The Sisters Brothers

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Strange, hilarious at times, mournful at others, fatalistic, laced with violence and peppered with symbolism, The Sisters Brothers is a taut picaresque Western that reads like the script of a Coen brothers movie.

It’s about two brothers, hired killers Eli and Charlie Sisters, and the tale of their travels in Gold-Rush era California to find and end the life of a man, upon orders of their boss. But amidst this, Eli Sisters, who has long questioned if he is of the right temperament for this life, starts to try to dig himself and his brother out of the rut of hired killing that has been their lifeblood for years.

Eli is a great narrative figure – comical but somewhat relatable in his childlike earnestness, even as we remain aware that he is, after everything is said and done, still a killer. The gentler counterweight to his psychotic, trigger-happy brother, Eli spins his tale with what can only be described as a kind of endearing honesty, detailing his somewhat faltering and pathetic attempts at self-improvement while being stymied by the ides of fate, the judging eye of society, and the actions of his boorish, more violent brother. Eli’s earnestness provides the novel with its comic sensibility – his attempts at finding a love interest, his short-lived determination to lose weight, his wonderment at discovering the restorative properties of regular toothbrushing – all told in that incongruously formal, polite prose that for some reason characterizes the dialogue of the heroes and villains of every Hollywood-era Western.

But the comedy is tightly intertwined with the casual violence and thuggery that characterizes DeWitt’s vision of the Wild, Wild West – more akin to the pop-culture pastiches of the time, all dusty towns and pistol duels and testy barmaids, with its cavalier attitude to life and death out in the open road – than to sober historical portrayals. For all his attempts at self-improvement, Eli is always the tag-along to his brother, having little choice but to play supporting character to his brother as he intimidates, robs and shoots his way across the landscape in fulfillment of his baser inclinations.

This comes to a head when the brothers finally track down their quarry – a pioneering, industrious man with a ridiculous life story named Herman Kermit Warm, who has recently discovered a chemical that can easily reveal the location of the bountiful gold in Californian riverbeds. Eli thinks of this as a prime opportunity to abandon their life of killing, and, with much difficulty, convinces his brother to band together with Warm instead of killing him on the orders of their master. But, fittingly with the theme of dashed hopes of gold prospectors in the Western frontier, their plan doesn’t work out quite as they imagined, and Eli’s aspirations evaporate in much the same way as they started – in the violence that seems almost like the fate to which they are consigned.

The story ends on a cathartic note even as its climax is consummated in violence, a synthesis of Eli’s desire to abandon violence even as he searches for a better life. He is an almost quixotic character, an optimist who somehow retains his earnestness even as he is dealt blow after blow in life, sometimes through no fault of his own. Funnily enough, he seems to be his own Sancho Panza – he has enough self-awareness to be aware, to some degree, of his lot in life.

The Sisters Brothers offers Eli no riches for his deeds, but somewhat karmically, gives him the essence of what he claims to desire – a life outside of violence – although not exactly on the terms he had been so assiduously working for. In that sense, The Sisters Brothers can be viewed, albeit in a very twisted way, as a sort of karmic morality tale, one edged in a cinematic, almost stylised Tarantino-esque violence, tipped with the hard-edged justice of the Wild West.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 notebooks

Hide Me Among the Graves

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Hide Me Among the Graves is an intriguing, original and slightly anachronistic take on the Victorian vampire novel. 

It takes something special to rise up above the sea of sameness that is the contemporary vampire novel subgenre. Tim Powers, in Graves, has come up with a compelling mythology of vampirism that both feels fresh while staying somewhat true to the thematic power of the vampire trope – that sanguinary union of love and victimization that is the bloodsucker’s relationship with its thrall.

Vampires in Graves are the muses of their hosts, making them great poets and writers, but they are jealous entities and will kill or at least gravely injure anyone related to them. And the London of the setting is a gothic subterranean conurbation in the tradition of other fantastic depictions of city in its Victorian days, haunted by ghosts in the Thames, slowly drifting out to sea to dissipate into oblivion. It is as compelling a conceit as any I have seen in this subgenre, and Powers lays it out, for the most part, in a calibrated manner that slowly reveals the aspects of his mythos without resorting to expository dumps – the bane of many works of fantasy. 

Graves also features one of Tim Powers’ signature plot elements – the melding of reality and fiction through having his characters be fictionalized versions of middling-famous historical figures. Indeed, almost every character in Graves – save for the protagonist and his daughter – is based on a real denizen of Victorian England. In particular, members of the Rossetti family – a reasonably well-known family of poets and writers – are prominent characters in the book.

Also, Graves is a sequel to a previous novel of his, The Stress of Her Regard, which details the events, only hinted at in Graves, that led to the present condition of its characters, and also features a bevy of historical figures, from Byron to Keats.

Somewhat embarrassingly, I was unaware of both of these facts throughout the entire course of my reading of the book – although there is something to be said about the fact that this did not detract too much from its inherent qualities – though it’d be a bit hard to really appreciate the historical references without being some sort of Victorian-era poetry geek.

The irreality of the book’s faux-historical veneer is complemented by an abiding sense of anachronism. The characters don’t seem to think or talk like Victorians – they’re portrayed as being apart from the rest of society, branded by the knowledge of the deeper occult world, and strangely cavalier about ghosts, dessicated undead children, ouija rituals and carrying songbirds in one’s coat pockets. And there always seems to be a hansom cab about whenever the characters need one, a state of affairs that strikes me as very modern expectation. The bottom-line is that this, while set in a fixed historical moment, feels contemporary in outlook.

All in all, Graves is as good as any Victorian gothic horror novel I’ve seen – with a premise that it at once original but hews to the essence of the classic vampire novel.

I give it: 4 out of 5 hansom cabs

It

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Rambling, hoary and florid, IT is a dense jungle of a book that could use a round of editing, but nevertheless leaves a searing imprint of unease on the psyche.

IT is the quintessential Stephen King classic, the manifestation of what it means to be American horror. The town with a dark secret, a cast of sympathetic misfits, the cosmic horror beyond space and time – you can draw a straight and unbroken line from here to Stranger Things. It’s a funny thing indeed when I watch Stranger Things and it all feels so familiar – and then when I read IT, it all becomes clear from where that feeling stems. IT‘s tropes that have wormed their way into our collective cultural subconscious.

It’s a long and wandering book, repository of multiple storylines, recountings, historical anecdotes, and small character studies, flitting from viewpoint to viewpoint, jumping space and time, a veritable forest of prose. It draws the reader in with its dark complexity, painting, in multifaceted, intricate shades, a picture of Derry – a town steeped in its own twisted history, its citizens pawns in an unending cycle of violence stretching back to the earliest ages of man.

At the centre of it all is the horror that goes by many names: Pennywise, Bob Gray, It – an entity much more than the sum of its depictions in derivative media – a grotesque icon that ignites our most primal fears. A clown, his face covered in paint, holding a red balloon – is an entity profoundly out of place with it surroundings, out of sync with the natural order, a rictus of evil behind a merry, painted facade. Pennywise is an inspired creation of a writer who knows intimately the things that humans fear, down to our lizard brains.

But It is more than just a horror fest – it is also about the humanity that shines out against evil, of both the cosmic and mundane variety, of the tight bonds formed between friends, of the power of innocence and the imagination. In its own way, It is also a celebration of youth, of its wildness and creative power, and the ability of play to serve as a bulwark against the darkness of sober adulthood.

That said, however, It does have its fair share of flaws, some of which are more than a little disturbing. For one, the ending of the book feels somewhat like it’s straining for a neat resolution. Having cast It into a cosmic horror, King seems to have no good way for the villain to be defeated in any satisfying way, so the last few chapters of the book fall into a kind of contrived mysticism that uses a whole lot of arcane plot hijinks to MacGuyver its way towards a conclusion.

Also, It‘s treatment of Beverly Marsh, the one girl in the circle of protagonists, is a bit…problematic. Beverly Marsh is the one character who doesn’t seem to have an independent existence – she is always characterised in respect to some male figure in her life. There is an air of tokenism in terms of her inclusion into the Loser’s club – almost as if she is there to spark the boys’ adolescent development. Throughout, the narrative voice takes an abiding interest in Bev’s adolescent physical traits, and describes her central character tension as a simultaneous love-hate relationship with her loving but violent father, and although part of that is meant to generate unease, it feels like some editorial control might have helped in getting King to rein in some of his more…troubling authorial impulses, such as the infamous scene near the end of the book featuring an utterly out-of-place depiction of adolescent sexuality that makes very little sense in context and seems to have been added there just because.

It is a testament It’s hoary and multifarious power, however, that these problems, while very real, are strands in a tapestry of narrative threads that collectively form a masterpiece of the genre, seething with formless dread, grandiose in its evocation of evil, but strangely comforting in its exaltation of childhood, friendship, and innocence.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 inhalers

Station Eleven

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This is a book that defies easy description. A post-apocalyptic story that adheres to few of the tropes of the genre; a narrative that wends its way through disparate lives and times, linked only by a single, strange conceit; a book concerned less with the now than with the genealogies of experience that led to it.

The apocalypse is only one part of the grand story, a frame that separates the epochs into before and after. The story starts at the during, opening with the dramatic on-stage death of a noted Shakespearean actor from a heart attack, just as the first victims of the savage, decimating Georgia Flu start to sicken and die. His death would have been lost in the drama of the apocalypse, but it is his story that Mandel focuses on for much of the book, spinning an evocative tale of his storied life.

Through that overarching frame, Mandel writes of other lives, touched, in ways good, ill and strange, by the tides of Leander’s time on the mortal plane. And those other lives – like Miranda Carroll, Leander’s first wife, whose eponymously-titled comic book series becomes another totem that draws the dissipated threads together in complex, unexpected ways.

This book is a veritable tapestry of interconnected lives; surviving, enduring, thriving, in a way that post-apocalyptia makes more true; somehow, the collapse of civilisation sets our best and worst traits in starker contrast. The putative protagonist, Kirsten Raymonde, was a child performing in Leander’s last production when the Georgia Flu hit; she survives the plague and lives life as a member of an itinerant troupe, keeping Shakespeare alive in a transformed world. Jeevan Chaudhary, former paparazzo turned paramedic, who stalked Leander in his old life and who gives Leander futile CPR as he expires on stage. Clark Thompson, Arthur’s best friend, who becomes the keeper of a museum of artifacts of civilisation to educate a generation who has never known electricity.

All these stories are barely related to one another except in surprising and tenuous threads of fate, yet they are all compelling in their own way, so much so that I found the main plot – in which Kirsten’s travelling troupe has to deal with an upstart cult – perhaps the least compelling part of the book. And really, in what post apocalyptic tome would that particular plot thread not take centre stage? But in Station Eleven, it is just one of many disparate stories.

As such, there is something refreshing about Station Eleven‘s way of casting its narrative net far and wide, telling many stories amidst many themes – of lives lived in celebrity, female empowerment, of the strange, unfamiliar theme of a younger, post-technological generation carrying the torch of civilisation from an older, technological one.

And, importantly, Station Eleven doesn’t fetishize the apocalypse; it doesn’t commoditize that sense of bleak despair and nihilism that comes with it. Instead, it ends with a tinge of hope – that, contrary to what many post-apocalyptic novels would paint, there is some home for humanity to claw its way out of the dark valley without staining its soul along the way.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 knife tattoos

Naoko

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Affecting, unsettling, and heartbreaking, Naoko is one of those books that lingers with you long after you flip the last page.

Naoko is a story of everyman Heisuke Sugita, whose life is utterly discombobulated when his wife Naoko and 10-year old daughter Monami are caught in a horrific bus accident. Naoko is seemingly killed, while Monami  survives unscathed physically. But when Monami wakes up, she has the psyche and memories of Naoko.

What ensues is an odd family drama – where Naoko, resigned to living Monami’s childhood for her, has to deal with her second childhood, while Heisuke grapples with the fact that his wife is now his daughter. The novel is an exploration of how such an uncanny arrangement might ensue.

Keigo Higashino is known for his hardboiled detective thrillers, and my reading of Naoko was somewhat coloured by my knowledge of this – it was, for the most part, tinged with the tension of wondering when things might become lurid – but, thankfully, it doesn’t. Higashino does have some mystery elements into the mix, notably in Heisuke’s investigation into the circumstances of the bus accident, which leads him down some minor lines of inquiry, but for the most part, it’s an emotional portrait of normal people trying to live in the wake of something extraordinary.

Its an intriguing conceit that Higashino handles well in his workmanlike, matter-of-fact style. Heisuke is the portrait of a 1980s salaryman; well-intentioned but somewhat insecure in himself and in his relationship with his wife, now in their daughter’s body, leading him to do some less-than-salutary things in his attempts to preserve some status quo in their family life. His struggle is that of a father letting go of a daughter whom he has cherished to live her own life, with the added complication that she is, in some essential way, his wife. Naoko-as-Monami, on her part, uses her new circumstances as a chance to define a new identity for herself that is removed from her previous happy but cloistered existence as doting housewife and mother. In doing so, she necessarily tugs away from the orbit circumscribed by Heisuke’s place in her life.

In this sense, Naoko has often been called a meditation on gendered politics in Japan, but it’s also about parenthood and letting go. For the most part, Naoko handles this with sensitivity, treating both Heisuke and Naoko sympathetically. While they do hurt each other, it seems inevitable as part of their exceptional circumstances. Essentially, they come off as real people.

Naoko was an unputdownable read all the way through, even given its domestic setting, wending its way to a truly heartrending denouement that felt at once inevitable, yet also unbearably melancholic. Rare is the book that makes me feel the way I felt reading the second last chapter of Naoko. And yet, after that wallop of a false ending, Higashino still has one more trick up his sleeve – he throws us a twist in the end, so unexpected yet so apropos, a twist that adds a final zest of mystique and intrigue into the concluding chapters of this utterly unconventional domestic drama.

Highly recommended.

I give this book: 5/5 teddy bears

The Shadow of the Wind

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The Shadow of the Wind is chock full of the elements that make reading so pleasurable – gripping stories, larger-than-life characters, an evocative setting, rip-roaring comedy, melodramatic tragedy, and a likable, engaging protagonist – although it does get somewhat smothered in its own grandiloquent melodrama.

Set largely in post- Civil War, Francoist Spain, Shadow is the story of young protagonist Daniel Sempere, who stumbles across a book (named Shadow of the Wind, for reasons that are made clear by the plot later) by a mysterious and unknown author, Julian Carax, and becomes embroiled in a deepening mystery concerning Carax, the books, and somebody who is out to erase everything associated with them. Shadow is also a bildungsroman of sorts for Daniel, who has to deal with the impact of his raging teenage hormones.

Carax’s life is slowly revealed by Daniel’s investigations, as he runs around Barcelona in an attempt to discover the truth about the mysterious writer – through letters, re-tellings, and fragmentary documents. The details of Carax’s life could almost have come out of an Alexander Dumas novel – a gripping and melodramatically tragic story of love, jealousy, disfigurement, exile, and revenge. But as Daniel investigates further, he starts to be implicated in the questing threads of Carax’s unresolved tale, and his own teenaged existence takes on an almost dramatic quality of its own, mirroring, somewhat, Carax’s own life.

Shadow is at its best when it focuses on Daniel’s own experiences. Tonally, it is much less melodramatic than the accounts of Carax’s own magnificently tragic life, and is therefore more grounded and relatable. Daniel is also surrounded by a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters that populate the little corner of Barcelona in which he lives – a community of neighbors that bring Barcelona to life as a lived-in place. In particular, Daniel’s friend, Fermin Romero de Torres, is the breakout character of the book – an amusingly grandiloquent spinner of tall tales of his inveterate womanizing, who is nevertheless Daniel’s most steadfast friend and ally (and a partner in a sweetly monogamous relationship over the course of the book). As Daniel and Fermin traipse around Barcelona, piecing together the fragments of Carax’s life, while it still remains an abstraction on the page as opposed to a living agency, the book is still assured of a kind of groundedness to its storytelling, interspersed as it is with Daniel’s own adolescent romantic preoccupations.

Nearer the end of the story, however, when the figures of the Carax story emerge, they begin to colour Daniel’s own life with their own portentous melodrama, with less than salutary results. Symptomatic to this is the introduction of one of the book’s least compelling characters –  the antagonist Inspector Fumero, a childhood companion of Carax who has a massive, massive bone to pick with the man. Fumero is pure moustache-twirling villain without a single redeemable bone in his body – a straight-up psychopath with a weird “odd-one-out” origin story. Fumero’s motivations never really get fleshed out beyond a generic dramatic desire for revenge – almost elemental, or mythological, in its simplicity – which is okay for what is essentially fiction-in-fiction but not when made a part of Daniel’s own story.

The result of this enmeshing is a story that lurches tonally as it turns into full-on melodrama, culminating in a bombastic climax that segues into a coda of Daniel’s later life – one that is supposed to show how his life has broken the hold that Carax’s own story has had over his own, but does so in a way that reminds the reader that the author had essentially turned Daniel’s own life into a soap opera in the interim.

For all that, though, Shadow is still an eminently enjoyable book, exuberant, old-fashioned, and larger-than-life; a book that, like its namesake, leaps out its pages in its immediacy, even it is somewhat overwhelmed by its melodramatic bombast.

I give this book: 4 out of 5 Victor Hugo pens

The Mating Season

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Having read The Mating Season, I’m of the view that I may enjoy Wodehouse better in smaller doses.

While What Ho! was a curated selection of the best and funniest that Wodehouse had to offer, The Mating Season is but one of many of Wodehouse’s prodigious output of comedic stories about the misadventures of the idle rich. By contrast, it has an almost by-the-numbers sort of feel to it.

That’s not to say that it’s not a rollicking fun read on its own, but there is a sameness to it that speaks to how Wodehouse had perfected a comedic formula for his stories, taking the limited assortment of tropes – harridan aunts, excitable young ladies, bumbling sidekicks, and a variation of an impossible love tangle that Jeeves must solve on behalf of Bertie.

The plot is an excuse for the main attraction – seeing Bertie put into a succession of comic crises from which he must save himself, or have Jeeves rescue him at the end of the whole thing, that arise when one foolishly sets oneself up for sure disaster by impersonating somebody else in front of a group of people who should know better. Like a Shakespearean comedy, the action bungs back and forth until everyone is happily attached, except Bertie, of course, who revels in his bachelorhood.

Bertie himself is a surprisingly compelling narrator, not least because underneath that cheerful, aristocratic obtuseness is a character that can sometimes be an interesting subversion of the spoilt rich brat. Wooster may be self-aggrandising, prejudiced, uppity, and prone to wild spurts of impulse and a sorry lack of capacity for self-introspection, he is still a good-hearted person within the narrow confines of what he deems worthy of his help.

Jeeves, on the other hand, while clearly the doer of the duo, isn’t as compelling as I first surmised. Jeeves himself is a secondary character, an unflappable butler of Bertie who acts as a kind of plot lubricator to move things along; his brilliance is usually spoken about, rather than described. Jeeves is capable of supernatural feats of competence, but they are, in The Mating Season, depicted “off-screen”, as it were, blunting the impact of his accomplishments to the plot. Flashes of the real character behind the stoic mask of servitude, no matter how shrewd, are not nearly enough to make Jeeves the character that he should be. In a nutshell (though it may be sacrilege to say so), Jeeves is more plot device than character.

The world of Jeeves and Wooster is so cloistered and privileged, that the worst that anybody in the stories have to worry about is the wrath of their dreaded aunt and the threat of a romantic mismatch. I won’t even go into its problems with depictions of gender and lack of diversity – it would be too much to demand of a mid-century white English author. Some call it idyllic, others hopelessly elitist, but at the end of the day, it is the fruit juice of the soul, saccharine, eminently drinkable, and comforting, not what you’d call particularly complex or robust.

I give this book: 3.5 out of 5 misplaced envelopes