book review

The Night Ocean | Book Review

30901609The Night Ocean by Paul La Farge is the last novel I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards Nominees. I think I accidentally saved the best for last because this was my favourite out of the bunch. What La Farge did with this work is really impressive because he had to work with one of the most controversial figures in Science Fiction history and somehow he examines possibilities without glorifying any of the negatives in H.P. Lovecraft. Only three years ago the figure of Lovecraft was removed by the Locus Fantasy Awards so it’s a difficult topic to work with so shortly after. Reading this novel was like peeling layers and layers on a dark flower and finding something new each time. Like a cubist artist, La Farge holds H.P. Lovecraft and the persona of this mysterious figure, but looks at it from every possible angle, considering each perspective. For one, this story isn’t really about H.P Lovecraft, it’s about a woman who is in love with a man who was passionate about a particular aspect of H.P. Lovecraft’s life. This hierarchy of perspectives creates a distance between all that one may find problematic with Lovecraft. Each character being slightly flawed and a little unreliable still preserves the mystery. Allow me to explain a little of the plot and I will try to be less cryptic. The story follows Marina who is herself a psychiatrist. Her husband Charlie was hospitalized for psychiatric reasons and one day simply vanished. The last thing we know is that he was by the edge of the lake. In trying to find out more about her husband Marina finds that Charlie was doing passionate research work on H.P. Lovecraft, in particular focusing on his sexuality, and if maybe he might have had a homosexual relationship with a young fan by the name of Robert Barlow. His lead was finding a Lovecraft diary also known in this novel as The Erotonomicon (playing on the Necronomicon). It was kind of interesting to consider that at the time H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘clues’ or proof trail of being homosexual might have been hidden by publishers or friends to ‘preserve’ his integrity whilst the racist and xenophobic parts of his biography were unashamedly left in, whereas today it would be exactly the reverse. I am a big fan of acknowledging that no one is good or bad, but a dynamic character with flaws and qualities alike and that the path to rehabilitation and education can help anyone no matter what they said or did in the past. Lovecraft did a lot of good for fantasy and sparked a series of subgenres. He was very unhappy and died in extreme poverty. I have always tried to keep that in mind, and La Farge just reminded me how interesting Lovecraft was and it’s making me want to go read the Necronomicon again.

Because the main narrator is involved in a mystery trying to find out more about her own husband, because Charlie himself is psychologically unstable (which automatically makes him an unreliable narrator), and because the ‘findings’ about Lovecraft have been filtered, hidden, and ‘rumoured’ the whole novel preserves an overall tone of suspense and eerie mystery. Even Charlie’s disappearance is something straight out of a Cthulhu story. No one is one hundred percent reliable, and no one has a definite answer on Lovecraft, which leaves the reader of The Night Ocean alone, left to come up with answers by connecting the dots. Also, Marina trying to understand Charlie, and him explaining Lovecraft to her in flashbacks/memories, and her learning more about him as we go along, we are introduced to bits of biography about Lovecraft, including the parts which make him a controversial figure. Like I said, this novel was very dynamic and it is presented in such a way that reminds me of a cubist painting. It is no small feat, and La Farge has succeeded immensely (in my humble opinion). This was a very difficult task and his writing is absolutely amazing. The way the story is told, the diverse cast of characters, the new parts of Lovecraft’s life to be explored, the incorporation of a female narrator to guide the story forward are just a few aspects of what makes this story so good. I also have to slip in that I was hooked on Charlie the moment he said he procrastinated by watching Lost…something I’m obsessed with. There goes my bias.

Definitely read this book if you love H.P. Lovecraft, mystery, science fiction, the macabre, steampunkish speculative fiction, and gothic atmospheres/settings. I mean…this is a Shirley Jackson Award nominee…so you already know.

The Changeling | Victor LaValle

the changelingThe Changeling by Victor LaValle is the fourth book I’m reading for the Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 nominees. If I had to put my money down, based on what I’ve read so far and looking at its stats, I would say that this book has the strongest chance to be the winner. That said, I have not finished all five yet (still have one left). Also, The Changeling has just won the 2018 Locus Award for Best Horror novel.

This novel has “two starts” but for good reason. The first is Apollo Kagwa’s parents’ love story and the beginnings of Apollo. Apollo is mixed and from a low-income family. His father mysteriously disappears but continues to appear to Apollo in dreams/nightmares. Apollo grows up and becomes very involved in dealing/collecting/selling rare books and is himself an avid reader. As things progress he too falls in love (the second start) with Emma and together they have a baby boy. At this point the novel takes a term from slightly creepy and mysterious to supernatural stellar writing. I liked the way the Goodreads synopsis puts it without spoilers: “Before Apollo can do anything to help, Emma commits a horrific act—beyond any parent’s comprehension—and vanishes, seemingly into thin air. Thus begins Apollo’s odyssey through a world he only thought he understood to find a wife and child who are nothing like he’d imagined.” That…is putting it mildly. This novel is a roller-coaster ride, and it somehow does it by creeping up on you. You start slowly and you’re being fed one odd thing at a time, until you find yourself so deep you forget how you got here in the first place. I had to consult the synopsis because by the end I wasn’t sure what would be considered a spoiler.

What I particularly loved about LaValle’s writing was the way he brought the dark fairy tale to the city: New York. As a passionate Lore fan and reading these kinds of stories with supernatural elements, I can’t help but notice they are almost always set in an isolated town, in a rural part of a very abandoned state, or in some very small place with few inhabitants. Dropping this dark fairy tale in New York while simultaneously poking at the very contemporary “here and now” elements of parenting, social networks, and media is something that I never considered could come together so well in one cohesive narrative. LaValle challenges the spaces one thought of as ‘safe’ due to their bright lights and overpopulation and turns this concept it on its head. Parallel to these writing techniques, unstable setting, and atmosphere LaValle still places at this novel’s core the essence of what makes us human in exploring our strengths and weaknesses when it comes to family, love, parenting, and how our origins, or ‘where we come from’ or the literal ghosts of our past can influence our present. I really enjoyed this book, and even though it took me a lot longer to read this one than the others it was worth the effort. I recommend this if you like Aaron Mahnke’s Lore and Cabinet of Curiosities, dark fairy tales, gothic atmospheres, and of course…Shirley Jackson.

The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun

31213272The Hole by Hye-Young Pyun is the third book I read for my Shirley Jackson Awards 2017 challenge (See more here). Pyun is from Korea and this novel has been translated into English by Sora Kim-Russell. The novel has been marketed as a psychological thriller about loneliness. Even before being translated or nominated for this prize Hye-Young Pyun has been compared Shirley Jackson and Yoko Ogawa “for her blending of the everyday with the gothic and the grotesque.”

The novel is short but very intense. As I mentioned earlier, it is the shortest novel on the list of nominees this year. The novel follows Oghi, a university professor who has recently been in a car accident with his wife. His wife passes away on impact during the crash, and he survives it, but is fully paralyzed and must have a caretaker. His caretaker is his “next of kin” which is surprisingly enough: his mother in law. There must be some difference in cultures here because I don’t see this happening in the West. We are told the narrative from Oghi’s perspective and the lack of mobility, the grief, and the flashbacks all accumulate to a very tense and suspenseful read, as you feel just as paralyzed as Oghi. Oghi’s tense relationship with his wife and mother-in-law pre-accident makes this story extra creepy and gives the reader a sense of uneasiness, but also the present due to his incapacitated state, and visions of the ghost of his wife. His mother-in-law is as strange as the plot and situation, she is a widow, just lost her daughter, but struggles with her half-Japanese identity. At this point I felt a little disjointedness from the narrative because I felt like something was missing—there’s a gap in my knowledge of understanding certain things relating to Japanese-Korean relationships and I missed out on a lot of the mother-in-law’s characterization.

What I absolutely admired about Hye-Young Pyun’s writing was the way she weaved the theme of “the hole” through this novel. According to her publisher: “The title of the novel is a play on words: a transliteration of the English word “hole,” 홀 (hol) is a Korean prefix meaning “alone” and most readily refers to one who is widowed.” The hole here is used as both fixating on the fact that both Oghi and his mother-in-law are alone and widowed, and also on the hole within, the hole of experiencing complete loneliness and despair. One reviewer on Goodreads noted that even Oghi’s profession and his thoughts towards the Babylonian Map of the World, dated to the 5th century BC has a hole at its center. Even visually, as you progress through the novel, each chapter is prefaced by a “black hole” which gets progressively larger before it engulfs the reader completely. I took a picture because it looks really cool.

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Visual of chapter headings

Pyun’s ability to play with so many elements, themes, and characters in such a small space while simultaneously keeping the reader on edge is really admirable. Again, I think maybe some things got lost in translation, or maybe the translation enhanced it, I don’t know. It’s a little difficult to compare as this is the only novel on the nomination list that is in translation. The original has been published in Korea in 2016 which means a lot of thought and consideration was given to place bring this novel into this competition. I thought it was a great read, and I highly recommend it for people who enjoy the works of Han Kang, Yoko Ogawa, Daphne du Maurier, and yes, even Shirley Jackson herself.

Ill Will | Dan Chaon | Review

30687788This novel involves two unsolved murders connected to Dustin Tillman, a psychologist, father of two sons, in his mid-forties, living in a suburb of Cleveland. The two murders are separated by a significant time gap, the first happening in the 80’s. Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle were killed and the blame fell on his adopted teenage brother Russell. Russell’s trial lacked any sort of physical evidence, as the jury simply took Dustin’s and Kate’s (Dustin’s cousin) word for it being related to Satanic cults. After a quick Google search I found that apparently there was a lot of hysteria during the 1980s over Satanic cults with many testimonies, physical, sexual abuse, and dangerous practices, and very prevalent in the United States, spreading to other countries by the early ‘90s. In present day, DNA testing proves that Rusty didn’t actually commit the crime and he has been released. We find this out in the first few pages as Dustin receives a phone call. The second crime involves one of Dustin’s patients connecting drunk college boy drownings sending Dustin on a “Clarice Starling” puzzle-solving quest. Suggestions of repressed memories, people’s perception of reality and truth, a lot of manipulation and the 80s Satanic rituals’ aftermath involving all the psychological side effects on individuals, groups, and society at large all play a part in this book that jumps back and forth in time between the 1980s and present day.  Dustin’s own family has to observe, speculate, and deal with the hardship second -hand. The perspective from which we are told this story changes as well, and we are presented with “evidence” as if we too were participating in the solving of the mystery by means of text messages, or information laid out in ‘brainstorming’ format appearing in columns on the page.

This book had its own innovations, mainly in the ways it experimented with delivering information to its readers. By allowing readers to be a part of the decoding, and trying to figure things out, as well as leaving the end slightly ambiguous and vague, it succeeds in maintaining an overall mystery looming over the plot even after the story ends. It was an easy read, despite it being the longest on the nominee list, (I sped through it in two days) I don’t think it’s intimidating, and if it sounds like something of interest to you, I strongly recommend you pick it up. My issues with this novel nominated in this category comes from its lack of “Shirley Jacksonness.” Aside from the Satanic cults, this novel read more like a crime thriller, or a horror-mystery. I think it’s an excellent candidate for a horror or murder mystery award, and I’m glad to see it on the Locus Horror Award nomination list. I think it stands an excellent change of winning that one, I am just not sure it’s ideal for this category in this particular award series. I wouldn’t generally pick up something like this, so in a way this novel put me out of my reading comfort zone, but at the same time I turn to the Jackson Awards for a particular kind of supernatural, dark fairy tale element. There’s a sense that this novel was written for the screen. Perhaps it would make an interesting mini-series or full feature, but something in the way it’s written suggests that it was written for the screen more-so than a literary crowd. I am wondering if anyone else has read this book, and if so, what are you thoughts on this book, and its subsequent award nominations?

The Bone Mother | David Demchuk

Boy Eating

The Bone Mother is the first novel I’m reading for the project I’m currently working on: reading the nominees for the Shirley Jackson Award. The Bone Mother has already hit a very good spot with me and I enjoyed it immensely. I think in many ways it’s like Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children for adults, and has a resemblance to Lore. As I mentioned before I’m from Romania, but I have been educated and raised in Canada. This book is written by Canadian author David Demchuk and it draws its inspiration from photographs made by Romanian photographer Costică Acsinte between 1935-1945, and Eastern European folklore, so in many ways it felt very familiar and close to home. This novel was also long-listed for the Scotiabank Giller Prize, which is very impressive as it is his debut novel.

This ‘novel’ isn’t quite a novel in the traditional sense. It is a series of stories, each prefaced by a black and white photograph from Acsinte’s collection, with a new name in the title. The names are both Romanian and Ukrainian/Russian. The tales focus on three villages on the border of Ukraine and Romania, neighbouring “The Thimble Factory.” Images of thimbles are present throughout the book, and we quickly learn that those who inhabit these villages must work five years at the thimble factory. There are narratives surrounding those working in the thimble factory which are more snippets of daily life, interspersed with fables and folkloric anecdotes featuring the supernatural like Strigoi (Romanian myth, troubled spirits of the dead rising from the grave, sometimes similar to vampire folklore) and Rusalkas (Russian myth, water spirit). At the center of it all is the fear of the Night Police who take people in the dead of night, and the  most frightening figure at the center of the forest, not belonging to any village: the Bone Mother—she cooks and eats people who fail the tasks she gives them.

There are some phenomenal features to this work. The first is its juxtaposition of ‘regular’ folk next to these ‘supernatural’ beings as co-existing in the same spaces, while narrating it in a simplified, casual tone. The Bone Mother is never trying to scare you, but presents some narratives side by side of a history that may or may not have been. The way Demchuk also incorporates queer narratives gives the reader the impression that he is trying to look at various angles on the story of marginalized groups contrasting historical superstitions with contemporary oppression. There is also the juxtaposition of post-industrialism influence: the thimble factory, existing as a machine in the garden of folklore. The Bone Mother reminded me very much of a branch of literary theory contrasting naturalism with technology in literature. A work that comes to mind is the academic book by Leo Marx called The Machine in the Garden which explores the ways North America started out with such promise on untouched land with possibility, yet entered it with full industrial, assembly-line force, and how this is reflected in literature when the pastoral ideal clashes with technological advance. The way Demchuk presents these ideas in fiction is subtle but ever-present. Overall The Bone Mother very well written and had an innovative take on Eastern European folklore.

My only “problem” with this novel is that it’s not a novel. I thought the stories would combine as one, or that we would be introduced to some characters and then it would merge in novel-form. It maintained its short anecdote format, separated by images, that it was a little frustrating at times not knowing if it will merge or not. The short story format worked for what it is, however I’m wondering how it will rank against the other four nominees, and if this format would hold it back. What helped me a lot with this was getting the audiobook from Audible and following along in the text because they had different voice actors for each character and it brought them to life as diverse voices, with heavy Eastern European accents. Considering this is also a debut work, I think we can look forward to more from Demchuk and the book has done quite well so far making it on the list of two literary prizes already. This was a strong start!