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“Darling”, she said, “I know you won’t believe it, and it’s rather frightening in a way, but after they left the restaurant in Torcello the sisters went to the cathedral, as we did, although we didn’t see them in that crowd, and the blind one had another vision. She said Christine was trying to tell her something about us, that we should be in danger if we stayed in Venice. Christine wanted us to go away as soon as possible.”

Don’t Look Now by Nicholas Roeg is one of my favourite films. Easily in the top ten. Along with Visconti’s Death in Venice it has successful convinced me never to visit that European tourist mecca.

This collection of short stories by Du Maurier comes with an excellent introduction by novelist and editor Patrick McGrath. He describes how Du Maurier had an impressive number of cinema adaptations of her work, with Alfred Hitchcock returning to the font a number of times. However, his version of The Birds, which is also featured here, not only transposed the setting to America, but lessened the apocalyptic feel of the story itself. McGrath reports that the author was most pleased with Roeg’s attempt, a fugue of visual associations that matches the supernatural paranoia of the novella.

The title story’s grieving couple try to escape the trauma of their daughter’s death by travelling on holiday to Venice. John and Laura play games over meals at their hotel, such as making up stories about the fellow guests. John delights in returning his wife’s smile to her face, erasing the worried frown that has haunted her since their child Christine died of meningitis.

Then one evening John notices two women staring at him from across the restaurant. He tries to include them in his comical banter with Laura, but feels uneasy. Despite comparing them to doddery old Australian spinsters, or more outrageously drag artists, the intensity of their stare disturbs him. Laura leaves to go to the bathroom and returns, suddenly elated. One of the women, Scottish sisters from Edinburgh, approached her with a message. Their daughter Christine is with them, standing in between them laughing.

John angrily dismisses any suggestion that these women have any kind of psychic gift and ignores their warning that the couple must leave Venice. They also insist that John himself has the gift of second sight.

The stage is set for a perculiarly unsettling supernatural tale of marital dischord and paranoia, with John’s growing anger at the sisters clouding his judgement. Du Maurier captures the two voices of Laura and John perfectly, as well as the sleeping hysteria that follows the death of a child, always moments away from being unleashed. The dark alleys of Venice are cloaked in menacing shadows, with the guileless blundering of tourists through the winding passageways leading them onward into danger.

The Birds also focuses on an English family caught up in a distressing situation, although Du Maurier describes a far more apocalyptic, post-WWII scenario. Nat tries to protect his wife and two children from an inexplicable rise in attacks from a host of birds on their small country farm. It quickly becomes apparent that the whole country is suffering similar attacks and unprepared for the savagery of the innumberable attackers, the authorities are quickly rendered powerless. Nat’s attempts to keep his family’s spirits up even as their supplies decrease and the emergency broadcasts on the radio are silenced makes for the emotional backbone of this story.

The imagery employed is brutal and bloody. Nat fights back against attacking birds in the upstairs bedroom by wielding a blanket like a club. Soon the flower is covered with the corpses of a multitude of birds. In attempting to repair the cottage’s defences he begins to stuff the bodies of dead birds into the cracks in the glass windows and damaged planks of wood (a macabre touch I thought would have suited the film quite nicely).

McGrath includes several other shorts by Du Maurier, including the ghostly fable Escort and a tale of tragic infidelity in a small Breton coastal village La Sainte-Vierge, where once again, as in Don’t Look Now,  a mystical vision is mistaken to mean something quite different.

These stories are perfectly poised, delicate and unwavering in their quiet sense of doom. An excellent collection from an unassuming master of supernatural horror.

I would also like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a Merry Christmas. I hope Santa brought you plenty of good books!

Just as he was about to shut the window, he caught sight of a group of people charging up the street. Three women leading five or six men. They were half-naked and running like maniacs, but the main thing was, they were blue. Really blue blue, like zombies in a cheesy horror movie. It was sick. Their mouths were wide open, and their eyes were black and bugging out of their heads.

Ok lets just stop for a moment. Have you seen the name of the author in this post’s title? Walter Greatshell? What an awesome name! I picked up the book just so I could claim to have read something by a writer with that name.

Now the title itself was a cause for concern. Yes the marauding undead creatures in this book are referred to as ‘Xombies’, but then I did enjoy Charlie Huston‘s vampire series, with its own attendant neologism – vampyres. Then there’s ‘Apocalypticon’ – it sounds like a bargain bin video game. But I put these concerns aside for you, dear blog reader, for I felt the need to bring you word of Walter Greatshell.

Of course I quickly realized this is actually the second in a series of novels. The background to the plot is quickly established in the opening chapters. An engineered virus named Agent X has swept the world (hence ‘X’ombies) and human civilization is in ruins. Sal DeLuca is one of a dwindling number of civilian refugees aboard a submarine approaching the East Coast of the United States. His father died trying to make sure his son was given safe passage on board, but now the teenager has new problems. With the vessel’s commander isolated by a mutinous crew, the ‘non-essential’, passengers, mostly adolescent boys like Sal, are rounded up and sent ashore to forage for food. If they survive they will have proved themselves useful.

There are no women on board the submarine, apart from the sinister scientist Alice Langhorne. She was involved with the experimentations that led to the creation of Agent X. She worked with its creator, Uri Miska, even helped cover up the initial outbreak of the contagion, which was originally intended as an elixir dispensed by the Mogul Cooperative to those that could afford it. Eternal life and rule over the entire world. It all went wrong though and an experimental version of the serum got loose, targeting women and transforming them through a process of asphyxiation into undead Xombies. Alice Langhorne has another ace up her sleeve though, the sole remaining leverage left to her. An intelligent Xombie, the blue-skinned girl known as Lulu, who can command and pacify the marauding hordes on land. Through her Alice might even find a cure for the contagion, that is if she is truly interested in saving what remains of the human race.

This book is quite unusual. I really had a hard time making my mind up about it at first. It begins with a flashback to the beginnings of the outbreak, a useful introduction for those who had not read Xombies: Apocalypse Blues. Greatshell describes an odd scene of prison convicts playing poker in the middle of a rodeo, for the entertainment of locals. Then all hell breaks loose as blue-skinned teenage girls begin assaulting and choking the people in the audience. What am I reading, I thought to myself? Is this some kind of misogynist tract?

Perhaps on the surface it seems that way, but Greatshell has broader ambitions. There are references to Greek myth throughout – female Xombies are referred to as Harpies, or Maenads at times – and the terrified men on board the submarine quickly turn mutinous, attacking one another instead of focusing on survival. There’s a scene with Langhorne and a senior military officer were he notes she is taller than him, older than him and possesses more natural authority than him. I am not sure whether the novel’s themes are a reaction against sexism, or appealing to an outright fear of women. Either way it’s an interesting counterpoint to the macho canon of militaristic sf/horror.

Yes the prose is quite purplish at times and the quotations from a supposed official account of the Xombie epidemic that open the early chapters lack that clarity of language that made Max BrooksWorld War Z so convincing. Still I can’t help but admire the book for doing something interesting with zombie tropes.

A most curious horror novel.

But, in a sense, they all already had a fever just as murderous and treacherous: emigration fever. It was burning them up and driving them on.

Ok folks, here is a quick update on the status of your friendly neighbourhood blogger. This afternoon Stephanie and I moved into our new home – for four weeks that is. We’re house-sitting for a lovely couple and keeping two very affectionate cats company.

The most exciting news (for me) is this house has an incredible collection of books! I am very happy. So I will expect I will be sourcing many of my reviews from the books here for the next few weeks.

Moving along, this book is yet another addition to the American dystopia canon. This time the culprit for the devastation of the world is a highly contagious disease. The title is derived from the practice to isolate infected members of communities in a lonely house outside the inhabited area.

Franklin Lopez, left to his own devices by his hardier brother Jackson, finds just such a structure and takes shelter during a violent storm. Together the two brothers, like many others become emigrants in the wake of the disaster in America, are travelling eastward to a mythical port that will lead to safer climes. Jackson is tempted to leave his younger brother behind though. Already their family was broken up when the two boys left their mother behind at their home when they struck out. One more separation would not cost him much.

Franklin is ignorant of his brother’s desire to abandon him. He has discovered within the pesthouse a young, beautiful woman, whose shaved head and deliriousness testifies to her infection with the flux. At first compelled to flee from the obvious signs of infection, Franklin finds himself returning to the young woman Margaret, his attraction to her outweighing the danger she poses. She tells him she comes from the settlement of Ferrytown, where he had his brother had been travelling to, as many others had before them, to cross the treacherous river to the next stretch of road leading to the coast. The inhabitants of the town charge those travelling eastwards almost everything they own for the right to cross. When the flux passes thanks to Franklin’s ministrations, the two travel down to the settlement, only to discover every soul dead.

Everyone they know is gone. Franklin and Margaret decide to make the rest of the trek to the East alone, braving the highways haunted by people rustlers and the prospect of further outbreaks of disease.

The comparison will be made, so obviously I have to get it out of the way first. This is not The Road. For one Jim Crace’s writing is far more lyrical than McCarthy’s spare prose. Furthermore there is a far greater leeway for hope, with Franklin and Margaret’s growing love granting them a brighter future than an aging father and his young son.

Surprisingly Crace is not writing about the apocalypse. He is inverting the format of American manifest destiny, with the huddled masses that have survived the plague travelling east instead of west, seeking safety overseas as America itself and all it represents has been lost to them. His conclusion, given the misery of this book’s setting, is an optimistic one, reflecting Franklin’s youthful enthusiasm for life.

Poetically written, without shying for the darkness at this novel’s heart, this is a wonderful book. A dystopia that does not give up on the future.

 

In the System – at least the parts of it that I lived in – all that mattered, all you really had, was your reputation. Two men went into a box, and one got killed and one climbed out, it doesn’t matter if you were bloodied and beaten. It doesn’t matter if you begged and bribed, wept and cursed inside that box – all that matters is that you lived and he died. That’s all anyone ever remembered.

I like swearing. There’s nothing like an inventive outburst of expletives. I pepper my everyday conversations with ‘colourful language’, usually without even thinking about it. Curse-words are wonderful fun and were generally the only reasons for my fellow pupils in primary school cracking open a dictionary.

“What’s a bastard miss?”

If you enjoy an amusing line in abusive language I would recommend Armando Iannucci’s The Thick of It, which features a character named Malcolm Tucker, the most foul-mouthed, gloriously filthy ‘swearer’, in fiction.

Unfortunately some writers simply cannot capture that level of dizzying scatology.

Avery Cates is known as the ‘king’, of New York. A professional killer, who survived an assault on the legendary ‘Electric Church’, in London, he cannot be touched by the city’s cops as for some reason his name has been included on a protection list.  He cannot be harmed by any law officer in New York, despite a well-known reputation as a cop-killer.

Nevertheless, Cates is a marked man. Kidnapped and blindfolded, he is taunted with information about his past that only someone who knows him could be aware of. Then his unseen assailants insert something into his throat and he is abandoned on the street. Consumed by rage, Cates sets out to discover who attacked him, but he has bigger problems to deal with.

One by one everyone he meets falls sick from a debilitating disease, suffering a gruesome death within two days. Cates, it is revealed, has been injected with a virus designed to emanate from him, killing everyone in New York, but leaving him unharmed. That list of deaths he is responsible for keeps growing and growing. Cates sets off on a race against time to discover who is responsible, before he can wipe out the whole of humanity.

Ok, everyone in this book curses. Every line of dialogue slumps on the page, stuffed with expletives. It is not even funny, just tiresome posturing and insults. It irritated the hell out of me, almost as much as Somers’ references to the first book featuring his callous killer, The Electric Church. Unfortunately I had not realized this was a sequel before I took it out from the library. There was this Church you see, and it was electric. Lots of people were killed in this Church, the electric one you see, but Cates survived. Over and over again we hear about the events of this previous book. I feel like this novel needed a ‘Previously On…’ opening chapter, much like in a prime time thriller.

In an unusual move many of the surviving cast of The Electric Church die, signifying that Somers at least is not interested in writing a formulaic franchise revolving around Mr Avery Cates. Yet the multitude of deaths soon renders the tragedy of this plague excessively logistical. We no longer feel any sense of despair in Cates’ friends being picked off, because death itself becomes repetitive. Much like the cursing! The descriptions of people coughing up bloody phlegm lose their shock value quickly. Honestly Jeff Noon’s Pollen dealt with the idea of a surreal disease in a far-future setting much better.

Poor fare and pretty ho-hum as a work of science fiction.

How vulgar, this hankering after immortality, how vain, how false. Composers are merely scribblers of cave paintings. One writes music because winter is eternal and because if one didn’t, the wolves and blizzards would be at one’s throat all the sooner.

&

I watched clouds awobbly from the floor o’that kayak. Souls cross ages like clouds cross skies, an’ tho’ a cloud’s shape nor hue nor size don’t stay the same it’s still a cloud an’ so is a soul. Who can say where the cloud’s blowed from or who the soul’ll be ‘morrow?

Ladies and gents, after a hundred and eight reviews I think I may have stumbled upon my favourite book for this year. Ambitious, yet without pretension, with a vast storyline stretching across centuries, though revolving around a single theme, Cloud Atlas is something special.

Usually at this point I discuss the plot of the books I review. The problem here is that this book concerns several plots. In fact it concerns several texts, scattered throughout history and each story is discovered by the protagonist of the following tale. It begins with the diary of an American notary sailing across the Pacific during the colonisation of the Antipodes, then skips forward in time to an English composer fleeing to a villa near Bruges, appointing himself as a musical amanuensis to avoid his debts shortly before the Second World War. A tale of industrial espionage in the disenchanted seventies  is followed by a Keseyian yarn involving skulduggery in the publishing industry.  Finally a future utopia founded upon a horrific secret gives way to an even more distant future where language itself has become dissipated by time.

Essentially this is everything Darren Aronofsky’s The Fountain wanted to be, but just could not quite capture. In fact I heard a rumour the Wachowski brothers plan to film this next. I can see how it might work and if they pull it off, we could be looking at a cinematic treat to rival this marvellous book.

Above all this is a story that hints at greater narratives and meanings, but does not trouble itself with having to explain all of them. The central protagonists in each section may be reincarnations of one another, as suggested by the repeated motif of a tell-tale birth-mark (as well as the repetition of the phrase ‘cloud atlas’). However, they may also be fictional characters in books, films and anti-government propaganda, which capture the interest of their future selves, only for us to discover that they too are not ‘real’.

The tone of these stories within stories switches from the macabre, to rich comedy. The heroine of the section within the seventies, Luisa Rey, is a journalist who would not be out of place in a novel by Stieg Larsson. The following chapter titled The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish, feels like a rewrite of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by Will Self. An Orison of Sonmi-451, concerning a clone-slave, referred to by the dominant human caste as a fabricant, and her journey of self-discovery, name-checks Huxley and Orwell, just so we know for sure that we are in the realm of allegorical dystopia. Even the Yankee notary remarks in his diary how his voyage compares to Melville’s writing.

While this is a book rich in intertextual references, it is in no way obscure, or pretentious. The far-future sections described in broken English are tough, but if you can weather Beat-poetry you should be fine. As this is a book principally concerned with storytelling, Mitchell is considerate to his audience and has fashioned above all an enriching and entertaining collection of tales, telescoping through history and then returning to its starting point. Each of the sections during the first half of the novel end abruptly and we share the succeeding character’s frustrating in not knowing what happens next. The composer Robert Frobisher’s reaction to only having half of the notary Adam Ewing’s diary is especially amusing.

On the rebound, returning back from the future, each of the stories is brought to a fitting conclusion. This assurance that everything will be explained makes the book more similar to serialised fiction and its reliance on cliff-hangers. Thankfully, David Mitchell does not punish us with any loose story threads signifying a sequel.

I have gushed enough. Rarely have I had this much fun with a contemporary author’s writing. I can think of no higher praise really.

I did not feel bad about what I had done. The priest had been a man who had probably tortured many people to death in the name of a god whose doctrines were supposed to be of peace and love, and respect for life. I went out onto the rock, picked up his rifle, and turned away. I felt nothing at all.

Neal Asher’s name is one that I have heard before, but I cannot pin down anything specific I may know about him. He is clearly a science fiction writer, one with ambitions that go beyond cyber-fetishism or mediocre aping of the New Weird set such as China Mieville. In fact just today on the train home from Sydney, a fellow was sitting beside me reading another of Asher’s books, Gridlinked. It appears I have been remiss in my sf studies.

In the far future humanity has fled Europe in the wake of new ice age. The arctic shelf drove their migration to the great continent of Africa. Earth itself has been left behind by the human race, having discovered space travel and setting about colonising other worlds. Those roaming the wild landscape of Africa are the unfortunate few abandoned by their fellow man. Worse again, the decision was made to cull the human race, to ensure its population growth would not overwhelm the sole remaining continent fit to support life. Vicious creatures from selected periods in Earth’s history were introduced into the wild. Woolly mammoths roam the prairie and even genetically modified humans have been created, such as the Great African Vampire. The individual responsible for this is a mythical figure, more machine than man known as The Collector.

The Collector wears human flesh, but beneath the surface ‘he’, has only a brain to remind him of what he once was. Over thousands of years old, he has guided and controlled the destiny of the surviving tribes of humans left on Earth, cataloguing the new species of creatures that have evolved thanks to his meddling. He feels little but contempt for humans themselves and only intervenes if the possibility of extinction rears its head. However, despite his self-appointed position as judge and executioner of the human race, there is another like him roaming the wild. A creature referred to only as the Silver One. It has begun hunting mammoth to draw him into a trap that may end his centuries-long existence on this decimated Earth. Despite knowing this, the Collector heads off in pursuit of the Silver One, perhaps even curious at meeting the possibility of his own non-existence.

The chase between the Collector and the Silver One at one point began to tickle a memory at the back of my brain. It took me a few chapters to realize Asher is attempting what appears to be an exploration of Mary Shelley’s themes from Frankenstein. Here we have a man-made machine seeing fit to judge humanity’s right to survive, a being of pure intellect who has escaped the mortal bounds of flesh. There’s some Terminator thrown in there as well for modern sf fans. Asher also includes a degraded version of Christian fundamentalism, the depraved worship of the so-called Drowned God. The Wachowski Brothers wrote a comic some years ago that pitted Frankenstein’s Monster against a similarly tyrannical version of the Church, titled Doc Frankenstein.

So there is some fun to be had here, picking up on references to Shelley’s work, as well as some musing on Asher’s part as to the consequences of interfering with the human genome. However, the themes of religious fundamentalism versus scientific inquiry hit the reader like a sledge-hammer. The ending dissolves in a hi-tech blood bath above the Earth’s surface and the immortality of the Collector himself renders his conflict with the gun-toting fundamentalists somewhat moot. The action also veers wildly across centuries, pushing the narrative further and further into the strange future history of this depraved Earth.

Overall I found this to be an interesting novel, but not a wholly satisfying one.

‘As for your stay here, you must not cherish any hope of leaving this place. Escape and death are the only ways. I do not imagine you want to die, and, as for escape, the nearest settlement is Dartnor, some leagues from here and off the main road – a mining town. And of course there is the tainted ground which the highlanders prefer to call badlands. I’m sure you noticed them in your journey here. On all sides of Obernewtyn lies the wilderness. Do not imagine that you have seen wilderness before, perhaps even roamed in it, for this is true wild country, untamed by men. The forests are filled with wolves of the most savage kind and there are still bears living in the heights. Even stranger things dwell in these shadow-pocked high mountains.’

The very first line of this book describes a nuclear holocaust. Aha, I thought to myself, post-nuclear apocalypse. Something of a common enough trope for a long period of time and I note that Obernewtyn was published in 1987, so still during the dying embers of the Cold War. Isobelle Carmody reverses expectations by going on to write something that’s more akin to Tolkien-inspired fantasy though.

Elspeth and her brother’s parents were killed by the tyrannical Council for the crime of ‘sedition’. Both of their children still do not know what exactly this involved. They find themselves orphaned in a land ruled with an iron fist by a religious hierarchy that worships a god called Lud and rejects all technology. The few remaining fertile lands are controlled by the Council, who employ an enclave of clergy known as Herders to enforce their belief that the holocaust was a punishment from god and they are his chosen people. Some children are born with mutations due to radiation. The Council hunts them down and sends them to work on labour farms. Less obvious mutations can leave the child undiscovered for many years. These hidden mutants are referred to as Misfits and are greatly feared, for the Herders teach that they are possessed by demons.

Elspeth is a Misfit. Her brother is unsympathetic, as over the years he has begun to confuse keeping them both safe from harm, with gaining power and prestige. He wants to become a Herder and is more concerned that if his sister’s secret is discovered, it may rob him of his chosen career. Despite the danger, Elspeth enjoys the abilities she has gained as a Misfit. Sometimes she has premonitions, she can hear thoughts and even, she learns after meeting an old cat named Maruman, speak telepathically to animals.

Then one day an agent from the secretive institution known as Obernewtyn arrives at the orphanage, hunting Misfits. Elspeth is denounced and taken across the blasted countryside to a mountainous fortress where a mysterious Dr. Seraphim is said to perform experiments on children born with mutations. There Elspeth is forced to endure endless days of hard labour, but she also discovers a sense of liberation through being in the company of her own kind. No one has ever seen the strange doctor who is said to run the institution, but occasionally children disappear from their bunks, only to be found later delirious and weakened. Elspeth and her new-found friends decide to plot their escape from Obernewtyn, fearing they will be next. The villainous Madam Vega and her pet Misfit Ariel have other plans for her though and soon she finds herself caught in a struggle between the forces of Obernewtyn and the hidden rebel army of Henry Druid.

Right, first things first, when I announced Children’s Literature Week, I mentioned in the comments that I wanted to get away from the books I had read as a child, primarily Tolkien and Lewis. Seems I have fallen at the second hurdle. Isobelle Carmody riffs shamelessly on Tolkien, even lifting whole lines from The Lord of the Rings and Germano-Celt names. At one point Elspeth has a vision of a giant eye searching for her. At times the book seems derivative of A Canticle for  Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller Jr (dytopian religious fanatics) and The Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks (nuclear holocaust creates fantasy world).

So I am sorry to say there is nothing here I have not read before. I could damn it with faint praise by saying it’s readable (Obernewtyn is like Hogwarts but more realistic, i.e. depressing), but it pains me to do so.

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