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.

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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.

Short Story: “Plain Sight” By C. A. Brown

It is one of the best kept secrets in the world, which often made me wonder how it even stays in business. But, somehow, it does. In fact, I’d have never even known of it if I hadn’t accidentally dived through the doors when I was caught in the middle of the meanest thunderstorm I’d ever seen. We’re talking a real howler here, the kind of thing which – if I was the religious type – would make me suspect that someone upstairs needed anger management classes.

The smell of cooking oil and fresh fish had reached my nose a split second before I looked at the grimy floor. As I wiped the rainwater from my eyes and looked around, I saw nothing but utilitarian tiled walls and a small village of ramshackle stalls. A frying pan hissed in the distance, wood clacked quietly and a few voices murmured. Neon light tubes buzzed. A radio crackled gently.

With the maelstrom showing no sign of letting up, I decided to check out a few of the stalls. I hadn’t expected much. No doubt that the only things that awaited me were food poisoning, brittle phone covers and stuff that still carried the dents from where it fell off the back of the proverbial lorry. Later, I would come to realise that this was also part of the camouflage. That the stalls near the entrance are left unmanned and badly-stocked for reasons that I’ll never understand.

The first sign that this wasn’t an ordinary indoor market appeared when I found the book stall. It was tucked away behind a grim metal-and-tarpaulin shack filled with knock-off tracksuits. Even though I could hear a frying pan sizzling nearby, the only thing I could smell was crisp new paper.

Behind the counter, a guy in a sharp suit and a trilby straight out of a Raymond Chandler novel leaned against a pitted oak counter and flashed me a sarcastic grin. I nodded and mumbled hello before busying myself with the box of books marked “horror”.

I’d expected battered, crumpled old paperbacks from the ’80s, but they all looked surprisingly new. Sure, I recognised the authors and even some of the lurid cover art, but it was totally pristine. Like they had just been printed yesterday. I looked at the guy and said: ‘So, is this an antique book stall or something?

He shrugged ‘People forget that all books were new once. Especially the ones that were never written.‘ Tipping his hat, he reached towards the box and pulled out a pristine novel. Seriously, it could have come straight from the press. The cover showed a gothic painting of an ancient city and read “Cabal II: At The Gates Of Midian By Clive Barker” in bright red letters. It was probably a fake. It was almost certainly a fake. It only cost three quid. I bought it.

The next stall I found was tucked between two empty tile-and-brick pillboxes that were filled with sheets of stamped metal and scraps of cardboard. In the gloomy niche between the stalls, it was impossible to miss the display of neon lights.

The constellations of multicoloured tubes glowed Blade Runner bright against the darkness. A red-haired woman wearing a garish, day-glow so-hideous-that-it’s-trendy 1980s jacket leant against the counter and shuffled a deck of tarot cards. In glowing letters, a sign read “Change today! See tomorrow!“. This, I thought, had to be some kind of trendy art installation. Some hipster project that was destined for social media.

Not wanting any mood lighting or a tarot reading, I moved on. The next stall seemed to be a greengrocer’s, complete with cheeky cockney geezer. For a second, I began to pass it by until the guy shouted: ‘Gros Michel bananas! Five for a quid!‘. I remembered some clickbait article I’d read at 2am about foods that had gone extinct. The Gros Michel was apparently one of them. Out of curiosity, I bought five. They were bulky, fat things. To my surprise, they made ordinary bananas taste like cardboard by comparison.

For the next ten or twenty minutes, I wandered. There was a stall selling some heart-shaped herbs called silphium, there was a rickety shack filled with tanks of bioluminescent deep sea fish and there was – I fool you not – a wizard with a big grey beard and a technicolour dreamcoat. There were stairs that went nowhere. There was an alcove filled with movie costumes that seemed to be sold in the same careless cheap way that counterfeit tracksuits are. An old dude with a pipe sat on a cardboard box and played something that he claimed was Beethoven’s tenth symphony on a portable keyboard.

Finally, after wandering for a while, I realised that I’d walked further than I thought. There was no way that this market could be this big. But, after looking around, I spotted the entrance between two empty stalls. It was only fifty metres away. I slipped out, only pausing to turn around and memorise what the building looked like. It looked like a dilapidated office block.

I’d expected some article in the local paper about it. But, after two days, there was nothing. I almost forgot about it until I noticed the horror novel I’d bought. Even though I was sure that it was a fake, I decided to read it. If it was a fake, then it was an amazingly realistic one. The kind of fake that is so good that you really don’t care that it can’t be real.

So, I went back. I expected to find the doors locked and the building empty. But, the market was still there. Soon, it seemed as if the very idea that it could disappear was as comical as expecting gravity to take a weekend off or for the sun to call in sick. This place, I realised, probably didn’t always look like an old office block. A couple of gnarled wooden beams behind a cracked part of a wall I saw on my fourth visit made me think that it probably just looked like an ordinary house a few hundred years ago.

After a while, I wondered if there were any other interesting places hiding in plain sight. There weren’t. At least, I’m pretty sure that there weren’t. Then again, these kinds of places find you, rather than the other way round.