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Is our story still making sense? I toyed with the idea of giving you a sequential story, one with a definitive beginning and ending. Would it be fair to furnish such an account? Or is it more accurate to depict those events and recollections as they clumsily unfolded themselves in my memory, disorganised and random? Perhaps we can agree on a middle ground.

This story is told from the perspective of a grieving lover. The events described are related through a one-sided dialogue with the dead woman, whom we are told overdosed on insulin. Characters are rarely named, as the reader is eavesdropping on recollections of a relationship between two people who have known each other for years. Therefore ‘you’, and ‘I’, are the most common forms of address, with ‘father’, and ‘mother’, following close. Consequently when the narrator introduces Karalynne, or Helen, the names stand out,  feeling like intrusions into this very personal account of tragedy, a closed circuit of memory.

‘I’, describes how she first met ‘you’, when they were both children and how their close friendship slowly evolved into something more intimate over time. The ‘dead girl’, whose story this is came into the world the lone child of wealthy parents, enjoyed every luxury that money could afford and from an early age was evidently extremely intelligent. What really sets her apart from the person now telling her story, the woman who fell in love with her and never stopped despite the endless arguments, heartache and abuse, is the complete lack of affection in her life. It is made clear that the true downfall of this young woman began with the neglect she endured from an absent father, who valued his social prestige above any sincere relationship with his daughter.

As the narrator struggled to keep up academically with her friend, she finds herself left behind, her companion’s intellectual gifts and competitive drive catapulting here into college at an early age. This separation creates the initial sense of lack that will eventually bring the now adolescent girls together as a couple – but also inspire the unhealthy obsession that will dog them over the years. Enter Karalynne, the third party in this callous love triangle, initially referred to dismissively by the narrator as ‘the room-mate’.

It is at this point that we learn the storyteller’s lover has begun using heroin. Karalynn it is implied has introduced this into her life. What’s more her feelings of self-disgust, born out of an inability to please her father, have led her to begin cutting herself. The narrator is torn between wanting to provide support for her lover and trying to help her move on from this self-destructive behaviour. Tragically the woman relating this story explains how she could rarely say no to her friend, at times becoming complicit in her drug addiction. Submissively acquiescing to her childhood friend’s demands, the dynamic between them always rooted in the initial relationship of one being more knowing and demanding than the other, her enabling behaviour reaches its absolute low-point when she wakes to find her friend injecting her with heroin in her sleep: “Maybe I can try redeeming myself by saying I wanted to know what the appeal was and why the drug held you so strongly. I hated myself for allowing it and being so weak.”

Gwen O’Toole’s book is both an erotically charged doomed romance and an unflinching personal account of  a person becoming consumed by addiction. Where it comes to writing I have a simple rule – if I experience the emotion that the author sets out to evoke, then that is a successful piece of fiction. Slow Blind Drive is not an exploitive piece of ‘misery lit’, but a genuinely affecting tragedy. The device of having the spirit of the dead woman be addressed in a persistently conversational manner, with the discussion skipping and jumping through time, makes the experience of reading this book feel intensely intimate. Interestingly a poem by Christina Rossetti, titledGoblin Market figures largely in the book’s latter half. In my ignorance I only knew of the poet from Kiss Me Deadly, although there too Rossetti’s verse is used as a symbol for a doomed woman.

From day to day, as I dive into book after the other, I am often unprepared for what I read. This story left me feeling devastated, but then that is exactly what it should do. Honestly told and heart-breaking.

With thanks to the author for my review copy.


This suffocating indebtedness (along with the fear of terrorism) is the closets the UK population comes to having a collective identity. We hold our breath while a few oligarchs suck in the oxygen, even though we’re supposedly “all in it together” (“it’s up to all of us”).

Today’s author is described on the Zer0 Books website as having previously worked as a “cappuccino frother, data enterer, trainee teacher, cashier, mail sorter, jobseeker, factory drone, warehouse operative, writer, street sweeper, audio tester and care worker“. In my time jaunting around the world between different temp jobs I have ticked off at one time or another almost every single one of the same ‘career paths’, with the exception of trainee teacher and care worker. I think my parents between them held down five jobs in total. I have already had double that number of positions over the past fifteen years or so.

Of course in the 90’s this was described as the bright future of my generation, employees having won the opportunity to change their careers multiple times, upskill, diversify and so on. The idea of long service pensions, health care contributions and emergency leave already seems like a mirage.

Southwood’s discussion as regards the relationship between employees and ‘their’, jobs advances through a series of stages, opening with a critical assessment of worker rights in society – where the notion of a trade, or a job with any sense of ownership has been deconstructed in favour of continual movement between jobs, or the imminent loss of work, a state defined here as ‘precarity‘ – before engaging the reader with the personal perspective of the author as regards living on a meagre wage, having to pay off large amounts of debt and the dissolution of unemployment assistance from the state. As such Non-Stop Inertia is no theoretical academic treatise that remains at a remove from the material. Southwood presents himself as a case-study of how this modern form of personal insecurity is all-pervasive and psychologically detrimental.

At one point Southwood bemusedly comments that writing this book may affect his future job prospects, but then of course there is little likelihood that the jargon-spouting temp agency recruiters he has to meet with will have read it.

The current digital age has produced what is wittily described here as ‘cultural stagflation‘ – continuous stimulation, with no genuine possibility of action. Twenty-first century popular media is designed to titillate and excite, but not engage or challenge. Similarly the workplace is a site of constant activity, but little chance of any sense of achievement. Instead workers are encouraged to compete for positions that will soon be outsourced – “Predictable income, savings, the fixed category of “occupation”: all belong to another historical world.” In an insidious inversion of existentialist psychology employees are told that they must choose their futures, even as their options become increasingly limited – the individual has become a function of profit.

Southwood’s experience as a temp overlap with his having to apply for jobseeker’s allowance. He describes how the Tory government of the early 1990’s redefined the job exchange as a despiriting, compulsory process of constant assessment, one which in turn become increasingly precarious. The era of New Labour continued to carry the ball, increasingly limiting the concept of British social welfare. In the media crime and sundry social malaises are blamed on families who remain on the dole – with the attendant counter-point that working families can barely make ends meet rarely addressed.

Another strand of discussion is how trade unionism and worker’s rights generally are being undercut. The concept of the ‘Virtual Assistant‘, is introduced, in effect an out-of-office P.A. who must compete for assignments from his/her ‘clients’, but has little to no rights. If the V.A. is unable to work, whether it be due to maternity leave, or illness, a competitor simply takes their place. Once again, to be able to work from home is sold as the greatest form of freedom, whereas Southwood observes it as being completely unsupported and unguaranteed employment. The Virtual Assistant is the epitome of temping culture, which threatens to erode the capacity of trade unions to represent their members. After all, if employees can be replaced by short-term workers, the unions have not only lost members, they are unable establish representation.

Rounding off this incisive and intelligently paced critique, Southwood addresses various methods of resisting the debilitating effects of job insecurity. This jack of all trades can now add ‘author’, to his C.V.

With thanks to Zer0 Books for my review copy.

 

I am D-503. I am the Builder of the Integral. I am only one of the mathematicians of the One State. My pen, more accustomed to mathematical figures, is not up to the task of creating the music of unison and rhyme. I will just attempt to record what I see, what I think – or, more exactly, what we think.

I have a curious relationship with the work of George Orwell. I love his essays, his war-time journalism. I have even reviewed some of his fiction here on the blog. When I was in my teens however, Orwell’s writing, particularly 1984 but also in this respect Animal Farm, seemed to me to be something of a sacred cow. He had achieved the apex of dystopian fiction, the very pinacle of any allegorical take on communism and much like with  the sweeping claims of Fukuyama’s The End of History – this was a subject that was no longer relevant. Socialist theory was anachronistic and its era already long-gone before I had read a word of Marx.

So naturally I signed up to be a fan of Aldous Huxley instead, whose Brave New World I announced to (bored) friends was the far better book, more prophetic, more cleverly insidious in its soft dystopia. Of course I was wasting my time. Before Huxley, before Orwell, there was Yevgeny Zamyatin.

D-503 is a cipher, a member of One State, the perfect human civilization. As a mathematician he sees perfection everywhere, the angles of buildings and the shapes formed by a human mouth more real to him than any person, or archaic emotional response. D has begun a log of his day-to-day activities, as a demonstration of how One State has accomplished its utopia. He is a function of that mathematically precise machinery of society (at one point he recalls how as a child he was driven to despair by the idea of the negative square root of one – irrational numbers are something he finds terrifying.).

Daily life is strictly regimented, in order to ensure that each cipher contributes as much as possible. Work time, sex time, even ‘Personal Time’, is alotted to each member of One State according to a schedule. D has been allocated a romantic partner named O-90, whom he shares with his friend the poet R-13. This state sanctioned love triangle lumbers along pleasantly, with the only privacy afforded to either couple them by sex time, which allows the right to pull a curtain – all homes and structures in One State are transparent.

D’s life changes when he meets I-330. Temptatious, where O is demure, with no interest in sex for procreative purposes, or indeed any other responsibility ordered by One State, she slowly introduces D to concepts from ancient times long made taboo. As he becomes increasingly obsessed with her, his mathematical certainty crumbles and he begins to think about what he wants, what is good for him, instead of the state.

One thing that struck me while I was reading was that each of D-503’s log entires opens with a selection of ‘keywords’. So not only can we credit Zamyatin for inspiring the likes of Orwell – did he invent Livejournal as well?! There is much that feels surprisingly anticipatory here. The prose is spare, elliptical, oddly similar to the disjunctive abbreviated manner of online discussions today. This edition’s translator Natasha Randall quotes the author as having said ‘Old, Slow, creaking descriptions are a thing of the past; today the rule is brevity – but every word must be supercharged, high-voltage.’

I also like how ahistorical the setting for the novel is. It occurs in some unknowable future, with the spirit of humanity long since crushed. There is a haunting passage where D wanders deserted, glass streets, with all the other ciphers having congregated by the command of the state. Zamyatin theorises the eventual elimination of the organ of imagination itself, with the human ideal of becoming like unto a machine the most desirable outcome.

Bitter, acerbic and oddly witty, a classic dystopian work.

“Do you like it?”

“Pays for my beer and cable. Usually.”

His attitude annoyed her. She was stuck in a world of drudgery and more drudgery with a little slogging and grinding thrown in on occasion. Maybe the world he lived in was much the same, but at least it had dragons in it.

Yesterday my good mate Brian travelled up to Belfast to represent me at the 2011 Irish Blog Awards. I was thrilled to learn I was a finalist in two categories ‘Best Arts and Culture Blog’ and ‘Best Newcomer’. On the night unfortunately I was not successful, but it was an honour to rank among all of the other nominees, so a big thank you to the judges who voted for me in the run-up to the finals and an even bigger thanks to Brian, who did me such a big favour trekking up there on my behalf. Cheers mate.

At any rate, I needed a bit of a pick-me-up this afternoon. Enter A. Lee Martinez stage left.

Judy is stuck in a dead end job at the a local supermarket, with no career prospects, education, or any future plans at all. Then one night during the night shift she finds a yeti eating all the ice-cream in the store cooler. Surprisingly she does not run out of the Food Plus Mart screaming. In fact she even notices the snowman is not partial to vanilla. Not being able to think of anything else, Judy rings pest control. Her second surprise of the night comes when the phone operator does not hang up thinking it’s a prank call. Instead a blue-skinned man with a magic baseball bat and a talking origami shapeshifting gnome arrive and dispatch, humanely, the yetis in the supermarket.

Afterwards, Judy completely forgets everything that happened.

However, the universe won’t let her forget. More strange paranormal events occur, that bring her together with the ‘cryptobiological rescue agent’, who goes by the name Monster. Neither of them are thrilled by their encounters, although Judy at least can slip into blissful forgetfulness after an hour or so. As an ‘incognisant’, she is just another ordinary member of the public who is unaware of the various monsters, chimerae and ‘paranormal immigrants’ that share this plane of reality with humans. Monster and his gnome partner, Chester,  permanently alter Judy’s perception when the increasingly violent encounters with trolls in her apartment, goat-men and walrus-dogs point to her being the locus of powerful forces.

I have never read anything by Martinez before, but this is something I will soon remedy – this is very funny stuff, similar to Tom Holt with an equally comic tone throughout. Monster’s domestic arrangement with girlfriend Liz is a source of a lot of comedy. She cooks dinner, keeps their home clean and enjoys having regular sex. In the cons column, she smells of brimstone, may at any given time decide to eat Monster’s soul and she’s a succubus who insists on having regular sex. Chester, a being from a higher dimension, has a habit of condescending to his gruff partner, referring to him as a fickle piece of protoplasm, but also acts as his conscience. Their bickering relationship is quite humourous and helps to broaden Monster’s character, so he doesn’t seem like such a jerk. I fell in love with Chester when he mocked Judy for insisting that she is not a ‘muggle‘.

Martinez’s ‘everything and the kitchen sink’, approach to mythology surprisingly does not overwhelm the plot. Partly this is due to Monster’s worldweary attitude to his job. Even in the face of the end of the universe, he still sees it as more hassle than its worth for him to have to deal with it. The other reason is due to the themes of the novel. Martinez introduces the notion that simply living from day to day – as Judy does with her dead-end job and Monster with his unrewarding, if very physical, relationship to Liz – is not enough, that a person should concentrate on what makes them happy.

If you don’t a goat-man will land in your bath-tub and eat all your Cheeze Whiz.

A funny novel with plenty of surprises, great fun.

“Everybody has a part to play,” her mother said. “Bart Seston raises cattle, the butcher slaughters them so we can have food. A midwife brings people into the world, an undertaker buries them when they die. Life is good sometimes, hard sometimes, bad sometimes, and good again.”

“I don’t always understand your part,” Fiona said.

“I am the voice that says ‘I know’ when someone tells me “This is too hard for me to hold on to by myself.” I am the soul who reminds other souls that they are not alone. I cannot bring them solutions, I cannot make their troubles disappear, I can only say that I hear them and I understand. Sometimes that’s enough.”

“Sometimes it’s not,” Fiona said.

Ten years ago I discovered historian Frances Yates through her fascinating account of the life of Giordano Bruno. What interested me the most was her defining the magical systems of Bruno, which he proposed should become a function of the Catholic Church, as a form of early psychology. In effect mysticism was treated of as a means of explaining the secrets of the unconscious mind – centuries before Freud proposed the notion of such a mental facility. I would ally Bruno to more contemporary theorists, such as Julian Jaynes‘ notion of the bicameral mind‘s evolution causing changes in how humans came to perceive reality.

I enjoy fantasy fiction that is not afraid to endorse ‘mythic consciousness’, as a legitimate way of approaching a story. The likes of Yates and Jaynes are rare in that they are academics happy to not condescend to pagan belief systems and mysticism. Of course for writers of the fantasy genre this is their bread and butter – but they also need to beware of that modern chauvenism towards early attempts to explain the world.

The Safe-Keeper’s Secret opens in the traditional manner of a fairy tale. A midnight dash on horseback to an isolated village. An infant child stolen away from the court of a cruel king, hidden in a safe home. What follows feels  traditional and surprisingly unique.

Fiona and Reed are raised as siblings by Damiana, the safe-keeper of the village of Tambleham. Only she and her sister Angeline are aware of the true identity of the child delivered to them by the rider from the capital Wodenderry, on the same night Damiana gave birth to her own child. As both women as safe-keepers the secret is safe with them, for that is their purpose, to carry the secrets of people that cannot be bourne alone. Of course some secrets are too difficult to hide. Reed is widely believed by the villagers in Tambleham to be the illegitimate heir to the throne, a claim that Damiana neither confirms or denies.

Fiona believes that she will follow in her mother’s footsteps and become a safe-keeper herself. However, Thomas a truth-teller predicts that she her life will take her in a different direction. As safe-keepers cannot divulge a secret given  in confidence, truth-teller’s are incapable lying. Furious Fiona remains determined to prove Thomas wrong, but some secrets once revealed have a habit of changing everything.

What I enjoyed most about this book is how subtle the use of magic by author Sharon Shinn is. Safe-keepers and truth-tellers live according to certain mystical precepts and yet their roles in the community are akin to a confessor, or therapist. Shinn also introduces the idea of a dream-maker, a person who endures great suffering so that others can get their greatest wish, similar to the biblical notion of the scapegoat.

The domestic setting of the story I found remiscent of my favourite fantasy novel, Lud-in-the-Mist. I enjoy these kinds of novels, because fantasy I believe is simply an approach to story that embraces unreality. The overabundance of sword and sorcery tropes in fantasy fiction is quite limiting. One issue I have with this book is that the critical notices featured on the blurb mention Robin McKinley twice, an author I am not familiar with. Of course I am speaking to my own ignorance here, but I do think this book could have a wider appeal. While the story opens much like a fairy tale, the plot takes in the uglier side of country living, the miseries safe-keepers have to carry alone such as child abuse, or forced incest. Maybe Shinn does not need the controversy attracted by Tender Morsels, but this is a book with a lot to offer.

Gently told with rich storytelling.

‘What does Your Majesty like?’

The Queen hesitated, because to tell the truth she wasn’t sure. She’d never taken much interest in reading. She read, of course, as one did, but liking books was something she left to other people. It was a hobby and it was in the nature of her job that she didn’t have hobbies. Jogging, growing roses, chess or rock-climbing, cake decoration, model aeroplanes. No. Hobbies involved preferences and preferences had to be avoided; preferences excluded people. One had no preferences. Her job was to take an interest, not to be interested herself. And besides, reading wasn’t doing. She was a doer.

The first time I visited London, a friend took me on a guided tour of sorts, taking in all the sights with a particular emphasis on Buckingham Palace. We stood outside the gates with the throng of tourists and my friend drew my attention to the flag on top of the building. “That means the Queen is in residence”, she said. At the time I expressed a great reluctance even to stand outside Buckingham Palace. I am a lapsed Irish nationalist, but every now and then I feel a flush of wounded racial pride. When I found myself looking up at that flag and all the pomp and ceremony of the guard patrols, the ornateness of the palace itself, I felt a surprising degree of sympathy for the royals. It all seemed so insular and removed from the life of modern London.

Over the course of my own lifetime their status as national symbols has become ever more precarious. How much worse must the decay of that esteem for the institution seem to the Queen herself, remembering how important her family’s refusal to leave London was regarded during the Blitz?

This perception of the increasing irrelevance of the role of the British Monarch is treated of in Alan Bennett‘s comic novel. The push and pull between the public and private lives of the Queen herself becomes rich material for a surprisingly thoughtful examination of the potential future importance of the Royal Family in British affairs.

It is also a book about how the love of reading can change one’s life.

Her Royal Highness has come to discover an interest in reading late in life. A fortuitous meeting with a member of her kitchen staff at a mobile library introduces her to a new kind of activity – reading for pleasure. The Queen’s life is dominated by her sense of duty, one which has isolated her from her own privileged existence. She has been to so many places, met so many great minds and leaders – and yet conversation has been limited to polite chit-chat, her experiences stage-managed for public consumption.

Norman the former kitchen staff becomes her ‘amanuensis’, a guide to a wider world of letters. Amusingly she chooses the works of Nancy Mitford as her introduction to literature – after all, she knew the family – and from there often finds herself reading the words of authors she has met, even knighted, but sadly had nothing to say to. Norman encourages her interests and quickly comes to be seen as a nuisance by the staff at the palace, especially Sir Kevin who has taken on the role of making HRH more appealing to the general public. The Queen’s new interest has inspired her to inquire more into the lives of the people she meets, a topic of conversation they are often unprepared for. Even the Prime Minister of France finds himself nonplussed when she asks his opinion on Jean Genet. Obviously the books – and Norman – will have to go.

Fans of the recent Oscar smash The King’s Speech will find much to enjoy here, although Bennett has bigger fish to fry. As I have mentioned above, one of the fascinating threads in this novel is how the Queen’s new found interest causes her to question much of the tired and moribund traditions controlling her life. The cynicism of government ministers towards this newly invigorated Queen drives the plot to a fascinating climax. With some unexpected help from Marcel Proust.

Of course, Bennett’s optimism of how this scenario of a suddenly engaged Monarch would play out must contend with the actual behaviour of the current heir to the throne, who thinks nothing of using his position to interfere with government policies on issues that interest him.

Witty, humane and even somewhat radical in a genteel sort of way, which is only fitting.

On top of this blog and my magazine internship, I have taken on yet another writing gig. Tastes Like Comics is a recently launched comic website that is looking to offer more than just reviews of the latest releases, with a number of columns from different writers featuring interviews, essays and even parodies.

I am having great fun and I invite you to check out what the folks over on TLC have got up to since launch.

You Are Here opens in the countryside idyll of Phoenicia in upstate New York, looking for all the world like a classic Disney enchanted forest. A cute raccoon even appears, seemingly on the point of breaking into a musical number with a beautiful princess. Instead he enters a cottage in the middle of the woodland, revealing an interior filled with pastel-coloured paintings of flowers. The artist in question is one very grumpy New Yorker, Noel Coleman. For the past year Noel has been living a life of bliss with the beautiful and unflappably charming Helen, a woman who does share all the qualities of a Disney princess. She even talks to the animals. Noel’s problem is he has been lying to her the entire time.

He is not an artist with an abiding interest in florals, but a former jewel thief with an extremely sordid past. Hoping to leave all that behind him, Noel travels back to Manhattan to sell his apartment. When he encounters some former friends, the general assumption is that he has been in prison for the past year. He quickly slips back into some bad habits – smoking, heavy drinking, eyeing the girls – but then an old enemy gets out of prison with murder on his mind, the police are on his trail and Helen then arrives, expecting to introduced to the many high-brow academics and artists Noel invented as part of his tapestry of lies, as opposed to the drunks and strippers he is actually friends with. Murder, mayhem and high speed pursuit on horseback through Central Park soon follow.

This is a classic book, a genuinely hysterical comic teaming with fantastic art courtesy of Kyle Baker. I first encountered Baker through his miniseries for Marvel Comics, Truth: Red, White & Black. The series had the ingenious idea of marrying the origins of Captain America, that symbol of national patriotism who was created by a secret military experiment, to the real-life history of the Tuskegee experiments. The story reveals how before Captain America was created, the military first experimented on African American test subjects. Baker’s satire was razor sharp, his art perversely cartoonish and despite the widespread online condemnation of the series, I absolutely loved it.

You Are Here is similarly perverse. Noel yearns to be a ‘happy person’, like Helen, hence her Disney-esque life in the forest. Pollyana-esque, he is horrified when she turns her sunbeam charm on drug-dealers, muggers and worst of all – rush-hour traffic drivers. Manhattan is almost a different kind of reality, a fallen world that slowly reclaims Noel, pulling him to its sordid bosom.

The art throughout is very amusing, especially Baker’s decision to visually model killer Vaughan on Robert Mitchum, released from prison with a best-selling novel titled ‘Yes I Did It And I’ll Kill Again’. The script is rendered alongside the panels like a film storyboard, used to great effect when Helen is accosted by a number of different ethnic New Yorkers, with the competing voices overlaid on top of each other to  illustrate the linguistic confusion.

This is a great hybrid of romance and crime thriller, gut-bustingly funny with fantastic art.

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