Dark Windows by Louis Greenberg

Dark_WindowsTitle: Dark Windows
Author: Louis Greenberg
Published: April 2014
Publisher: Umuzi
Source: ARC from the publisher
Genre: literary fiction, speculative fiction
Rating: 7/10

It’s apt that I finished this review on the day of South Africa’s general elections: Dark Windows is based on a fantasy of a political party that makes our country’s dreams come true. In an alternative South Africa, the Gaia Peace party has been in power for the past ten years. Somehow, its combination of New Age beliefs and social welfare policies have ‘cured’ crime. Johannesburg, previously known as one of the world’s most dangerous cities, is now peaceful and safe.

Unfortunately it all seems too good to last. Not everyone buys into Gaia Peace’s happy hippie miracle and Joburg is growing restless with the threat of violence. At the same time, Minister of Wellness Meg Hewitt is quietly setting Project Dark Windows in motion to prepare for some mystical, world-changing event. Something momentous is about to happen, but no one knows what’s coming. Is it aliens? The apocalypse? A new age of enlightenment? Or just social upheaval?

Kenneth Lang has spent 35 years working in government, from the apartheid regime through the ANC years to Gaia Peace. He holds a vaguely titled but senior position and specialises in strange, unofficial operations, so Meg Hewitt instructs him to handle Project Dark Windows. The requirements are simple and specific: Find five rooms, within a target area, that have been left vacant after the death of the occupant. Clean the windows and paint them black. Set up motion and heat detectors, then lock up. Lang has no idea what the point is, but he complies partly because he’s intrigued and partly because his job has taught him to shut up and follow orders.

Lang hires Jay Rowan, who’s been doing weird, sporadic jobs for him since the 90s. Jay is reliable and discreet, but after having his life fall apart over the past year, he also wants to “show he’s good for something, even if it’s obscure and vaguely ridiculous government work”.

The best thing in Jay’s life at the moment is his affair with a married woman named Beth. He takes her to one of the Dark Windows’ sites, where they learn about the supposed suicides of the two girls who lived there. Beth is moved by the girls’ stories and endeavours to learn more. Her investigation leads her to a suspicious student protest group while reminding her of the dark secrets of her past. Political stories intertwine with personal ones, and Joburg moves slowly toward an unknown possibility.

You might think that the idea of a New Age political party called Gaia Peace is as absurd as I did, but I think that’s the point. Many of the characters feel that way too. In fact, none of them – with the possible exception of the President – can really take the New Age stuff seriously, although most play along. No one is sure exactly how a party like Gaia Peace succeeded in a country like South Africa.

The very idea really is ludicrous partly because it’s so kooky (with the herbal tea and healing colours) and partly because the majority of South Africans are just too conservative. For example, the president in Dark Windows is a black lesbian in a interracial marriage. I can’t imagine how that could possibly happen given that our current, democratically elected president is a barely-educated traditionalist who doesn’t seem to know about the women’s and gay rights in our constitution. Despite his blatant corruption, people still support him because he’s ANC, but most would never support a gay woman.

Gaia Peace’s policies also include security reduction – most of the locks, gates and alarm systems that South Africans would consider essential to their safety are now illegal. Again, it seems impossible that our society could give this up, although in this case there are people railing against it:

These protesters were once children who slept safely knowing their daddy owned a gun. They want their talismans back; they need the comforting confinement of battle lines.

How did a bunch of “hippie activists” do it? Lang works in the presidency and he doesn’t even understand it.

What’s stopping people, is what he wants to know. Even if it’s true that all their basic needs are seen to, do people just stop being greedy; do they just stop wanting quick and easy gains? Surely greed – our instinctive urge to stockpile – is far more hardwired into the human psyche than social harmony? Has humanity really evolved so much in the past few years?

It looks like they have, but it’s still hard to believe the evidence. A student protest group called Out of Our Minds suggests that it’s all mind control. The words “miracle” and “hoax” are often used. Some people seem opposed to the party just because they can’t believe what it’s achieved. It’s “hard for disillusioned people to buy new illusions”, as Jay suggests. The novel doesn’t offer a satisfying explanation; what’s more important is the way people feel about it, and what it means in this context.

I think the absurdity of a New Age party revolutionising our political landscape reflects a sad truth about South Africans – we’re so disillusioned that the idea of a truly progressive government that minimises crime, corruption and nepotism, while providing quality education and healthcare for all is just ridiculous. If you believe that one of our political parties will deliver this then you might as well believe in colour therapy and Reiki too.

Then again, perhaps belief is all you need, and this is another important issue that Gaia Peace raises. As I said, no one seems to believe in any of the New Age stuff, but lots of people are happy to play along because it works. “[T]hings sure as shit could be better, but they sure as shit have been worse” is the refrain. It’s also just kind of nice and inoffensive. In one of the earlier scenes, Jay goes for the hot-rock therapy that he receives as part of his probation after getting into a drunk driving accident. He considers the idea that it’s abusive somehow, with the state asserting control over his body, but he’s warm and comfortable so what is there to complain about really?

But there are problems. Gaia Peace isn’t perfect, or can’t be perfect. At least it’s not the dystopian scenario you might expect – Gaia Peace doesn’t have a sinister side that enabled their rise to power. They’re exactly what they say they are. As Greenberg states in a guest post for Lauren Beukes about his inspiration for the book, it’s “not a dystopian novel but rather a vision of utopia rubbing up against reality”. Reality is human nature. Reality is a country with a long history of violence. Reality is the people who can’t forget being victims of violent crime. Jay is one of them. He likes Gaia Peace, but when his wife was sexually assaulted in their home, violent crime had become a kind of political blind spot. Her trauma was “made invisible”. “How do you achieve justice for something that didn’t officially happen?” Jay asks, with no hope of an answer.

Jay’s concerns bring me to another important point about the novel – despite the political framework, it’s very personal. All the major characters are grappling with their own issues. Jay looks to Beth for comfort and escape. When he stands silent in the darkness of the rooms he’s painted, he likens it to Beth and imagines her as a warm, dark space where he can hide from the world. Beth on the other hand enjoys the affair for its sinful passion – a way of escaping her unfulfilling marriage to a boring, strictly Catholic man. She thought adopting his religion would help her find some kind of meaning, but it hasn’t. Now, what she wants is for Jay to “clarify” her. She’s also seeking some kind of atonement for an event in her past, which is primarily why she takes such an interest in the suicides of the teenage girls.

Kenneth Lang is coming to the end of a career that is partly responsible for his failed marriage and his awkward relationship with his teenage daughter, Melanie. When Melanie ends up in hospital after a drug overdose, he finds himself pulled back and forth between work and the hospital, struggling to function effectively in either space. To a lesser extent we also see the struggles of Minister Meg Hewitt, who is also the President’s wife. As much as she loves and supports her wife, she doesn’t want to be the next ruler as the President has requested. She’s kept Project Dark Windows secret from her too. Partly because of this marital strife, Deputy President Kanyane lurks malevolently in the background, ready to assert police and military power should anything happen to the President.

Although their problems are varied, these characters are all looking for purpose and certainty where there isn’t much to be had. They want some kind of belief or understanding to hang on to, but objective truths elude them. Project Dark Windows has the same kind of personal desperation to it. It could be total bullshit, or could be epochal, but who knows what will happen? In the context of the novel, it’s just as important as the truth about the suicides, Beth’s decision to stay with Jay, or Lang’s relationship with his daughter. Greenberg’s guest post has a lovely quote about the way he’s balanced the personal and political:

I treated the politics and the love and the faith and the apocalypse in the novel with equal ambivalence. Despite my best efforts, I find it hard to draw an opinion and stick to it; the more I learn about life the less virtue I find in firm opinions and immutable beliefs.

It’s understandable then that this book never ceases to be uncertain and, at the end, offers as many unanswered questions as it does resolutions. It’s the kind of literary novel that will frustrate some spec fic readers because it’s very slow and contemplative. I have to admit that I wasn’t sure what to make of it when I’d finished. I had to think about it for a while and go through my notes before I could even begin writing the review. That’s probably not the kind of experience you’d expect when someone says the word “apocalypse”. In fact we never find out if there will be an apocalypse, so don’t come to the novel looking for action and destruction. Instead, enjoy it for Greenberg’s very beautiful writing, his characters, and his insights into the personal side of SA politics, morality, faith, and human nature.

If you like the cover, check out my cover-reveal interview with designer Joey Hi-Fi.

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The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood

The Year of the FloodTitle: The Year of the Flood
Series: MaddAddam Trilogy #2
Author: Margaret Atwood
Published: 2009
Publisher: Bloomsbury (my edition)
Genre: science fiction, dystopian, literary
Rating: 8/10

The Year of the Flood‘s plot runs parallel to Oryx and Crakebut it’s set in the pleebland slums, rather than the secure, sterile Compounds of the scientific elite. The pleeblands are where everyone else lives. It’s violent, and rife with diseases and infections (some of which come from the Compounds who test viruses or make money selling cures).

The story follows the God’s Gardeners, believers in a green religion founded by Adam One, with leaders known as Adams and Eves. The Gardener’s faith is a pacifist, eco-friendly interpretation of the Christian Bible. They are strictly vegetarian, respect the lives of all creatures, shun technology, recycle absolutely everything, avoid the processed food and medications produced by corporations, and spend their days living a quiet agrarian existence amidst the chaos of the pleeblands. They lament the gross environmental destruction wreaked by Corporations, and await the Waterless Flood – the apocalypse.

Of course, we know from Oryx and Crake that this Flood will take the form of a plague designed by Crake. It comes in Gardener Year 25, which is when the novel opens. Toby is hiding out at the AnooYoo Spa where she was working. Many of the treatments are edible or at least useful, she’s got a rifle for protection, and draws on her Gardner knowledge to grow food. Ren is locked inside the quarantine room of Scales and Tails, the strip club where she worked. Being locked up saved her from the riots that followed the outbreak of the plague, but now she’s counting on her childhood friend Amanda to find her and unlock the door before she starves to death.

Punctuating this present-day narrative are the Gardener Years 1-24. Each year/section begins with a sermon from Adam One and a hymn, then follows the stories of Toby and Ren. The Gardeners rescue Toby from a rapist who was certain to kill her. She’s not a true believer, but she adapts to their lifestyle and finds a home. Ren went to live with the Gardeners as a child, when her mother ran away from the Compounds with a Gardener named Zeb. She later made friends with Amanda, a smart, tough pleebrat, and invited her to join the Gardeners.

It’s not as dramatic as Oryx and Crake, since it covers the same time period, and focuses on the people who are disempowered and, unlike Jimmy, have very little contact with the forces that define their society. And I prefer Oryx and Crake if only because it had the kind of impact on me that very few novels could ever match. Nevertheless, The Year of the Flood is a superb piece of painfully dystopian science fiction in its own right, and a beguiling literary novel. Oryx and Crake was a bit different for Atwood in that it had a male protagonist. With The Year of the Flood she’s back in her element with two female protagonists and a larger cast of female characters. Like Oryx, they live in a world where sexual predators are a constant threat, and Toby’s story of sexual abuse is reminiscent of Oryx’s, as is Ren’s decision to become a sex worker at Scales and Tales. Ren actually sees Oryx when Crake brings her to Scales and Tales late in the novel, and Ren immediately recognises her as a fellow sex worker, charming the people around her while hiding her own identity. In that moment, she seems to understand more about Oryx than Jimmy was ever able to.

Ren has her own disappointing experiences with Jimmy, who becomes her lover when they’re teenagers but eventually gives her his damaged-boy-who-can’t-commit speech. Toby also spots Jimmy as Snowman, leading the singing Crakers from the Paradice Dome to the shore. They’re so bizarre that Toby assumes she must be hallucinating. I think it’s the first time we see Jimmy from another perspective, and the first of several occasions when we get a fresh perspective on exactly how dysfunctional Jimmy/Snowman is.

The novel often intersects with Oryx and Crake like this, filling in little details. Besides Jimmy and Oryx, we encounter other familiar characters like Glenn/Crake, Jimmy’s mother, Bernice (Jimmy’s crazy roommate who set his shoes on fire), and MaddAddam. There are lots of familiar details of the world – Extinctathon, Happicuppa, ChickieNobs, AnooYoo, pigoons – and a few new things, like liobams (a lion/lamb splice) and Mo’Hair sheep (genetically engineered to grow human hair in a wide range of colours, although the wigs sometimes smell like meat).

As a child, Glenn had a connection to the Gardeners, many of whom are scientists who escaped the Compounds, and it’s clear that his actions were strongly influenced by their ideas. Adam One describes how the Waterless Flood will wash away the “Exfernal” world, destroying what man has built so that the natural world can flourish again, which what Crake attempted to do with his plague. His design for the Crakers also reflects the Gardeners’ lifestyle in some ways – they’re purely vegetarian, non-violent, and live happily with the bare minimum of industry. In some ways the Crakers are a perfected version of the Gardeners, who they smell bad, look scruffy, complain about inconveniences, need technology, and often break their own rules.

Obviously the one thing Crake didn’t like about the Gardeners was the whole idea of religion, which he tried (and failed) to eradicate in the Crakers. And although the Gardeners have many admirable ideas, their faith still suffers from the kinds of absurdities and hypocrisies common to religion. They’re wary of writing, but use the bible. They consider knowledge to be poisonous, but benefit greatly from the knowledge of the scientists among them. They rely on things they scavenge, which in some cases means living off things they consider evil.

Not surprisingly for a small community full of social misfits and outcasts, they also have problems with sexual harassment and abuse, but women and children are told to keep quiet about these things. Sharing personal problems is discouraged, some serious psychological problems are dismissed as a form of meditation, and voicing doubts is taboo. Toby in particular finds this troubling, but because she lives in constant terror that her rapist will find her and kill her, so she has no intention of leaving the Gardeners.

But then again, Atwood hasn’t written a world where anyone’s figured out clean, noble answers to the massively complicated problems plaguing society. It’s easy to be thoroughly evil – like a corporation that razes rainforests to plant coffee or a man who rapes women to death – but fixing a world full of these evils is almost unimaginable. A few people, like the man/group MaddAddam that is created in this novel, are bold enough to rebel. Only Crake, the mad genius, actually takes any major action, countering a million horrors with one massive one.

Most people, like Ren and Toby, are caught up in this world they have little control over, and the appeal of The Year of the Flood is this grassroots perspective. Which is not to say they’re weak – Amanda, Ren and Toby all show amazing resilience and adaptability, unlike Jimmy, who was always a bit unstable and degenerated into a sickly, naked nut job waving a gun at three strangers on a beach. If the ambiguity of that ending bothered you, by the way, rest assured that The Year of the Flood will take you back to that beach and resolve that scene, leaving the final book, MaddAddamto pick up the story from there.  As always with Atwood, it’s beautifully written and a pleasure to read, but also brutal and terrifying. This trilogy envisions one of the most disturbing futures I’ve ever read, but the books are so amazing I can’t look away.

DARK WINDOWS by LOUIS GREENBERG: Cover reveal and Joey Hi-Fi Interview

I have a particularly good post for you today: South African author Louis Greenberg asked me to do the cover reveal for his upcoming literary thriller Dark Windows, as well as an interview with artist Joey Hi-Fi. I will politely keep all squee-type noises to myself, but seriously, how awesome is this?!

Dark Windows – forthcoming from Umuzi in April 2014 – is Louis’s first solo project since The Beggars’ Signwriters was published in 2006. Since then he’s teamed up with Sarah Lotz to for the horror-writing duo S.L. Grey. Now he’s dabbling in the literary side of speculative fiction, which is my drug of choice. Here’s the blurb to whet your appetite:

Dark Windows is set in an alternative-present Johannesburg. A wave of New-Age belief has radically altered the country’s political landscape, but not everyone buys into the miracle. Gaia Peace, the party which swept to power ten years ago on the back of a miracle cure for crime and a revolutionary social welfare programme, is still firmly ensconced, but the cracks are showing.

Jay Rowan does his job and doesn’t ask questions. He’s already in probationary therapy for a drunk driving accident, and he’s not looking for trouble. Now Kenneth Lang, a veteran political aide, has hired Jay to paint in the windows of apparently random vacant rooms.

Lang has survived a long career of political change, and is not about to start questioning orders, even when they are as misguided as senior minister Meg Hewitt’s latest obsession, project Dark Windows. A mystical charlatan has convinced her that she can attract a world-changing supernatural visitation, the Arrival.

Beth Talbot, the married woman Jay is seeing, is compelled by the supposed suicides of two students in a residence building. Her growing interest in the case leads her to a seditious student group and back into the past she’s been trying to avoid.

A unique and genre-defying plot like that is perfectly suited to Joey Hi-Fi’s bizarrely beautiful illustrated covers. Joey’s work became well-known on the sff scene after designing covers for Chuck Wendig’s The Blue Blazes and the Miriam Black series, Apocalypse Now Now by Charlie Human, and all of Lauren Beukes’s novels (most notably The Shining Girls and Zoo City). But enough phaffing about; here’s the cover you came to see:

Dark_Windows

Once again, Joey has created the kind of cover that makes me want the book regardless of what’s inside it. And here’s the man himself, to tell us all about it 🙂

Welcome to Violin in a Void Joey! It’s a great honour to have you. You’re one of the few people who’s had the privilege of reading Dark Windows; the rest of us will have to wait until next year. What did you think of it?

It grips you from the first page. It’s unusual, straddles a few genres and takes you to very, very unexpected places.
It’s an alternate history of South Africa you’ve never read before.
Unlike most cover designers, you’re known for immersing yourself in the novel before creating its ‘face’ – you read the book when possible and collaborate with both the author and the publisher. Can you describe this process for Dark Windows? What was it like working with Louis?

“She was screaming, but the door was locked. When they got inside, there was nobody. Just the window open. The way Trini likes to go. Sonia was on the bed, blood coming out everywhere.”

I loved The Mall, which Louis co-wrote with Sarah Lotz under the guise of S.L. Grey. It still has me looking nervously over my shoulder while shopping at malls! So I was very excited when the cover design brief for Dark Windows landed in my inbox.

That being said, It was fantastic working with Louis. He supplied me with additional info whenever I needed it – and his insights were invaluable during the design process. It’s always a plus when you have access to the author.
 
Although I try to apply the same steps in the design process to each book-cover-design project, every novel is obviously different and publishers and authors work in a variety of ways. Along with the brief, I usually ask for a manuscript and any other additional info (either from the author or publisher).
 
Along with the manuscript, I received a rough cover concept from Louis as well. His rough idea immediately intrigued me – but having not read the novel I wasn’t sure of it’s significance as yet. About 2 or 3 pages into the manuscript I was pretty sure that It was a solid direction for the cover. By the last page of the novel I was convinced of it.
 
The title of the novel is very evocative and conjures up a particular set of images in one’s mind. The plot in part deals with windows that are being painted black by the protagonist in the novel. So I thought that image would be unique and mysterious enough to draw the viewer in.
I also decided that the cover concept would be best communicated by using either a photo or a photorealistic illustration. I’m not a big fan of using stock photography on book covers, so In the end I decided to engage the warp drive on my Wacom pen and go the photorealistic illustration route.
Thus the cover is not one photo at all – but mostly an illustration with a little photography thrown in.
Illustrating the cover gave me more control over what kind of window frame I wanted, how I wanted the paint to look and what the atmosphere of the room should be.
 
Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Spirals from a holistic wellness centre

Using Louis’s initial rough idea as a starting point I worked from there to produce a first draft. To get both Umuzi (the publisher) and Louis on board I initially presented a more pared-down version of the cover. I wanted them to be happy with the direction before taking the illustration and design further.

Once both Louis and the publisher were on board with the direction the cover was headed, we discussed ways to take it further. I’ve always loved working with positive and negative space. So The positive and negative spaces provided by the black paint seemed like the perfect opportunity to add additional detail to the cover. I liked the the idea of the cover having details which wouldn’t be immediately visible – but would be revealed upon closer inspection.
I then asked Louis for a list of elements he thought were key in the novel. Working from this list I picked a few which I thought would work on the cover.
I then weaved those into the illustration of the black paint.
 
Once I’d crafted the cover somewhat I presented the final draft of the cover – which was approved by Umuzi and Louis.
Thus the cover for the mysterious creature that is Dark Windows was born.
 

“the hospital’s obscene smokestack pumping burned waste-flesh into the air between spitting pines and concrete”

The title suggests windows made of tinted glass, but the blurb and your cover describe a window obscured with painted images. One reality blocks out another. What is is being covered up and why? Is this how Jay paints the windows?

As the cover and title suggests, part of the mystery in the novel involves windows which are being painted black by Jay (the protagonist in the novel). 
So the cover is inspired by a scene in the book. The images weaved into the black paint are more representative of events in the novel and are not mean’t to be taken literally. To find out  the significance of the black painted windows and various images you would have to read the book!
The cover could have focused only on the window pane, or the window and the frame, but it takes a step back to include the wall, putting the viewer inside a cold, hard space. Why the interior perspective?
 
The vacant rooms mentioned in the novel have their own dark story to tell. So I wanted to communicate that in a subtle way using lighting and colour.
I felt that just a close crop of a window would lack that uneasy, almost eerie atmosphere that I thought the cover needed.
 
Let’s look at the images on the window; what made you choose these?
All the images are inspired by events or characters from the novel. I wanted to choose a set of images that I thought would represent the world of Dark WindowsAnd since the novel deals with themes that are quite varied in nature, this meant everything from New Age symbols to ritual sacrifice to protesting students to political intrigue … and haunted rooms.
 

“A dreadlocked kid lolls against the jamb, holding a fat joint. The opaque smoke seems to defy the breeze as it wends upward from his hand against his dark T-shirt, but is finally whisked over his shoulder in the current.”

Louis described the novel as a “literary thriller”, and for me the cover evokes both mystery and horror. Many of the images are explicitly threatening (the screaming woman, the heavily armed police) while more innocuous images take on a sinister tone. The man having a hot stone massage looks to me like some kind of cultist or human sacrifice; the smoker with the dreadlocks looks more like a Predator than a human. Was this intentional or is it just my weird interpretation?

That was intentional. Although Dark WIndows is a ‘literary thriller’ it also has mystery and horror elements to it. All the images included on the cover depict scenes or characters from the book in some way. Since the novel has this undercurrent of unease and menace throughout, the images tend to lean towards the darker side. As you read the book the meaning behind each image will become clearer.
This is a relatively sparse piece compared to your other covers, which typically feature a riot of detailed illustrations. Does the tone of Dark Windows require a more subtle approach?
In a way yes. I obviously take my visual cues for the cover from the novel, and I let the novel dictate what the cover should be.
For Dark Windows, I thought the image of a window painted black captured the tone of the book well. I also felt it was an interesting and strong enough image to carry the cover.
 
Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

Close-up of a man having a hot-stone massage. Stone on his forehead.

There’s a lot of texture in the paint of the window and the wall – will the cover have any finishes to match the visual with the physical?

I hope so! *Looks longingly at the publisher*. We have discussed adding a UV spot varnish for just the black paint on the window.
Well I can’t wait to get my hands on it! Thank you so much for your time and insights Joey!
_________________________________________
I also have to thank Louis for inviting me to do his cover reveal; it’s an honour and a pleasure to host it. I really enjoyed doing this interview, not only because I love Joey’s work but because it made me take a close look at every element in the Dark Windows cover.
I hope everyone finds this close-up equally illuminating. Now we just have to wait oh so patiently for Dark Windows to be published so we can discover the true significance of all those images and find out exactly what happened in those vacant rooms. I have already demanded my review copy…

The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey Kurkov

The Gardener from Ochakov by Andrey KurkovTitle: The Gardener from Ochakov
Author: Andrey Kurkov
Translation: from Russian by Amanda Love Darragh
Published:  First published 2011, this edition published 1 August 2013
Publisher: Harvill Secker
Genre: fantasy, historical
Rating: 5/10

Igor is a bit of a loser, a 31-year old man who doesn’t have a job or any plans to get one, and survives on the interest from a small investment. He lives with his mother in Irpen, Ukraine, about an hour away from the capital Kiev. One day his mother hires a mysterious old man named Stepan to work as their gardener and handyman. Stepan has a strange, indecipherable tattoo on his arm but he has no idea what it is. Bored, Igor photographs the tattoo and takes the picture to his friend Kolyan, a computer expert. Kolyan cleans up the image to reveal an address in Ochakov, a seaside town.

Stepan travels to Ochakov to learn more about his past, and because Igor has nothing better to do, he tags along, looking for adventure and treasure. The possibility of treasure sounds absurd, but this is exactly what they find – the address on Stepan’s arm leads them to what was once the home of Fima Chagin, a infamous criminal who lived in Ochakov in the 50s. Stepan’s father too, was a criminal, who left a stash of loot at the house.

As a reward for his help, Stepan gives Igor a few of the items – a gold pocket watch (broken), rolls of hundred-rouble notes (worthless), a gun (that doesn’t fire) and a Soviet policeman’s uniform. Igor feels short-changed, but one night he wears the uniform to a costume party and finds himself in 1957 Ochakov, where the pocket watch starts ticking again, the roubles amount to a very large sum of money, and the uniform gives him an authority that strikes fear in the hearts of citizens.

Stepping awkwardly into the role of a Soviet policeman, Igor ropes a young wine smuggler into helping him spy on the criminal Fima Chagin, who is living in Ochakov at this time. This quickly leads Igor to Red Valya – a stunningly beautiful fish seller who may have had an affair with Fima and who immediately captures Igor’s attention and admiration. He begins to flit between present-day Ukraine and 1957 Ochakov, entwining his life with his dabblings in the past.

Now, genre fans, a warning. This is not the kind of book with any interest in the time travel itself, the thrills and perils it offers, or complications like time paradoxes and anachronisms. I wouldn’t say that this is the kind of book where literary fiction and sff intersect because the sff aspect is almost negligible. Time travel is just a plot device. We have no idea why or how it happens. Igor doesn’t think about it much, and isn’t worried about getting stuck in 1957. All we know is that he has a few stiff drinks, puts on the uniform, walks down a certain road, and ends up running into Vanya, the wine smuggler, at the wine factory in Ochakov in 1957. To return home he takes the uniform off and goes to sleep on the couch in Vanya’s house. He wakes up in his own bed in Irpen. He believes that taking the uniform off will send him back home, but he never tests this theory. Nor does he check to see if he needs to drink copiously to time-travel, or if he could walk a different route to end up somewhere else. The time-travel phenomena really only serves to take him to 1957 Ochakov and back, juxtaposing the places and periods, and allowing Igor to carry out his little adventure.

His very random little adventure. It’s unclear if Igor is driven by anything other than idle curiosity, and he doesn’t seem to have any goals. He wants to spy on Fima Chagin partly because he’s pretending to be a policeman, and partly because he learned about this legendary criminal when he travelled to Ochakov with Stepan. What he’d actually do with info on Fima’s whereabouts is anyone’s guess. It’s no wonder that Igor is quickly and easily distracted by Valya; he’s just hanging around looking for something to do. There’s a semblance of a plot here, but it meanders aimlessly, much like Igor himself.

Normally in books like this, something else will drive the narrative, such as the character or setting. But in this case nothing did, at least not for me. The characters are all pretty boring. Igor, who has no ambitions other than to buy a motorbike one day, is totally colourless. Vanya is little more than a plot device deployed to guide Igor in 1957, except for a vague suspicion that he might be up to something sinister. The women in the story particularly dull. Valya is there to be a beautiful but reluctant love interest. Igor’s mother Elena Adreevna does little more than cook, clean and scold her son. We meet Stepan’s daughter, who is often just a silent presence.

There are a few potentially interesting characters who seem to have better stories – Stepan; Igor’s best friend Nikolai Kolyon; and the criminal Fima Chagin. Stepan is full of secrets, almost none of which are revealed. Kolyon is vivacious and enterprising – the opposite of Igor – and as a hacker he starts selling information illegally. However, his story is mostly sidelined. Fima Chagin, a famously handsome, charismatic and successful criminal also gets sidelined when Igor loses interest in him in favour of trying to get Valya to spend time with him.

Mostly, the novel seems to be about creating snapshots of day-to-day life in modern Ukraine (Irpen and Kiev) and 1957 Ochakov, which aren’t really that different. This involves stuff like public transport (Igor taking a minibus from Irpen to Kiev, buying instant coffee at the train station), a bit of crime here and there (Vanya’s wine smuggling, Kolyan’s hacking), food (buckwheat with a knob of butter, fresh flounder and gobi from Valya’s stall, salami and salted cucumbers), and A LOT of hard liquor (vodka obviously, but also vodka shots in beer, homemade vodka, brandy, and homemade wormwood liqueur, which I just found out is absinthe).

Then, towards the end, there are a few serious developments as , and Igor starts to have some insights about life – the aimless way he’s living, human nature in general, etc. None of it was exactly profound. Or memorable. Or book-redeeming.

Reading The Gardener from Ochakov is like moving languidly from point A to point B. If books were journeys then this would be a trip to the supermarket. A Ukranian supermarket, maybe. It’s not unpleasant, you pick up a few new and unusual things, but it’s mostly mundane. I didn’t hate it, I didn’t love it – I’m totally indifferent.

I’d say it’s more for fans of literary historical fiction than sff readers or any reader who enjoys plot. Kurkov uses an extraordinary and unexplained phenomena to portray ordinary lives rather than tell a gripping tale. And because there’s not much of a story driving the narrative, your potential enjoyment depends on whether you find the everyday details of Ukrainian life interesting, or if you’d like to follow the wanderings of a benign drifter like Igor. Its not necessarily a bad thing, and I can see how some would find a quiet, quirky appeal in The Gardener from Ochakov, but it’s not for me.

Review of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards by Kristopher Jansma

The Unchangeable Spots of LeopardsTitle: The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards
Author: Kristopher Jansma
Published: 21 March 2013
Publisher:
 Viking
Genre: literary fiction, metafiction
Source: eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Rating: 8/10

This one is a gem – a book about writers and writing, fiction, lies, and truth.

Apparently one of the ‘absolute’ rules of fiction is that you don’t write about writers, but like Kristopher Jansma, I have never heard this and I don’t buy it. In an interview with Interview Magazine he dismissed the idea that such stories are only interesting to other writers – we can all understand the practice of storytelling:

Even if readers aren’t writers, they tell each other stories; they process great books the same way that we all do. Some of us sit down at a typewriter or computer and write out what we’re feeling, other people call up a friend. We all go through the storytelling process to make sense of it all.

I am glad Jansma ignored the rules – I love metafictional tales, not to mention the intimate portrayal of a writer and compulsive liar. The unnamed narrator of The Unchangeable Spots of Leopards claims to have “lost every book I’ve ever written” beginning with a short story written during the after-school hours and vacations he spent waiting for his mother at the airport. In high school, he discovers that he is a talented liar when he’s asked to act the part of a high-society teenager and escort a debutante to her ball. He goes on to study ‘lying’ at college, in a fiction and poetry class. Here he meets Julian McGann, a writer as talented and troubled as he is. Julian is the stereotypically tortured, eccentric artist. He seems to come from another age, and works only on a typewriter. He drinks too much, sleeps with too many young men who he discards in the morning, and writes in ferocious bouts of inspiration when he barely eats or sleeps.

Julian and the narrator begin a years-long friendship characterised by competition and jealousy, but strengthened by their shared love of writing. Julian introduces the narrator to his friend Evelyn, a gorgeous, charismatic actress. He is instantly infatuated with her, and she becomes his lover, the love he will never have, and the subject of a novel he spends years trying to finish.

The trio travel around the world, and although the novel is set in the present day, the characters’ tastes and habits often create the sense that they’re living in the Jazz Age. Our narrator goes from his tiny home town of Raleigh to New York, the Grand Canyon, Dubai, Ghana, Iceland and Luxemborg. He lies constantly, making himself up as he goes along, and struggling with relationships based on fictions. It’s one of those magical debuts – fresh and enchanting.

It feels like a book that’s going to get a lot of well-deserved attention this year, partly because of the delightfully dishonest narrator. You never know when he is lying, and he lies to everyone – strangers, lovers, friends, you, himself. Although you never learn his real name, he invents or borrows names. Eventually, he’s more accustomed to lying than telling the truth. Everything he writes or says is true in some way, but because of the way he twists fact into fiction, you learn to be sceptical. There were occasions when I was completely surprised to learn the extent of his lies. The novel is kind of trick, but you feel captivated rather than conned.

Of course, there is also a lot about creating fiction. His aim, taken from Emily Dickinson is “Tell the Truth but tell it slant”. He tries to figure out what exactly this means for him throughout the novel. It’s a question of how much of your own experience to put into your fiction. He always writes about himself to some extent but alters details, trying to give meaning or structure to his life, or write his world as he would like it to be. We also see his development as a writer. As a child, the narrator began by writing about the people he saw in the airport while waiting for his mother. He wrote so he could tell her what she’d missed while she was working, but of course he was also developing a skill for writing characters. At college, he is intimidated by Julian’s ability to write incredible stories about people from all over the globe, until he finds out that Julian too takes his stories from real life; he’s just very wealthy and has had a much more varied life so far. It’s interesting to see which details they pluck from their lives and how they re-imagine them for fiction. The narrator’s stories are usually borne out of his personal obsessions – the women who captivate him, his competitive friendship with Julian, and of course his struggles with writing.

Each chapter tells a full tale that fits into the whole, and stories are embedded within stories through things like summaries of Julian’s work and extracts from the narrator’s projects. I enjoyed most of them a great deal. Like the narrator wishing he had Julian’s talent, I wanted to be able to tell stories with such quirky details and great lines. I would have easily given the novel five stars if only there weren’t a few parts that proved a bit dull in comparison to others.

I didn’t really enjoy the extracts from the narrator’s writing, especially the snippets from a romance inspired by his affair with Evelyn. It makes sense that his voice in these stories would differ from the novel itself; unfortunately it’s rather bland. Then he parts from Julian and Evelyn after a falling out, and the novel slows down. Julian is such an eccentric and disastrously passionate character that I missed him even though I had no problem with where Jansma was taking the story. I was however, quite annoyed when the narrator travelled to Ghana, but kept using the blanket term ‘Africa’; a common, infuriating habit.

Those aren’t book-ruining problems though. This is one of the most inventive and enjoyable novels I’ve read this year, and I often think of what a good decision it was to request a review copy. It’s the kind of book that bridges the gap between popular fiction and literary fiction, in that it’s smart and well-written, but also entertaining and easy to read. I hope it does well.

I’ll try again later: Empty Space by M. John Harrison

Empty Space by M John HarrisonTitle: Empty Space
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #3
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published: 
First published 1 January 2012; my edition published 5 March 2013
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Night Shade Books
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
eARC from the publisher via NetGalley

This isn’t so much a review as an admission of defeat and a comment on difficult books. After reading Empty Space, I don’t feel able to write any kind of useful review. I couldn’t even tell you if I liked it or not. The question is irrelevant, because I simply don’t get it, and I think I would have to do more reading before I can.

Before requesting a copy of Empty Space, I tweeted Night Shade Books to ask if it was necessary to read the first two books in the series – Light and Nova Swing. I’d read the former, but not the latter. They said this was fine. I respectfully disagree. Loudly and vehemently. From what I’ve read about them, it seems that Light and Nova Swing are fairly disparate. They’re set in the same universe, but tell two very different stories. Empty Space functions as a sequel to both, sharing characters and locations, and tying up loose ends. I re-read Light just before reading Empty Space, and found them to be closely linked. In comparison, I felt alienated from the aspects of the plot related to Nova Swing.

So to better understand this novel, I think I would have to read Nova Swing first. Then I’d have to re-read Empty Space. I had a similar experience with Light – it bewildered me the first time around; after the second reading I liked it more and felt like I’d understood it.

So what can I say about Empty Space in the meantime? Well, I can give you a bit of plot. Anna Kearney, Michael’s fragile ex-wife from Light, becomes a POV character in Empty Space. After Michael’s disappearance from a beach in America, Anna “fucked the first kind of person she found” who happened to be Tim Waterman (he made a brief appearance as her lover in Light). She married him after falling pregnant with their daughter Marnie. When we see Anna, it is almost 30 years after the events of book one and she is an old woman in her 60s or 70s, no longer suffering from anorexia but most definitely deranged, to Marnie’s great concern. She avoids visiting her therapist, takes long walks to snoop around other people’s homes, and does loopy things like swimming naked down a river in the middle of the night.

She also has experiences that sound completely crazy, but given the bizarre nature of the universe in this series, what she sees is most likely real (whatever that means). She keeps turning around to find that her summerhouse is on fire, except that the flames look fake, like something she saw on a tarot card, and after a while they disappear without having damaged anything. Her cat brings in glowing organ-shaped things from the garden. She has weird dreams that are no doubt more than just her subconscious at play. Notably, Anna is still carrying around an external hard drive that Michael gave to her before he disappeared. On it is the work he and Brian Tate were doing – the groundbreaking mathematics that enabled space travel and made the future storylines possible. Anna, however, has forgotten the significance of the hard drive.

Like Light, Empty Space has two narrative strands several centuries in the future. In one, the crew of the space freighter Nova Swing pick up a creepy, illegal alien artefact. In the third narrative, an unnamed policewoman known only as the assistant is investigating two decidedly weird murders. The victims’ bodies are found floating in midair, and as the novel progresses they rise higher while fading slowly into invisibility. The assistant used to work with a detective, but he’s dead now, existing only as a ghost hovering aimlessly in her office. The assistant is heavily gene-tailored and if she was once human she can’t even remember that time. With her heightened senses and abilities, she’s practically a weapon or a machine, and most people prefer to avoid her. Nevertheless, there’s one guy who keeps coming to see her, and somehow walks through walls to do so. His interest in her is based on the fact that someone – or something – keeps asking for her.

This person or thing is ‘Pearl’, an entity common to all three storylines. It is something between a bizarre phenomenon and an ancient, inexplicable artefact. When Pearl appears she/it says “My name is Pearlent and I come from the future”. She appears as a woman in grey, in a state of falling. Her existence remains incomprehensible to me, but as a character or plot device, she connects the storylines and brings a sense of closure to the series.

Empty Space shares many of the characteristics of Light – a tendency to connect characters, stories and timelines with little details; strange people who do strange things; incomprehensible alien technology; an abundance of violence and horror wrapped up in literary sf. There’s still a strong sense of the pain and terror involved in space travel and discovery, but with less optimism. Aliens exist, but you never see them. And of course there are cats, hundreds of cats. The future world feels more like the current one than it did in Light, perhaps because of the policewoman’s plot.

But I do not know what the fucking point is.

I usually knew what was happening in Empty Space but most of the time I didn’t know what to make of it. I could not have given you a reason why a particular scene was in the book or articulated the way in which it fit into the whole. Why does Anna’s cat bring her glowing neon organ-shaped things? Why do three characters dream of a vulva appearing in the wall? Why does the crew of the Nova Swing pick up a ‘mortsafe’ containing the fused, ghostly bodies of a child, his mother, and the nanny who started a weird sexual relationship with him?

I’m not writing a proper review because I can’t offer you any coherent understanding of the book beyond a prolonged plot summary. It might be brilliant. It might be a bunch of random crap cobbled together in a way that gives the illusion of brilliance. It could be anything in between. I can’t really say.

I am not despondent though. I felt the same way about Light when I first read it, but it was way better the second time. I also did myself a huge disservice by not reading Nova Swing. I could have skipped this blog post, but I felt like making a point about difficult books and re-reading. With a few exceptions, I try not to give up on books. Sometimes it’s obvious that a book is very bad or simply something that I won’t be interested in. Otherwise, I give it the benefit of the doubt, and assume I wasn’t ready to read it or that I was in the wrong mood for it. I choose to read books because I think they have something to offer me, and I’m willing to stick it out until the end to see if they deliver.

And in cases like this one, I feel that reading a book once just isn’t enough. That’s just the way some books are, and the fact that they’re difficult doesn’t mean they can’t be rewarding or entertaining. Some things simply take more time and effort than others. I’ll shelve Empty Space for now, and give it a second chance in the future.

Review of Light by M. John Harrison

Light by M John HarrisonTitle: Light
Series: The Kefahuchi Tract #1
Author: 
M. John Harrison
Published:
 
2002
Publisher:
 
First edition published by Gollancz. My edition published by Bantam Spectra
Genre: 
science fiction, space opera, literary fiction
Source: 
own copy

The cover of my edition of Light is covered with flattering quotes. More can be found on the inside pages. Many come from sources I admire – Iain M. Banks, Michael Marshall Smith, China Miéville, the Guardian. They praise Harrison’s skill and vision as a writer, the complex literary nature of Light, and it’s brutal, energetic brilliance as space opera. The novel won the James Tiptree Jr. Award, was nominated for the BSFA, and shortlisted for the Arthur C. Clarke. I was dazzled before I even started reading, and baffled afterwards. Elegant, violent and wildly imaginative, Light is literary genre fiction, bringing together quantum physics, a strange new world, bizarre characters, and all the complex relationships that exist between them. It is a particularly challenging read, and it’s only after my second attempt that I feel I have a decent understanding of the novel.

The story is divided into three strands, one set in 1999, and two set the post-Earth future of 2400. In 1999, Michael Kearney – a visionary physicist and a serial killer – has spent decades running from the Shrander, a mysterious entity with a horse’s skull for a head. Michael kills to keep the thing at bay, but because it’s his brilliant mind that attracted it in the first place, it will never leave him in peace. It seems like it’s been a while since he’s managed to do anything productive, although he and his partner Brian Tate are currently involved in a research project that has recently produced only enigmatic results. Tate can’t get Michael to hang around long enough to do any work – he keeps running from the Shrander, with his anorexic and psychologically frail ex-wife Anna trailing after him.

We know that Michael and Tate’s research will be groundbreaking though – in 2400, Tate-Kearney transformations are commonly used in space travel. In this future, humanity is scattered across planets surrounding the Kefahuchi Tract, a space-time anomaly, a “singularity without an event horizon”. For over 65 millennia, the K-tract has beguiled every race that came across it. One race even “steered whole solar systems into position” (7) just to have a closer look at the Tract. It’s a phenomenon that takes no heed of causality, and where explorers can find ancient artefacts that can’t be understood and alien tech that defies all known possibilities.

Seria Mau Genlicher zips around the Tract thanks to the alien tech of her K-ship, The White Cat – an absurdly powerful vessel bristling with weapons and capable of shooting into orbit at Mach 50. It’s run by sentient mathematics and algorithms with a life of their own. Seria Mau allowed her body to be mostly destroyed so she could be plugged into the ship, where she floats in a tank of nutrient-rich chemicals. She’s just acquired an inexplicable artefact that brings the authorities hurtling after her, but which promises opportunities humanity has been dreaming about.

Planet-side in the city of New Venusport is Ed Chianese, once a famous explorer, now a washed up ‘twink’. Like Seria Mau he spends all his time in a tank, except he’s addicted to playing out clichéd old-Earth scenarios in virtual reality. But Ed is in debt to some very bloodthirsty people and gets forced out into the real world when they come looking for him. He runs all the way into a strange new life as a visionary in a circus.

These plot strands seem disparate and in fact the three main characters will never speak to each other. It’s only at the end that you can fully understand how they’re connected. But one of the beautiful things about this book – assuming you’re like me and enjoy this sort of thing – is the way the stories are delicately connected by images and details. Some of are very fine, just a thread tacked across chapters. Ed runs from his pursuers into the confusing warrens where the alien “New Men” live; Anna’s apartment is described as a warren where you never know where you are, and Michael’s decidedly weird friend Valentine Sprake has the same pale skin and shock of ginger hair as the New Men. Anna and Michael walk past melting tarmac; in the next chapter, Seria Mau’s dreams and nightmares “leaked up inside her like warm tar” (65).

It’s much easier to notice the recurring images, details and phrases. I mentioned the Tate-Kearney transformations and the fact that both Seria Mau and Ed start out in tanks. Cats are everywhere. Seria Mau named her ship The White Cat after the white oriental cat Michael bought for the lab, and whose strange interest in their computer screens is the first sign that the two physicists have stumbled onto something otherworldly. Michael stole a strange pair of dice from the Shrander 20 years ago; in 2400 similar dice are used for a game. Michael uses the dice to plot journeys, seeing a connection between prophecy and mathematics (he is also obsessed with the Tarot. Odd, for a physicist, but that’s the kind of guy he is). In 2400, there is a brief mention of an admiral who “abandoned the Tate-Kearney transformations and simply threw dice to decide his moves”. This kind of thing can actually work because it seems that, out in space, physics doesn’t have laws so much as guidelines:

Space was big, and the boys from Earth were awed despite themselves by the things they found there: but worse, their science was in a mess. Every race they met on their way through the Core had a star drive based on a different theory. All those theories worked, even when they ruled out one another’s basic assumptions. You could travel between the stars, it began to seem, but assuming anything. (136)

Beaches frequently appear as metaphors for liminal states or places. It was staring at the pebbles on a beach that child-Michael first began to understand the world as he does. The “ragged margins of the Tract” (7) are known as The Beach, and one of the characters muses, “We’ve got to leave the beach some day. All of us. Grow up. Leave the Beach, dive into the sea” (139). By which I think he means that humanity needs to move on to the next stage of discovery.

The book links Michael and Tate’s discoveries with future ones, and these are typically represented by light, specifically a tangible, flowing light that appears as tears or foaming liquid. “Sparks in everything” – this phrase is thought or uttered multiple times. It’s beautiful, but discovery isn’t romanticised in this book – it’s terrifying, painful, and dangerous. Michael can’t handle it – his knowledge attracts the Shrander and is essentially a source of pure horror that his turned him into murderer and rendered him useless. Seria Mau underwent appalling physical adjustments and risked death – as a 13-year-old child – to become a K-ship captain. Ed is the only one who offers us the classic, thrilling image of the space explorer, but he’s currently planet-bound, sticking his head into a tank to tell the future.

But it isn’t all bad. Discovery is endless. In a universe where physics is so pliable, nothing can ever be fully understood and anything is possible. Another refrain is “there was always more; there was always more after that. Discovery and exploration often take on a notably sexual tone as well, or is somehow associated with sex and sexual relationships. The climax of the novel (excuse the pun) is described in overtly sexual terms. Seria Mau is introduced as “trolling for customers” (7), suggestive of a prostitute, although what she’s offering is horrific, high-tech death rather than pleasure. We later learn that she became a K-captain partly to escape her home, where her father wanted her to “become the mother” in the wake of her mother’s death.

Michael and Anna both seems to use sex as a means of temporarily escaping their personal problems, although Michael, for some reason, never wants to penetrate women – a symbol of his fear perhaps? Ed Chianese, the explorer however, has a string of unusual sexual relationships. The first is with a character in his virtual reality. The second is with an alien. The final one is with Annie Glyph, a rickshaw girl. Rickshaw girls are essentially human carthorses, genetically tailored to massive and powerfully muscled.

With all the weird sex in the novel, the issue of bodies comes up frequently. Seria Mau initially doesn’t want one, and when she uses an avatar for face-to-face meetings she goes as a white cat. She meets with a gene tailor named Uncle Zip, who surrounds himself with clones – versions of himself who are younger, thinner, and sometimes female. Anna, an anorexic and twice-failed suicide, looks just as fragile as her mental state. Annie Glyph comes across as her parallel and her opposite – a huge, powerful woman who dwarfs the man she sleeps with. Sex and gender finds all sorts of new permutations in this novel – I can see why it won the Tiptree award.

There’s quite a bit of science, reminding me that I really need to get better acquainted with quantum physics if I want to continue reading this sort of thing. I still don’t quite understand what a singularity is, nevermind a “singularity without an event horizon”. But although I feel like a full appreciation of the novel is out of my reach, the technical details aren’t alienating. Harrison turns the science into poetry and I learned to just enjoy the words without fussing over the physics.

The tech is pretty cool either way. K-ships are just spectacular, and The White Cat is the best of them. The shadow operators were one of my favourite things about the novel – living algorithms who usually appear as “women biting their knuckles in regret” (186) and fuss over humans with personalities to match. The White Cat’s shadow operators long to craft a pretty little body for Seria Mau and dress her up in white lace. Planet-side are all sorts of genetically tailored ‘cultivars’ – gun kiddies, over-muscled punks with tusks, rickshaw girls. There’s a cultivar called Mona (also written as ‘Moaner’) – an over-sexed female body that has become popular with women.

I could continue discussing the little details. Light is just that kind of book – short but incredibly complex. I find it to be a lot like the K-tract – beguiling even when I don’t understand it. I’m glad I re-read it, and I’d like to do so again one day, after I get a copy of Nova Swing so I can experience the trilogy as a whole (I just read book 3, Empty Space; more on that in my next review). It’s certainly not for everyone, and even now I don’t want to rate because I’m not sure what to make of it. But I’m happy to be inexplicably captivated.