone’s car”. By 18, he “looked like something stitched together by Victor Frankenstein” and his career was over.

He could have lived off the millions he’d made as a child, but his parents spent most of it and stole the rest. Now he’s so desperate for work that he’s afraid to tell Dagmar that someone’s trying to kill him, in case she fires him for being too much of a risk (you can’t have your star die during filming).

Although Sean is in many ways a victim of Hollywood, he bears it no grudge. Rather, he has a keen understanding of the way it works and though he might occasionally be critical of it, he’s completely caught up in its superficial, selfish culture. He’s ruined lives in cheap attempts to get some publicity or make a quick buck. His loyalties only go so far as suits his career. And even though he knows what it’s like to be in the gutter, he doesn’t hesitate to gloat when Dagmar’s movie makes him popular again. To add to this, he’s got a problem with alcohol, he’s xenophobic, and seems to prefer using prostitutes to having a normal girlfriend.

Sean isn’t a total bastard though. You have to feel sorry for him because of what his parents did to him. He wants so badly for other people to like him that his behaviour is often pathological. He also laments the bad things he’s done: “I keep destroying people. I never mean to, I never plan it. But my path is strewn with wreckage, all of it human.”

However, you get the sense that this isn’t entirely sincere. He’s not without remorse, but it’s always outweighed by the pursuit of fame and fortune. It seems that he’s always putting on at least a bit of an act, and this story makes it very clear that in Hollywood, acting isn’t only for film shoots. This is aided by the way the narrative is structured. All the normal ‘scenes’ have headings like “Ext. Hospital – Day” or “Int. Sean’s Condo – Night” as if you were reading a film script. The rest of it is made up of posts and comments from Sean’s blog, emails, and a few online chats. The result is that you never see Sean in a setting where he’s not speaking to some kind of audience, either the ones within the narrative, or the reader.

Whether or not you like Sean is up to you, but either way he’s a fascinating character. There’s so much to him that he carries the entire novel. It’s very much a character drama, with a mystery/thriller subplot and just a dash of sci fi. This isn’t a criticism; I enjoyed the novel for what it is and I particular enjoyed the inside look at Hollywood and the film-making industry. The murder mystery plays a big role, but it’s less important than Sean himself. The sci fi aspects are very subtle. The novel has a foot in that genre because it seems to be set in the very near future and features some sophisticated technology. However, the tech is so close to what we already have that the novel doesn’t really feel like sci fi at all. Again, this doesn’t bug me, it’s just notable.

I do have a few criticisms though. The movie Dagmar makes – Escape to Earth – becomes a worldwide hit, but sounds like a made-for-TV YA movie. Sean plays a researcher from a parallel dimension, who gets stuck on Earth where a group of villains are trying to kill him. He travels around the world accompanied by a series of children who try to help him find a way home. What’s revolutionary about this movie is that it isn’t shown in full in cinemas, but is serialised and watched by paying customers online. Viewers also get to choose some of the decisions the characters make, and then watch the resulting story unfold. I like that idea, but the plot of Escape to Earth sounds lame to me and its raging success seems unlikely, especially since it seems to be a kids’ movie and kids aren’t the ones with the credit cards.

Another issue is that, although the mystery doesn’t seem to be the main thrust of the story, its resolution could have been more interesting. The one you get is a bit flat and seems like a set-up for a sequel. But that doesn’t really bother me much. This works very well as a character drama, and given that Walter Jon Williams created such a great character in Sean, I’d be interested to read more of his work, particularly to learn more about Dagmar, who is something of an enigma here. She’s  intelligent, strong, bold and morally ambiguous – the kind of character that always peaks my interest, especially when it’s a woman.

Buy a copy of The Fourth Wall at The Book Depository