Posts Tagged ‘Solaris’

Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

April 22, 2014 1 comment

Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem

Looking back, I’ve been an obsessive reader for most of my life. In the idle moments before starting this review, I wondered what the source was. I suppose I could blame my mother who endlessly read to me until I was old enough to read for myself. It’s always good to blame the parents when they’re no longer around to defend themselves. Or it could be that the early choices happened to be the crack cocaine of books leaving me hopelessly addicted, doomed endlessly to read in the vain hope of recapturing the early highs. Who knows and, perhaps, who cares! It’s a relatively harmless compulsion — even though I may not be as communicative with my wife as she might sometimes like, I am nearly always in her presence albeit not socially engaged with her. Anyway, over the years, four categories of book have crystalised. There are the unreadable — no matter how great the compulsion to read, and the sense of respect I should hold for the author who’s taken the time and trouble to write all these words, there are always other books waiting to be read. Sometimes, I just have to put down the immediate book and start the next. At the other end of the scale are the very few that hit the sweet spot. These books are the reason I persevere — not that I ever reread them. Once is enough (there’s the lurking fear that if I revisit a loved book, I might not like it so much the second time and that would destroy happy memories).

In the middle ground, are the almost (very) good and the books I finish out of duty. Blood Kin by Steve Rasnic Tem (Solaris, 2014) falls in the latter class, almost but not quite reaching the unreadable level. When I was growing up, I always regretted Henry Kuttner’s decision not to write more Baldy stories. They take the hillbilly mutant trope and have fun with the ideas. They carefully avoid the gothic horror idea that there are dangers lurking in the woods (apart from the teddy bears on their picnic) and nicely blur the line between fantasy and science fiction as the multigenerational family tries to live a quiet life. On the front cover of this book, there’s a supposedly encouraging quote from the Guardian, “A beautifully crafted novel.” The quote does not refer to this book, of course. No publisher sends prepublication copies to newspapers to get blurb quotes. But having finished this book, I can confirm the prose is professional (as we should expect from Tem whom I’ve previously enjoyed as a short story writer), and the plot does make sense in its own terms. So, at a craft level, this book engages the mind and I can appreciate the effort that went into writing it.

Steve Rasnic Tem

Steve Rasnic Tem

But when it comes to the plot and the lack of dynamic in the narrative, the book is virtually DOA. Here’s this youngish man who left the valley for a while but has now come back to look after granny. She may or may not be close to death — this tribe seems to live a long time — but before she goes, she’s determined to pass on the family lore. One of the traits we’re told about early on is the hyper-empathy, i.e. the ability to sense or feel what others are thinking or feeling. The way this old lady passes on her oral history is by enabling him to feel events as if he had been there. So the structure of the book yo-yos from 1934 with granny old enough to have her first period, and the modern day with granny and her thirtysomething relative living in a shack in the woods. And boy is there a lot of kudzu! Wow that stuff really does grow fast. Anyway, in the past, there’s this really dangerous guy, a relative who’s become a preacher and uses snakes during his services — it’s all terribly symbolic what with the devil having occasionally appeared as a snake. No-one likes him, many fear him, and the rest either avoid him or worship with him. So there you have it. The preacher has his snakes to keep his faith strong, and the kudzu grows like it’s a plant possessed. I’ll pause while you make the connection. And then the past catches up with the present, or those who live the longest triumph, or not as the case may be. I really didn’t care what happened to any of them. Shame really. A great deal of thought has gone into the construction of this plot. It just has no tension or suspense as a thriller. It never gets off the ground as a horror novel. I suppose it could be classed as fantasy, or as science fiction if this is one of these evolutionary stories where a genetic mutation is passed down through the generations by careful interbreeding. Whatever the genre, I found it tedious and boring.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

Plastic by Christopher Fowler

November 12, 2013 Leave a comment


One of the joys of this role as a now almost full-time reviewer is the pure serendipity of the exercise. Although there’s an element of choice about which books I ask to review, there are times when I simply pick at random and, to my surprise, occasionally turn up a gem. At the other extreme, many of the books I pick on the basis of a known author turn out fairly dire. Everyone can have a bad day at the office. With Plastic by Christopher Fowler (Solaris, 2013) I have the ultimate satisfaction of finding a known author at the top of his game. Yet, somewhat extraordinarily as the preface recounts, this book has been doing the rounds of publishers for some considerable time. For reasons I cannot begin to guess at, all the supposedly knowledgeable big guns of the commissioning world turned this down. Maybe the marketing gurus failed to see this as a best-seller because they could not stick a convenient genre label on the putative front cover. So kudos to Solaris for picking it up. I find myself momentarily stilled in admiration for an author executing a very difficult task flawlessly.

At this point, I need to veer off and mention Tom Sharpe who died earlier this year. For me, the early books are outstanding examples of a raw farce, often turning satirical, but always with the capacity to make the reader laugh. However, starting with The Throwback, I found he grew too dark for my taste. It stopped being funny as his anger and cruelty became rather painful for the reader (and the protagonists). In Plastic, Christopher Fowler confronted the same problem, but solved it by actually liking his heroine. She may start off stunted but, even in her most desperate hours, you feel Fowler retains his affection for her. He wants her to survive. This imbues the first-person narrative with optimism and makes the entire venture a rather joyful if somewhat Gothic experience for her. Indeed, in the midst of all the chaos, there are a couple of laugh-out loud moments when the absolute absurdity of her situation is suddenly exposed. She’s the victim of circumstances outside her control. All the initial events are random. But if ever you wanted to assume a conspiracy to drive her over the edge, this is what it would look like. So in terms of genre, this is a dark farce which occasionally toys with thriller conventions. In this, I’m resisting seeing this in any way as being a horror novel. In a way, it’s an absurdist, extreme aversion therapy version of The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic by the pseudonymous Sophia Kinsella with a mystery element for our heroine to puzzle out.

Christopher Fowler

Christopher Fowler

Now, carefully avoiding spoilers, it’s necessary to briefly introduce the key elements of the plot. We meet June Cryer. She’s hidden her intelligence under a bushel, well several bushels, hampers, buckets and boxes flecked with gold foil, all bought on credit using cards supplied by her husband. This is a tragedy. She could have been an interesting person, but an early pregnancy and a father willing to make an honest woman of her, put an end to that when she failed to carry to term. Now ten years into the marriage, her body may be present but her mind has long been numbed into submission. When she discovers her husband has been spending time with the woman next door, her only friend gets her a gig flat-sitting for a weekend. This should be easy money but that would be no “fun”. In fact things go wrong from the moment she walks through the door of this exclusive block of homes for the wealthy. Or, if you prefer, she suddenly realises the practical problems of the situation which she has volunteered to deal with. It’s perhaps a symptom of our times that people are allowed to occupy a new building before the fitting-out work is finished. These are heady consumerist days in the London housing market for the elite. Indeed, so anxious are people to be able to boast of their new address, they blithely accept the need to turn off the electricity for a weekend while repairs are made. Except the flat in which she’s being paid to huddle is stuffed with valuable artwork. So, with all electronic security systems depowered, she’s gone from suburban housewife to security operative without the see-in-the-dark goggles and 9 mm to reinforce her defensive capability.

Frankly, this is a wonderful book. . . but I’m obliged to raise a minor caveat. There’s a wealth of wit and humour to be excavated from the elegant prose and the unexpected nature of some of the events. Except it’s very British humour which may not travel so well outside the sceptered isle. It’s also possible some readers may be dubious that a man can produce a convincing first-person narrative featuring a woman. On this you should have no fear. In these more gender-blind days, I seriously doubt you would know the sex of the author unless you read the name on the cover. Well, obviously you did read the name but you know what I mean. Overall, Plastic is impressive no matter what genre label might be attached to it.

A copy of this book was sent to me for review.

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