Monthly Archives: May 2014

Review: The Girl With All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

Melanie is a very special girl. She’s smart, a genius, really. She enjoys her lessons, especially those given by her favorite teacher, Miss Justineau. She’s polite. And she likes the taste of human flesh. Melanie, M. R. Carey’s brainchild, is The Girl With All the Gifts (Hachette, June 10, 2014).

The Girl With All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

The Girl With All the Gifts, M. R. Carey

The Girl With All the Gifts opens in an indeterminate time and place, from Melanie’s sheltered, childish perspective. Melanie and her classmates spend their days in school. Sargent Parks and his soldiers escort the children to and from class, restraining them in wheelchairs, one soldier tightening the restraints while the other covers him with his gun. “I won’t bite,” Melanie jokes, but no one laughs. Something is very wrong.

Carey creates suspense by establishing the setting gradually, over the first few chapters. “What the hell is going on?” the reader wonders. (And will continue reading.) This is England, circa the mid-twenty-first century. Civilization has collapsed in the wake of environmental catastrophe. A strain of the fungus Ophiocordyceps evolved that was capable of infecting humans, hijacking them to serve as vectors for spreading the parasite. Infection is rapid, irreversible, and turns the host into a mindless cannibal. Carey’s characters call them “hungries”; we’d call them “zombies.”

This isn’t a new scenario, of course. The zombie trope made a comeback in the 2000s. Readers of The Girl With All the Gifts will compare the book to the film 28 Days Later, both of which feature zombie pandemics set in England. The comparisons end there, though. Melanie, herself a “hungry,” is a point of interest. In addition to its horror elements and survival aspects, The Girl With All the Gifts is, in some ways, a distorted coming of age story, as Melanie learns the truth about herself, explores the world, and investigates the mystery of Ophiocordyceps.

Melanie, Miss Justineau, Sargent Parks, Private Gallagher, and Dr. Caldwell travel south through a stricken England, aiming for “Beacon,” the fortress that serves as the last vestige of English government and society. There is tension in the group. Parks would rather dispatch Melanie, herself infected, than travel with her, but is opposed by Justineau, the girl’s teacher, and Caldwell, the nominal leader. Justineau and Caldwell, civilians, are at loggerheads, too, the former treating Melanie as a human being, the latter considering her a future test subject. After saving Miss Justineau (with her teeth), Melanie has acquired a taste for flesh, which she must resist. And, in addition to the hungries, the group must avoid “junkers,” survivalists who roam the countryside, living off of what they can scavenge. (The junkers reminded me of scenes from Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.) Carey combines horror, survivalism, and elements of psychological thrillers to great effect.

Carey’s prose is simple and straightforward, ideal for the story he tells. One sentence leads seamlessly to the next, a brisk pace that will hook readers and drag them along. I found myself trying to read faster than I’m able to, almost skipping ahead in my impatience to find out what would happen next, what new misfortune would befall the group. I suspect readers will have a similar experience. You’re in Carey’s hell, and he sets the pace.

London, of course, plays an inevitable role in The Girl With All the Gifts, serving as the setting for the last third of the story. The reader feels the characters’ dread as they enter the ruins of the world’s great cities. “No,” you think, “don’t go through London!” But of course they have to, and, of course, you want them to. The city is empty not only of people, but also, oddly, of hungries. In London, the fungus is taking a turn unobserved elsewhere, and which will feature, ultimately, in the outcome of the story. London is the crucible in which the characters’ fates are decided.

The Girl With All the Gifts takes its title from Melanie’s favorite story, the myth of Pandora, whose name translates as “all gifts.” Carey, of course, is hinting at Melanie’s role in his story. Action-packed, suspenseful, haunting, The Girl With All the Gifts is highly recommended.

Review: YOU, Austin Grossman

We of a certain age (When did we get this old?) grew up with video games. That is, we (more or less) matured with the medium. We were gamers before video games were mainstream. Sure, the jocks played Nintendo, too, but we were the ones who emerged, dazed, from our parents’ basements after a marathon session, pale and hollow-eyed, squinting at that damned bright orb in the sky. We had worlds to explore. World to conquer. Why waste time chasing a ball?

You, Austin Grossman

You, Austin Grossman

Austin Grossman beautifully captures the role video games play in our lives in his sophomore novel, YOU (Mulholland Books).

YOU begins when Russell, ivy league graduate and law school dropout, aimless, adrift, interviews for a position at the game studio Black Arts. The catch: Black Arts is the successful brainchild of two of Russell’s former friends and high school classmates, Darren and Simon. Simon, the troubled genius who created Black Arts’s signature line, Realms of Gold, died several years earlier in a freak accident. Lisa, also part of Russell’s high school crew, is a programmer at Black Arts. Despite a desultory interview, and absolute inexperience with games, Black Arts hires Russell as a designer. Russell proves himself an apt designer, but as he and his colleagues toil over the next entry in Realms of Gold, they begin encountering, with increasing frequency, a catastrophic bug that threatens the success of the game. Thus begins Russell’s (and the reader’s) journey down the rabbit hole of late 90s video game design.

It’s clear that Grossman is familiar with the process of game production. (Indeed, he worked as a game designer on Epic Mickey and Dishonored, among others.) And the details Grossman provides ring true: The programmers camping out in sleeping bags under their desks; the rivalries and resentments between different departments; the vampire existence that begins to set in as it becomes normal to stay at work until 2 or 3 in the morning and return to the office around lunchtime the same day. Grossman has lived this, and he provides readers a window into the everyday lives of game developers.

If the anthropology of game makers is of interest to readers, it is Russell’s relationship with his friends Simon, Darren, and Lisa, that will be more widely recognizable. Grossman structures YOU in “ages,” i.e., “The First Age,” “The Second Age,” mirroring the mythical timeline of Simon’s opus, Realms of Gold. Russell and his friends met during a high school programming class, a collaboration that spawned the first Realms of Gold game. Even then, the personalities that would flower in adulthood were evident: Simon, the eccentric loner; Darren, the charismatic leader; Lisa, so left brained that she is practically alienated from emotion. And Russell? Russell is, oddly, something of an empty shell. Russell is the odd-man-out, the one who will abandon his friends as he readies himself for college and, presumably, a less nerdy adulthood. Russell’s seeming dearth of personality is at first troubling, but eventually provides readers payoff as he discovers himself. It’s a trait, also, that Grossman cleverly uses to permit readers to project themselves into the story.

Of course, YOU is about video games, or, rather, the meaning of video games, why they matter, why they’re so important to so many people. And, as the title of the book suggests, it’s not about the game, really. It’s about you. Games, like books, permit users to project themselves into the story, to explore new worlds and new modes of thought, and, ultimately, to discover themselves. As Grossman says, it’s “[y]ou and the machine, like Scheherazade and her king mixed up together in one, trying over and over to tell yourself your own story, and get it right.” Highfalutin, perhaps, when one considers that many games are based on fast cars and guns and bombs, but any player will realize that there’s truth in what Grossman says. Like Simon, we’re creating ourselves, even if we need to get away from this world in order to do it.

YOU is not all nostalgia for lost adolescence or rhapsodic prose about the power of games, although those elements are present. (And Grossman is judicious in his use of them.) There is humor here, too, of a surreal sort, that vaguely reminded me of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore. Russell becomes so absorbed in game design that he begins to have dreams about Realm of Gold characters. He asks the wizard, Lorac, if Lisa might have a crush on him. “Isn’t this more of a Brennan question?” Lorac replies, referring to his warrior teammate. Lisa’s left-brainedness is both tragic and comic: She doesn’t know what it means for a game to be “fun,” and, playing an Asteroids-style arcade game, she just wants to use her “triangle” to shoot the other shapes on the screen.

YOU is a pleasure to read, an ode to video games and nostalgia and the pain of growing up and finding one’s place in life. Like the lives of Grossman’s characters, the novel isn’t perfect. The plot is threadbare, a vehicle, really, to explore the history of Russell and his friends, and at times in meanders. Grossman sometimes veers into sentimentality, but readers who know some of Simon’s pain won’t mind. (And if we can’t be sentimental in novels, where can we be?) YOU isn’t fantasy and it isn’t sci-fi, but those elements are present. A well-told story about friendship and life (and videogames), YOU is highly recommended.

Review: The Buried Life, Carrie Patel

There is a moment in The Buried Life in which the protagonist, Inspector Liesl Malone, stumbles upon a ruined library. Carrie Patel describes the building, the jumbled stacks and scattered books, with reverence. Here is the repository of civilization: People, like Malone, and societies, like that which built the library, come and go, but by recording and storing our knowledge, humanity endures. Fittingly, the next scene involves gunshots. The pen and the sword, both sources of power. This is one of the many strange juxtapositions in a strange novel, The Buried Life (Angry Robot, July 29, 2014).

The Buried Life, Carrie Patel

The Buried Life, Carrie Patel

The setting for The Buried Life is unique: The underground city of Recoletta, approximately 300 years from the present. The ambiguous “Cataclysm” destroyed modern civilization. Whatever was involved, which may include war, given characters’ use of “antebellum” to describe the pre-Cataclysm era, it provoked in survivors an intense desire for privacy and security. Cities moved underground, and civilization reverted to Victorian technology. (Patel, perhaps unwittingly, outs herself as a historical materialist, as her society’s mode of production, Victorian, appears to dictate vaguely Victorian mores.) Patel borrows her title, of course, from the nineteenth century British poet Matthew Arnold.

The plot involves Inspector Malone’s investigation into the murders of several members of the Council, the oligarchy that rules Recoletta. Deprived of her official sanction to investigate by the secretive Council, Malone acts independently, with her new partner, Sundar, providing backup. Jane Lin, laundress to the ruling class, becomes involved when she stumbles upon the murderer. And all three are brought face-to-face with Roman Arnault, the elite’s “fixer.” Suffice it to say that their paths cross and their fates are intertwined; more cannot be said without giving away the entire plot.

Readers will be drawn to The Buried Life because of the setting. The “Cataclysm” is mysterious; we want to know what happened. Patel provides readers a taste of the back story throughout the book, just enough to whet their appetites. The underground setting is intriguing, too. I expected a lot of slinking through dark tunnels but, while my skulking quota was satisfied (2.5 incidents of skulking per page), the underground element is not fully realized. Given that the surface world is habitable and that citizens choose to live underground, it should not be surprising that Recoletta is a homey enough place. Indeed, it’s downright pleasant, with skylights that permit sunshine to reach the streets and enable Recolettans to keep up the day/night schedule “surface dwellers” enjoy. In other words, readers curious about Recoletta will find that it’s not much different from their own, albeit underground.

Patel’s characters are serviceable. Malone, the flinty detective, has a soul; a flashback to her years in the orphanage provides some insight into her character. Malone’s partner, Sundar, a former actor, serves as a handy foil. Patel uses Sundar as a recipient of Malone’s wisdom, thus shrouding explanations intended for the reader. Arnault is a puzzle, as he is meant to be, and Jane’s journalist friend, Frederick, provides some comic relief. Jane is the most interesting character, an entrepreneur of sorts whose place in the thick of things is a result not only of who she knows–Frederick, Malone, Arnault–but also a result of a filial connection to the larger plot. Patel nicely leaves the characters in a situation that demands a sequel and will have readers demanding to know what happens next.

The Buried Life, Patel’s first novel, is enjoyable, if not quite everything a reader might want. My hope is that Patel will go for greater (metaphorical) depth as she continues the series, both with her characters and especially the setting, which has potential. Patel picks up the pace in the second half of the book, and readers will find themselves wanting to know what’s going on behind the murders. Vaguely steampunk-ish but not quite classifiable, The Buried Life is recommended for readers comfortable straddling the border of fantasy and sci-fi; dedicated fantasists and hard sci-fi fans may want to go down another hole.

Review: A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain

There are novels in which place is a character unto itself, when tone and setting are so artfully evoked that the reader is practically standing alongside the story’s protagonists. A skilled writer transports readers by drawing on the generalities with we’re all familiar–nature, in its grandeur or grotesqueness; city life, with its commotion and loneliness–and then situating them within the unique context–the setting–of the story. Philip Meyer’s American Rust comes to mind, as do Cormac McCarthy’s novels. With a touch less darkness and a pinch of magic, we may add add Adrianne Harun’s A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain (February 2014, Penguin) to that list.

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Huran

A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, Adrianne Harun

The story is set in an isolated town in British Columbia. As with many small towns, this one is less an idyllic hamlet than it is a hopeless blip in the wilderness. Harun masterfully conveys the desolation with references to an apparently hostile natural world and the rot characteristic at humanity’s attempts to defy it. Gerald Flacker, the local meth dealer, and his cronies, the Nagle brothers, treat the town as their personal fiefdom. Harun immediately establishes a sense of creeping dread: The town is adjacent to Highway 16, the so-called “Highway of Tears,” along which women, mostly aboriginal, have been disappearing for decades. In short, this is not a friendly place.

That’s not to say that Leo Kreutzer, on whom Harun focuses, is without friends. Poor and marginalized–Leo is half-white, half-aboriginal–Leo and his friends cling all the more fiercely to one another. Family, too, is important: Leo’s mother takes in her brother-in-law, the dying Uncle Lud, despite her husband’s absence. Brother and sister Bryan and Ursie, orphans, maintain a semblance of family in their parents’ decaying house. Tessa, on whom Leo has a crush, and Jackie, who works at the logging camp, round out the crew.

What plot there is unravels messily and without tidy resolution, which, in that respect, mirrors real life. The novel opens with the group engaged in a favorite pastime, as they linger at the town dump, shooting rats and birds. Jackie introduces her friends to Hana Swann, a charismatic itinerant who also works in the logging camp’s cafeteria. Swann, in contrast to Leo and his friends, is extremely pale, and her presence at once alluring and repellent: She shoots a marmot (a protected species). She challenges the friends to do something about Flacker, a notion that possesses Bryan and sets the plot in motion. Upon learning of Swann, Uncle Lud insists that Leo has met the “Snow Queen,” a troublesome character known to Leo from the many folktales his uncle unspools. Readers may wonder at Swann’s subsequent disappearance from the story, but she is like the “devil’s hopscotch” to which Harun refers, a stray stone thrown in that scatters players in a variety of unexpected directions.

A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is really a story about stories, the ways in which we construct meaning by imposing a narrative on events. Indeed, much of the book consists of Leo’s recollections after the fact, but related as present tense, a method that keeps the reader on his (and Harun’s) hook. Leo receives e-mails from the instructor of the correspondence physics class his mother forced him into. The notes are strangely personal, as Leo’s instructor explains that she attempted to study poetry at the graduate level but failed, and later turned to, and excelled at, science. Still, she quotes Leonard Cohen to Leo even as she analyzes his personality (with little to go on, as he is disengaged and sends her just one equation in which he proposes how one might quantify love). Science improves our lives, it provides us answers, but it can’t generate meaning. Uncle Lud knows this intuitively, spinning folktales about a devil in which he doesn’t really believe. Uncle Lud believes in stories, Leo tells readers.

Of course, we readers believe in stories, too, or we wouldn’t spend so many hours shushing our loved ones while we turn page after page. We may not take to heart the superstitious Catholic-aboriginal mishmash Leo’s mom practices, but we understand her reasons. Like Uncle Lud, we know that there are very real devils in the world, and that sometimes only the context of fiction can make them real. A haunting novel with folkloric and magical realist elements, A Man Came Out of the Door in the Mountain is a debut not to be missed.