Review: “Mistification” By Kaaron Warren (Novel)

Well, I thought that I’d take a look at Kaaron Warren’s 2011 literary/surrealist/fantasy novel “Mistification” today.

I’ve been meaning to read another Kaaron Warren novel ever since about 2009 or so, when I happened to find a copy of Warren’s excellent horror novel “Slights” in a bookshop in Brighton. I consider “Slights” to be one of the scariest horror novels that I’ve ever read and, more than a decade later, I can still vividly remember the utterly chilling ending too. Seriously, if you want a genuinely disturbing and unforgettable horror novel that will freeze the bones of even the most jaded horror hound, read “Slights” 🙂

Anyway, when I was randomly searching for second-hand books online, I ended up buying a copy of “Mistification” as soon as I saw the author name and the vaguely ominous-looking cover art. Even though I’d read enough about it to know that it isn’t a horror novel (although it contains a few occasional horror elements), I was still intrigued enough by the concept of this book to want to read more.

So, let’s take a look at “Mistification”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2011 Angry Robot (UK) paperback edition of “Mistification” that I read.

The novel begins in a large house in Australia, with a young boy called Marvo fleeing from armed men with his grandmother. They hide in a secret room behind a panel and spend the next few years there, hiding, scavenging, watching a silent television and telling stories. Shortly before his grandmother dies, she gives Marvo a letter and tells him not to open it until he is older. Then she tells him to leave the house.

Marvo sneaks out and wanders through nearby towns and cities for a while, finding random things, listening to people’s random stories and gradually discovering that he has the power to create mist which can be used to create illusions. When he feels that he is old enough to open the letter, it tells him that he is a magician. It tells him that there aren’t many magicians left and that magicians are important because they create the illusions that make life worth living for everyone else. That, without illusions, everyone will succumb to nihilism and despair and the world won’t last for long.

Burdened by this heavy responsibility, Marvo wanders around more and listens to more stories. He starts performing stage magic, even though he dislikes when non-magicians do this. He also meets an equally eccentric woman called Andra, who works as a nurse when Marvo is briefly committed to a mental hospital. The two of them fall in love and decide to start a magic show together…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I have mixed feelings about it. Although I didn’t enjoy it as much as I hoped I would, I can certainly see that it has literary merit and that it must also have been a lot of fun to write too. The best way to describe this novel is that it is like a mixture between the poetic magical realism of an Alice Hoffman novel and the edgy, cynical, transgressive dark comedy of a Chuck Palahniuk novel. In theory, this should automatically give this novel a five-star rating but, again, I have mixed feelings about this novel.

A lot of this comes down to the novel’s story and structure. In short, this is the kind of novel that was probably really fun to write, but isn’t always fun to read. At the beginning, the author points out that none of the information relayed in the book should be treated as reliable and that most of it was either made up or found in books sold by the kilogram in disreputable bookshops. This is both the novel’s greatest strength and it’s greatest flaw.

When this book is at it’s best, it is the kind of unique story that only Warren can write. If you’ve read “Slights”, then you’ll know that random found objects and intriguing clutter are one of the coolest features of Warren’s work (and are used to evoke everything from wonderous fascination to lingering spine-chilling horror).

Since I’m someone who doesn’t really feel “at home” if I’m not surrounded by piles of books and random stuff, Warren’s focus on random kipple really adds a unique level of realism that you don’t really see in the orderly worlds of many novels. “Mistification” excels in this regard, with the novel itself also being a brilliantly weird collection of random events, short stories, poems, riddles and characters. Seriously, this book must have been so much fun to write 🙂

However, this is also the novel’s greatest flaw. It is perhaps too random at times. For every interesting quirk or factoid, there is a segment that almost reads like an extract from a cookbook, a dream dictionary and/or a list of superstitions. For every short story that seems to carry some kind of intrigue, horror, humour and/or metaphorical truth, there are also completely random ones that don’t really seem to add anything to the novel.

In short, this book can sometimes come across as “weird for the sake of weird”, with little underlying logic or reason for some of its many surreal elements. Although the novel’s story never really gets too confusing, it does feel a bit random and disjointed, which can make reading it feel like a chore at times. In short, whilst this technically isn’t a plotless novel, it can often feel like one.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting though 🙂 It is a novel about the power of stories or, rather, the value of illusions. If you’ve ever read Shirley Jackson’s “The Haunting Of Hill House“, you’ll probably remember the chilling opening sentence about the dangers of absolute reality. This novel taps into this theme absolutely brilliantly, with Marvo almost treating stories like a form of currency and his magical abilities also being connected to his ability to feel emotions. In an age where STEM subjects are often valued far more than the arts are, this novel is perhaps one of the most brilliantly subversive books that I’ve read in quite a while 🙂

In terms of the characters, they’re fairly interesting. Marvo comes across as being both complicated and simple, sympathetic and unsympathetic, weird and normal at the same time. This is difficult to describe well, but he’s certainly one of the most creative characters that I’ve seen in a while. The same is true of his partner, Andra, who is kind of like a mixture between the sort of intriguingly witchy character you’d find in an Alice Hoffman novel and the “edgy”, quirky love interest characters found in Chuck Palahniuk novels too 🙂 And, as you’d expect in a novel like this, there is also a weird and wonderful (and occasionally creepy) cast of unusual background characters too.

In terms of the writing, this novel is absolutely stellar 🙂 For all of the novel’s experimental elements, the novel’s narration is written in Warren’s unique and readable style that, again, is like a blend of the poetic narration you’d find in an Alice Hoffman novel and the cynical “matter of fact” narration you’d find in a Chuck Palahniuk novel, whilst also being it’s own wonderfully distinctive thing at the same time too 🙂

Literally the only criticism I have to make of the writing in this novel is that the narrative voices during most of the first-person perspective short stories often remain very similar. Whilst this allows the story to flow well and helps to ensure that the frequent changes between first and third person perspective are never jarring, it also makes these segments of the novel feel a little bland and it doesn’t really create the impression that Marvo is listening to lots of different people tell him stories.

As for length and pacing, this is probably where this novel falls down. At 388 pages (not counting the five appendices), this novel feels longer than it probably should have been and the novel’s surreal elements wear out their welcome slightly on account of the length. Likewise, although this novel does have a plot, it is more of a background detail and the numerous side-stories, random factoids etc… mean that the story doesn’t really have the same compelling drive as a more traditional novel. Don’t get me wrong, this novel’s story is still relatively easy to follow, it can often be quite interesting and I really like the concept of this novel, but the pacing of it can make it feel like a bit of a slog to read at times.

All in all, this is a unique novel. It is worth reading for the themes, the writing and the general creativity of the story. However, it might not always be that enjoyable to read – even though it is most definitely Art (with a capital “A”) and you can definitely tell that the author had a lot of fun writing it. Still, if you’ve never read a Kaaron Warren novel before, I would recommend reading “Slights” instead of this one. But, if you like surreal fiction and/or are a fan of both Alice Hoffman and Chuck Palahniuk, then it might be worth taking a look at this novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get three and three-quarters.

Review: “The End Of The Day” By Claire North (Novel)

Well, after reading Gary Brandner’s “Death Walkers“, I was still in the mood for the macabre. So, I thought that I’d take a look at a rather interesting second-hand book that I ended up getting several weeks earlier because of the intriguing premise, I am of course talking about Claire North’s 2017 novel “The End Of The Day”.

So, let’s take a look at “The End Of The Day”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2017 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “The End Of The Day” that I read.

The novel begins with a man called Charlie sitting in a hotel room with some pills and wondering if death will come for him. Then we flash back to some time earlier when Charlie is in Peru, meeting an old woman who is the last speaker of a language. There is another flashback scene showing Charlie taking a job interview in Milton Keynes for the position of Harbinger Of Death. The messenger that travels ahead of Death, sometimes as a courtesy and sometimes as a warning…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is amazing 🙂 It’s this wonderfully unique mixture of poignant drama, dark comedy, magical realism, topical satire, chillingly realistic horror, heartwarming “feel good” moments, profound thought-provoking stuff, fascinating places, fascinating ideas etc…

It is an intelligent, humane and mature (in the truest sense of the word) novel that goes beyond merely telling a story to taking on an almost spiritual quality at times. In other words, it is art. It has literary merit. You will feel slightly richer, or changed, after reading it. In short, if you enjoy things like Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics or Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic, then this book is probably your sort of thing 🙂

Interestingly, although this is a novel that is quite literally about death, it isn’t as much of a horror novel as I’d expected. Yes, there are a few gruesome moments, descriptions of disturbing events/situations (eg: torture, war, poverty etc…) and even a scene that is vaguely reminiscent of Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Masque Of Red Death”, but it isn’t really a horror novel. It’s more of an exploration of the concept of death itself, with – for example – the death of an idea, or a place, or a phase of a person’s life or a period of history being described with the same dramatic weight as an actual death. And, like with Tarot cards, death is presented more as a force of change than of destruction.

This is also one of the novel’s major themes. It is about how the world is constantly changing (in both good and bad ways) and how this is an essential part of the world. This is also the focus of a lot of the novel’s topical stuff and it is one of those wonderfully rare things, an intelligent modern left-leaning novel that doesn’t really feel the need to earnestly preach at the reader in the patronising way that some novels do. It actually respects the reader’s intelligence, maturity and knowledge of the world and this is so refreshing to see. Yet, at the same time, it also makes a lot of points about a lot of topical stuff.

And, as well as being a timeless novel about one of the most timeless things in existence (or non-existence, as it may be), it is also a very modern novel at the same time. There is a lot of topical stuff here, which is handled in all sorts of amusing, interesting, serious, poignant and/or clever ways.

In addition to scenes set in places like melting ice caps and war-torn Syria, one fascinating experimental feature of the novel – which really sets the mood – is that some chapters consist entirely of random dialogue fragments from conversations near Charlie (it is left ambiguous whether these take place in his mind or not). Although it takes a while to get used to these chapters, they feel like a fascinating glimpse into the collective subconscious mind in a way that is really difficult to describe, but really effective.

This novel is about more things than I can describe here but, in addition to the themes that I’ve already mentioned, it is also a novel about capitalism, it is about how we lose humanity when we see others as less than human (shown, amongst other things, by random lines that consist entirely of the words “human” and “rat” in varying quantities. It makes sense in context), it is about how unique everyone is, it is about how similar everyone is. It is about a lot of stuff. But it is also a fascinating story at the same time, feeling like an intriguing glimpse at several years in the life of a man with a very unusual job.

In terms of the characters, they are excellent 🙂 Since this is a novel about life and humanity, the characters are probably the most important part of the story. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation here highly enough.

Earlier, I likened this novel to both Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics and Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” webcomic and this is mostly because of the realistic, interesting, nuanced characters. Even Charlie, who seems like a bit of a bland “everyman”/”expert traveller” kind of character at first, gains more depth and realism as the story progresses. Still, the numerous people he meets along his travels throughout the world are often slightly more interesting characters – many of whom are pretty much short stories in their own right.

Plus, like in “Sandman”, Death is actually a character too (who is often friendly, unless angered or summoned). In fact, all four horsemen of the apocalypse are characters. They retain their essential qualities and personalities, whilst also changing appearance, gender, shape etc… depending on who is looking at them at any one time. This both shows how they are timeless and yet still very much shaped by the world they live in. It’s difficult to describe, but it works really well. Not to mention that the scenes involving the horsemen are sometimes absolutely hilarious too.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is amazing 🙂 Yes, it might take you a little while to work out what is happening in the early parts of the story and to get used to a few slightly experimental elements (like the random dialogue fragments I mentioned earlier), but stick with it!

Most of this novel is written in a way that is informal/matter of fact enough to both feel realistic and to be easily readable, yet the writing is also descriptive, poetic (eg: certain repeated lines, descriptions etc..), vivid etc.. enough to literally make you feel like you’re reading an amazing graphic novel (eg: Gaiman, Rowntree etc..) at the same time. Yet, it also does all sorts of amazing stuff that can only be done with the written word and it is one of those novels that would lose a lot of it’s atmosphere, richness and depth if it was ever adapted to the screen or to a comic. Again, this is hard to describe fully, but it works really well.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 403 pages in length, it is a bit on the longer side of things, but justifies it’s length by telling a story that is both epic and small-scale at the same time. In terms of the pacing, this novel moves at a fairly moderate pace (and doesn’t have a traditional “plot”, which may put some readers off) – but this is one of those books that is atmospheric, unique, thought-provoking, emotionally-powerful, intelligent etc.. enough that you’ll probably want to savour it over several days rather than binge-read it.

All in all, this review probably hasn’t done justice to how good this book is. It is an intelligent, readable, compelling, unique, profound, humane, quirky, funny, chilling, sad, happy and fascinating novel. It is a piece of art that you will leave feeling richer than when you entered. Or, to put it another way, I went into this novel expecting either a horror and/or dark comedy novel, but found myself reading something that could easily rival Neil Gaiman’s “Sandman” or Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality”, and that sheer level of quality is something that doesn’t appear all too often.

If I had to give this novel a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.

Review: “Seventh Heaven” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read an Alice Hoffman novel. So, I thought that I’d take a look at the second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1990 novel “Seventh Heaven” that I found online a few weeks earlier.

If I remember rightly, I chose this novel because the premise vaguely reminded me of a hilarious comedy movie from the 1980s called “Elvira: Mistress Of The Dark” and because I’m a fan of Hoffman’s writing style.

Anyway, let’s take a look at “Seventh Heaven”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2003 Berkley (US) paperback edition of “Seventh Heaven” that I read.

The novel begins in the Long Island suburb of Hemlock Street in 1959. The street is an idyllic and perfectly ordered place until old Mr.Olivera dies and his wife moves out of town. Slowly, their empty house falls into disrepair- attracting a flock of crows and filling the vicinity with a strange stench. Eventually, a few of the local residents decide to fix up the house and convince Mrs. Olivera to put it up for sale.

The house is bought by Nora Silk, a recently-divorced mother of two. However, it soon becomes clear that she doesn’t quite fit into the prim and staid world of Hemlock Street. Meanwhile, local cop, Joe Hennessy. is feeling a sense of dissatisfaction with life after being promoted to detective and experiencing his first serious case. Local teenager Ace McCarthy learns that his brother Jackie is running some kind of scam involving their father’s garage.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, whilst it is a really atmospheric and well-written historical drama novel that is filled with excellent characters, I slightly preferred the other two Alice Hoffman novels that I’ve read (“Turtle Moon” and “The Ice Queen” ) to this one. Even so, it’s still a really good novel.

Unlike the other Hoffman novels I’ve read, this one is more of a diffuse “slice of life” drama novel than a story with a single clear plot. Although there are several interesting, dramatic, romantic, depressing, cheerful and/or poignant sub-plots, this novel almost feels more like a disguised short story collection at times.

Yes, there is sort of a main plot, but this novel feels more like an interesting window into a time and place than a traditional novel. Still, it’s a really interesting one that also takes a little bit more of a “realistic” approach to the plot (eg: some things are left unresolved, there isn’t really any “deus ex machina” morality etc..).

Still, this isn’t to say that the novel is without Hoffman’s traditional magic realist elements. Even so, these were a little bit more understated than I’d expected. Yes, there are a few psychic moments (which are just treated as ordinary) and a couple of moments invovling ghosts and/or magic, but these are more background elements than central parts of the story.

For the most part, this is a slightly more “realistic” drama novel and this is also reflected in the novel’s writing – which, whilst still expertly-written, doesn’t contain quite as many of Hoffman’s signature vividly magical descriptions as I’d expected.

The novel’s historical elements are really well-handled, and the novel contains a vividly atmospheric version of late 1950s/early 1960s America that almost feels real.

Like most historical novels about this period of history, it shows the tension between the idyllic popular image of the time and the problems (eg: abusive relationships, bullying, crime, ostracism/snobbishness and, briefly, racism) lurking beneath the stiflingly pristine and polite surface. Yet, unlike some more modern historical novels, the story makes it’s points subtly and credits the reader with enough intelligence to make their own moral decisions about what is happening and about the story’s characters.

Amongst other things, one theme in this novel is the end of the 1950s and the beginning of the 1960s. The novel handles this in all sorts of interesting ways, such as setting the first half of the book in 1959 and the second half in 1960.

In the latter half of the book, many of the characters become a little bit more friendly towards Nora, loveless relationships begin to end, characters change gradually in other ways etc.. Even so, it is interesting how the segment set in the 1950s still contains a few subtle hints of the 1960s (eg: one of the teenage characters trying marijuana for the first time etc..). It shows historical change as a gradual thing, with the late 1950s and early 1960s being both similar and different.

Likewise, this is a novel about dissatisfaction. About how the pristine idyll of Hemlock Street is as much a prison as a sanctuary. How many of the characters dream of better lives, repress their feelings and/or hold secrets from each other. You really get the sense of tension between reality and fantasy when reading this novel and it is both poignant and fascinating.

In terms of the characters, this novel really excels 🙂 This is very much a character-based novel and, although Nora is possibly the main character, you’ll get to know many of the residents of Hemlock Street extremely well.

All of the characters come across as realistic people with quirks, flaws, hopes, feelings and dreams. Seriously, I cannot praise the characterisation in this novel highly enough. Although the story’s plot is a bit diffuse, the characters are one of the main things that will probably make you want to keep reading it.

This, of course, brings me on to the writing. Hoffman’s third-person narration here is as excellent as ever. This novel is written in the wonderfully flowing and vivid style that you’d expect from an Alice Hoffman novel. However, whilst this novel still contains the brilliantly imaginative, magical and evocative descriptions that you’d expect, the narration here can also often be a little bit more “mundane” or “down to earth” than you might expect.

Given that this story is a slightly more “realistic” drama, then this was probably a deliberate dramatic choice. Even so, the narration still flows really well and there are enough of Hoffman’s brilliant moments of description here to give the story the kind of atmosphere you’d expect (albeit in a slightly more understated way).

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 255 pages in length, the novel feels neither too long nor too short. Likewise, whilst the novel has a fairly “slow paced” kind of plot that focuses on everyday life and more small-scale drama, the story itself still moves at a reasonable pace thanks to Hoffman’s expert narration that just flows really, really well.

As for how this twenty-nine year old novel has aged, it has aged excellently. Thanks to it’s historical setting and the very slightly more modern perspective on said setting, this novel feels like it could easily have been written any time within the past couple of decades. The characters are still as interesting as ever, the setting is still atmospheric and the writing is still really good.

All in all, although this isn’t the best Alice Hoffman novel I’ve read, it’s still a really good novel. If you want a story with an interesting historical setting, well-written characters and lots of atmosphere, then this one is certainly worth reading. Yes, it is slightly more of a “slice of life” drama than a traditional novel and there aren’t quite as many of the quirky magical realist elements as you may expect, but it is still a really well-written and interesting novel.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get four and a half.

Review: “The Ice Queen” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Ever since I watched the film adaptation of “Practical Magic” and, later, read Alice Hoffman’s excellent “Turtle Moon” I’ve been meaning to read another Alice Hoffman novel. And, since this review will be the hundredth book review since I got back into reading regularly several months ago, I thought that it was the perfect time to do this.

But, since both new and second-hand copies of Hoffman’s “Practical Magic” were still a bit on the expensive side of things at the time of writing, I looked around online and ended up buying a second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 2005 novel “The Ice Queen” instead.

So, let’s take a look at “The Ice Queen”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

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[Note: I read the 2006 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “The Ice Queen”, although I’ve decided against showing what the book looks like because the previous owner of the second-hand copy I read has scrawled what appears to be a phone number onto the cover and, on the grounds of privacy, I thought it best not to show this.]

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The novel begins with a flashback to the nameless narrator’s childhood, showing how she feels that a single angry thought caused the death of her mother. Since then, she has been racked by self-loathing and has lived a rather cold life. She works in a library, where she becomes an expert on death due to frequent information requests from a local police officer. Although the two of them have several trysts together, she breaks up with him when she realises that he is falling in love with her.

After the death of her grandmother, the narrator agrees to move to Florida with her brother, who is working on a research project into lightning strikes. On the car journey, the narrator thinks about being struck by lightning and, sure enough, it happens to her some time later. Amongst other injuries, the lightning strike removes her ability to see the colour red- turning the world into a cold, icy landscape.

During a support group meeting for lightning strike survivors at the university, she hears about a mysterious recluse called Lazarus Jones who died from a lightning strike and returned to life sometime later. According to the gossip, Lazarus’ body is warmer than usual, giving him the ability to burn things just by touching them. Fascinated, she decides to seek him out….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it, although it sounds like the most random and depressing novel ever written, it is actually one of the most profound and beautiful books that I’ve read recently 🙂 It is a story that is worth reading for the characters, the atmosphere and the way that it is written. And, yes, it is also a novel that will probably make you cry at least a few times.

At it’s heart, this is a novel about fairytales – about the differences between the sanitised moralistic fairytales of Hans Christian Anderson and the macabre fairytales of the Brothers Grimm, about the difference between reality and fairytales and, most importantly, about the bizarre logic of fairytales.

In particular, how random small things can have a huge influence on other things. This is kind of a running theme throughout the novel with, for example, the course of main character’s entire life being shaped by a single thought that she had when she was a child. It is a theme that is both fascinating and eerily terrifying at the same time.

This fairytale-like atmosphere is also emphasised by a few well-placed fantastical/ magic realist elements throughout the story. Whether it is the narrator’s belief that wishes can cause death, or the fact that one character burns everything he touches, or people returning from the dead or the way that the story depicts lightning, this is one of those stories that is both realistic and fantastical at the same time. These fantasy elements also help to lighten the more depressing elements of the story too, by giving the reader a little bit of emotional distance from the story.

Likewise, this novel contains some brilliant romance elements. Although they are a bit stylised, they have an intensity and a passion to them that really helps to add some vivid warmth to this bleak tale. There’s also a lot of stuff about the blurring of love and obsession, the contrast between fire and ice, how secrets define who we are and lots of other stuff like that. Likewise, the mystery of Lazarus’ backstory and the narrator’s intense curiosity about it also help to add some compelling suspense to the story too.

Emotionally, this novel is incredibly profound. Although it is filled with misery, woe, angst, death, sorrow, fear, self-loathing, guilt and bleakness, this is leavened by both the beauty of Hoffman’s writing style and the inclusion of things like dark humour and profound statements about humanity, life, death and everything else.

Like with Hoffman’s “Turtle Moon”, this is one of those novels that has a real sense of humanity to it. This is kind of difficult to describe but you get the sense that, for all of the story’s darkness, there’s an underlying warmth, compassion and wisdom lurking in the background.

In terms of the characters, they’re really good. The nameless narrator gets the most characterisation and she is a flawed, realistic character whose entire life and outlook on the world has been shaped by feelings of self-loathing and fear. She’s a misfit who is obsessed with death and prefers to be alone. She’s a really complex and fascinating character (who is kind of like a much less creepy/sociopathic version of the narrator in Kaaron Warren’s “Slights”). The other characters in the story also receive a fair amount of characterisation and they all come across as quirky, flawed, realistic people.

In terms of the writing, this novel is spectacular. Although most of the first-person narration is fairly informal and “matter of fact”, it is filled with numerous small moments of poetry, weirdness, magical descriptions and other beautiful things that really give the story a vivid and unique atmosphere. The combination of all of these things means that the story flows really well – having the pacing of a mild thriller whilst also having the deep atmosphere and intellectual/emotional depth of a literary novel.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is brilliant. At a wonderfully efficient 211 pages, this story never feels too long 🙂 Likewise, as mentioned earlier, the narration means that this novel is both fast-paced and slow-paced at the same time – this is really difficult to describe. This is one of those stories that just flows really well, which moves slowly yet feels like it is moving quickly. In other words, it is compelling.

All in all, this is a really great novel. It’s a weird dark fairytale that is also filled with magic and profundity. It is both an incredibly beautiful and an incredibly depressing novel. It probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but it is one of the most profound and well-written novels that I’ve read recently.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Turtle Moon” By Alice Hoffman (Novel)

Ever since I learnt that the film “Practical Magic” was based on a book by Alice Hoffman, I’d meant to read one of her books. And, although I looked at a few of them online after I discovered this fact, I never got round to buying one.

But, a week or so before writing this review, I was shopping for books online and I suddenly remembered “Practical Magic” but, for cost reasons, ended up getting a second-hand copy of Hoffman’s 1992 novel “Turtle Moon” instead.

So, let’s take a look at “Turtle Moon”. Needless to say, this review will contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2002 Vintage (UK) paperback edition of “Turtle Moon” that I read.

“Turtle Moon” takes place in the Florida town of Verity. A town where there is a heatwave every May and strange things happen. This town is also a place where divorced women from across America sometimes find themselves living after they’ve left. One of those women is a former New Yorker called Lucy Rosen, whose twelve-year old son Keith seems to be both the local school bully and a criminal-in-training.

Another of those women is Karen, who used to be called Bethany until she realised that her husband was going to get custody of her daughter. So, she fled New York with the baby, a suitcase full of cash and a fake ID that she got made along the way. She is Lucy’s neighbour, although they only talk to each other occasionally.

Then, one night, Karen is murdered. Both Keith and Karen’s baby daughter are missing. It quickly becomes apparent that Keith has run away with the baby.

The local police, especially their dog handler Julian (a solitary man, tormented by guilt over a car crash that claimed his cousin’s life when he was younger), look into the case. But, in addition to looking for Keith, Lucy also decides to investigate Karen’s past in order to work out who killed her and prevent Keith from falling under suspicion.

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is a masterpiece. Even though it contains many depressing moments – the writing, characters, atmosphere, plot complexity and level of depth in this novel are utterly spectacular. This is a novel that I couldn’t put down during some parts because of the sheer quality of the writing and this is a novel that made me cry (with both joy and poignant sorrow) several times towards the end.

The writing in this story is absolutely beautiful. It is a joy to read 🙂 I haven’t seen writing this good since I read Poppy Z. Brite’s “Lost Souls” about eleven years ago. And, this is about the highest compliment I can pay a writer.

Hoffman writes in a wonderfully flowing, atmospheric, warm and vivid style that is both formal and informal at the same time. The novel’s third-person narration is filled with fascinating details and beautifully artistic metaphors. It is a style of narration that could only have come from 1990s America and it is such a joy to see a writer using this type of narration again so long after I read Brite’s “Lost Souls” all those years ago 🙂

One interesting thing about this novel is that it is actually a noir detective story in disguise. Everything from the focus on the grimly mundane, to the Florida/New York settings, to Lucy and Julian’s investigations, to the premise of the story to some of the later scenes could have easily come from the pages of Raymond Chandler or Dashiell Hammmett. Yes, this story is a bit different to the average noir story, but even so, the influence from the noir genre is surprisingly clear in some scenes.

Another interesting thing about this novel is how it relates to both “The Simpsons” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day”. Neither of these things are directly referenced but, like both of these things, it features a delinquent boy (Keith Rosen) as one of the main characters. Keith seems to have the spiky hair of Bart Simpson and the troubled background of John Connor.

In the early part of the story, he is the kind of criminal (the narration often refers to him as “the meanest boy in Verity” – initially seriously, then ironically) that could have come from any 1990s tabloid page. Yet, as the story progresses, we get to see that he is actually a nicer and more human person than even he thinks that he is. He also seems to go on some kind of mythical odyssey where, for example, he loses his voice for quite a while. There are also lots of surprisingly heartwarming scenes where he looks after both the baby and a ferocious rescue dog who seems to take a liking to him.

This brings me on to the novel’s characters, and they are all extremely well-written. They all have backstories, flaws, motivations and personalities that really help to bring the novel to life. Seriously, this is one of those novels that has a real sense of humanity to it when it comes to how the characters are described.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Whilst the story is neither fast-paced nor slow-paced, the plot and the style of the writing means that it keeps moving constantly. Likewise, the novel is about 275 pages long (in the edition I read) and it is always great to see shorter novels 🙂 The novel feels like no space is wasted and it still feels like a fairly substatial story. Seriously, I miss the days when 200-300 pages was standard for novels.

This novel also contains some rather interesting magic realist elements that work surprisingly well. The most notable of these is probably the ghost of Julian’s cousin, who haunts a tree near a doughnut shop. These elements of the story are kept subtle enough not to break the reader’s suspension of disbelief, and they are also a really good fit with Hoffman’s vivid, descriptive writing style too. In other words, they add to the quirky, dream-like atmosphere of the story without ever really standing out as fantastical.

This novel’s emotional tone is incredibly interesting. Although the first third or so of the novel is filled with nothing but miserable and depressing events/backstory, the beauty and style of the writing helps to keep these parts gripping nonetheless (in addition to preventing them becoming too depressing to read).

Then, as the story progresses, the emotional tone occasionally lightens very slightly – with the novel’s later moments of joy and love being tear-jerkingly poignant in contrast to all of the gloom and bleak misery that has preceded them. Seriously, the last hundred pages or so of this novel made me cry (mostly with joy, but occasionally with poignant sorrow) more times than I could have expected.

In terms of how this twenty seven year old novel has aged, it has aged astonishingly well. Yes, some parts of this story come across as very distinctively ’90s such as the focus on divorces and juvenile delinquency or the infrequent ’90s references (eg: Keith looks a little bit like Bart Simpson, there’s a mention of Guns N’ Roses etc..). But, there’s nothing shockingly dated here and I really loved the “early 1990s America” atmosphere of the book too 🙂

Plus, this story is just as readable and emotionally powerful today as it probably was in 1992. This story is a 1990s story in the best possible way – it’s the kind of lush, vivid, beautiful thing that could only have existed in early 1990s America (kind of like “Lost Souls”). It has a humanity to it that could have only come from the 1990s. When you read this book, you get the sense that it is both old and yet timelessly new at the same time.

All in all, even though this book contains many depressing moments, it is still a masterpiece. Even if it’s the kind of story you normally wouldn’t read, it is well worth reading just to experience the quality and style of the writing. Not to mention that, if you’re a fan of 1990s America, then you’ll love this book too.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a solid five.

Review: “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley (Novel)

Well, since I’m taking an extended break from reading Clive Cussler novels, I thought that I’d check out a steampunk/magic realist novel from 2015 called “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” By Natasha Pulley.

I bought a second-hand copy of this book sometime last year for some reason that I can’t quite remember. Then it ended up languishing on the pile of books and DVDs next to my computer until about three weeks after I finally got back into reading books again.

So, let’s take a look at “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street”. This review will contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll try to avoid major ones.

This is the 2016 Bloomsbury (UK) paperback reprint of “The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” that I read.

“The Watchmaker Of Filigree Street” begins in Victorian London, when a Home Office telegraphist called Thaniel Steepleton returns to his lodgings after a long day at the office, only to discover that a mysterious intruder has left a gold pocket-watch in his room.

The mystery only seems to deepen when, several weeks later, an alarm goes off inside the watch that narrowly saves him from a terrorist attack. Shocked and bewildered, Thaniel decides to track down the man who made the strange watch…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is clever. It is also whimsical, dramatic, occasionally thrilling/suspenseful, bewildering, bittersweet and heartwarming. But, most of all, it is clever. This is probably due to being slightly out of practice with reading novels but, reading this novel felt like trying to play a computer game on a machine that is only just within the system requirements. I even had to take detailed notes at various points because I was worried about forgetting some small, but crucial, plot detail. But, this novel is worth persevering with because it is one of those books that will make you go… “wow!“.

Seriously, the atmosphere of about the first sixth or so of the book is utterly beautiful. It’s the kind of vivid, cosy, fascinating and whimsical thing that – in emotional terms- reminded me a bit of watching Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away“. As the story progresses, the story’s tone and atmosphere changes slightly – including elements of tragedy, suspense, mystery, comedy, fantasy, science fiction, unease and emotional drama. Not to mention that parts of this novel also read a little bit like a slowly to moderately paced thriller novel too.

And, did I mention that this book is clever too? In addition to lots of utterly brilliant descriptions, some clever name choices (eg: Filigree Street looks like filigree on the map, Grace Carrow is anything but graceful etc..) and some well-placed historical/scientific references (eg: Gilbert & Sullivan, a painting made by “a depressed Dutchman”, a character accidentally discovering part of Einstein’s theory of relativity etc..) – the story is also filled with what TV Tropes refers to as “fridge brilliance“.

This is where part of a story only makes sense after you’ve thought about it for a while. And there are so many examples of this here. For example, the antagonistic relationship between two characters won’t fully make sense until you reach a later part of the story (and then think about it). Or an event earlier in the story won’t make sense until you know something else about a particular character. This novel is like an intricate clockwork mechanism where everything happens for a reason. And, yes, this even includes the more fantastical elements of the story, which often follow some kind of logic.

The narration in this story is absolutely beautiful too. Pulley uses a style that is evocative of 19th century writing, but which is also still very readable to modern audiences. The narration is descriptive and rich, without ever really doing this just for the sake of showing off (unlike some “literary” novels). The narration also has a quirky playfulness to it that both adds to the stylised Victorian atmosphere of the story, whilst also serving as a vehicle for all sorts of brilliant observations/descriptions.

The novel’s characters are really interesting too, with all of the main characters (Thaniel, Mr. Mori, Grace, Matsumoto, Six and Katsu) being misfits in some way or another.

Not only is there a lot of characterisation in this novel but the relationships betwen the characters are also absolutely fascinating too. Although the characters’ relationships with each other can be prickly, bitter or depressing at times, the nature of friendship is a major theme in this novel and it leads to some absolutely beautiful and heartwarming moments.

There are also more themes in this story than you can shake a stick at, and all of them are handled in really interesting ways. Since it would take ages to talk about all of them, I’ll talk about three of the most important ones in this review.

Fate and free will are major themes in this story, and they are explored in all sorts of interesting ways. It’s difficult to talk about this without spoiling one of the most interesting parts of the story. But, to use a less spoilerific example, the story includes an adorable clockwork octopus called Katsu that has been designed to act in a randomised way. Yet, this random machine often acts like a sentient creature with a personality. And, as I write this review, I’ve just realised the paradox inherent in designing something to be random.

The story also focuses on the relationship between Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan too, with both being shown to be very similar in all sorts of subtle ways. For example, in the chapters set in Japan, the novel mostly eschews the typical stylised portrayal of samurai etc.. and often just talks about “castles”, “knights”,”lords”, “barons” etc.. in a way that is reminiscent of British history. Both countries’ languages are also shown to contain quirky historical oddities. Likewise, both Victorian Britain and Meiji-era Japan are shown to be grappling with modernisation. Plus, both countries are shown to have their fair share of stiflingly formal and oppressive traditions too.

Time is also a major theme in this story and it is explored in all sorts of interesting ways. To give a less spoilerific example – although the novel is set in the 19th century, there’s a lot of subtle modern stuff in there. Not only is the telegraph depicted as being similar to a modern instant messenger program at times, but the novel also contains a modern-style theme of terrorism and there are also a few other sneaky modern references too (such as the 19th century Lord Leveson appearing, presumably as a subtle topical reference to the 2011-12 Leveson Inquiry).

In terms of length, this story is absolutely perfect. Unlike many tome-like modern novels, this novel is a more sensible 318 pages in length, and each of these pages matters. Seriously, this novel crams as more storytelling, depth, richness, atmosphere and complexity into 318 pages than some writers would manage to include in 500.

All in all, this novel is absolutely beautiful. Yes, it probably isn’t for everyone and it can be a little bit of a challenge to read at times. But, it is adorably eccentric, subtly compelling, intelligently complex, intricately crafted, heartwarming, nervously suspenseful, and completely unique. It’s the kind of novel where you find yourself thinking “there really should be a film adaptation of this” before realising that even the most well-directed film would struggle to capture exactly what makes this novel so unique, immersive and fascinating.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

Short Story: “Deadline” By C. A. Brown

Against the night sky, the falling snow almost looked like the screensaver on Diane’s computer. Even in the gloom, the snow was as white as the breeze block walls of her halls of residence room. She grinned. It almost looked like something from a dystopian sci-fi movie.

It was harshly beautiful. There were no other words for it. The only thing missing was music. As she jabbed the computer mouse, the screensaver disappeared and her half-finished English Lit essay about Edgar Allen Poe stared back at her. She sighed. The department’s deadline was tomorrow. But, how often does it snow like this?

For all she knew, it could happen every winter. Maybe this small town was famous for snow? The university prospectus had included a few beautiful snowy photos. Maybe she should just finish the damn essay and enjoy the snow next year or tomorrow or whenever? But, she found herself minimising the essay and opening Media Player instead.

A second later, the grimly melodic tones of Cradle Of Filth’s “Nymphetamine” echoed through the room. Diane watched the furious flurries of snow for a few minutes, wishing that she’d brought her DVD of “Gremlins” with her to uni. No, she thought, I’ve got to stay focused. She sighed and rifled through the stack of photocopied pages on her desk.

Even though it was two thousand and six for heaven’s sake, the university still insisted on references to physical books in essays. Given how much photocopies cost at the library, she was sure that it was probably a way of extorting money from poor students. Either that or the beardy old lecturers hadn’t heard of the internet.

Finding the right sheaf of stapled photocopies, Diane flicked through it until she found the passage she had highlighted earlier. No doubt that it was slightly longer than the scary copyright warning posters in the library allowed. Still, if they were charging 10p a page, then the posters were probably just for show. But, given that her halls room looked like something from a dystopian space prison, she wouldn’t have been surprised if there was some kafkaesque network of contradictory rules and goals at play.

Taking a deep breath, she focused and fired out another few paragraphs. Then she checked the word count. 1230 words. She shrugged. After she added a concluding paragraph, it would only be a hundred words shy of the limit. It would lose her a few marks, but she’d probably still pass. Anyway, it was snowing.

Diane got up and walked over to the square window. She gasped and staggered back. The view was different. Instead of snow-capped halls blocks, twenty dilapidated refinery towers stared back at her. The snowy ground below was an uneven moonscape of pits and mounds. She blinked and rubbed her eyes. The view didn’t change.

Common sense told her to stay put. To knock on everyone else’s doors and see if they had noticed it too. But, it was 3am. Everyone else on the floor would be out drinking. If only she’d been sensible enough to join them. Still, the deadline probably didn’t matter any more. And, she thought, how often do you get to explore somewhere like this? If she took a few photos, then no-one would question her sanity either.

Finding her jacket and an old Cradle Of Filth hoodie, she grabbed her bag and digital camera before walking out into the hallway. It was as silent as a tomb. She walked over to the kitchen and checked the windows. The refinery towers stared back at her once again. One of them moved. She took a couple of photos.

When she reached the stairwell, she noticed that the carpet was missing. She took a photo of the cracked grey tiles. Common sense urged her to turn back, but she kept walking down the stairs. Finally, she reached the thick wooden door. Diane took a deep breath and flung it open.

The halls blocks stared back at her. The snow was light on the ground. The towers were nowhere to be seen. She checked her camera. The photos were still there. She blinked. A smile crossed her face. Clutching her bag, she strode out into the snow. The university library would be still be open. Something about H.P. Lovecraft seemed like the perfect thing to fill up the remaining hundred words of her essay.