Sunday, October 31, 2010

Andrew Cowan, Pig (1994)

Cowan, Andrew. Pig. London: Michael Joseph, 1994.
______. New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1994. (pictured below)
______. Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1995.
______. SanDiego: Harvest Books, 1997.
______. London: Sceptre, 2002. (my edition, pictured right)

Pig at Goodreads
Pig at IBList

Rating:     7/10

Following the death of his grandmother and his grandfather's removal to a retirement home, fifteen year-old Danny decides to take care of the aging pig that once belonged to his gran. With the help of his Indian girlfriend Surinder, Danny spends the summer caring for the pig as well as for his grandparents' land.

Pig is a tightly-written novel. It is constructed with economy and sensitivity, and is a true pleasure to read. The lack of a straightforward plot kept me at a distance for the first eighty or so pages, but I eventually grew involved with Danny, his relationship with Surinder and his grandparents' land. To a greater extent, even, I was mesmerized by the ravaged rural Scottish landscape.

The novel is set in an unnamed rural region, a once-prospering farmland, later industrial area that has become completely dilapidated. The farming region was bought out by industry, the land promising to yield a prosperous gain of mineral ore. When the land is revealed to contain a mass of useless clay, industry backs away and the remaining stripped farmlands are reduced to decay. At one point Danny is pulling the overgrown vegetables and weeds from his grandparents' land and remarks to Surinder that unattended the land grows wild; this is telling in that the soil is perfect for farming and it was industry that has ruined these fields. Quoting to Danny from her schoolbooks, Surinder tells him that the Victorian era saw a Scotland with a housing problem, an overpopulated land that saw houses overfilled, people pressed into any available quarter, the poor sewage overflowing and causing dysentery, a scene worse than anything she herself had seen in India. Though an unpleasant portrait, it nonetheless shows a land prosperous and filled with life, while Surinder and Danny can ride their bikes for miles without seeing a single soul.

Meanwhile the neighbouring towns are made up of run-down compound buildings overseen by a bureaucratic and unsympathetic housing system. The dingier, run-down flats are meted out to Indian and Pakistani residents. Racism is a problem in this region stuck in the past. Surinder is harassed as is Danny, by association. The two have become outsiders: the land shutting them out with their "No Trespassing" notices and the rough men that are continuously turning them away. Surinder cannot abide by a family whose only hope for her is a future filled with babies while she is seeking knowledge and a better, modern life. Danny's family sees his investment in the pig as wasted time, while his brother sits at home, drinking and refusing to do anything beyond the hoovering. The only person in Danny's family not mired in local inertia is his grandfather, who sits in a Home pining for his lost wife.

Surinder and Danny are sneaking about, facing challenges not only in farm work, the unwelcoming landscape and a region beaten down by constant rains, but also in their juvenile and innocent relationship. Cowan's quiet portrayal of this youthful union is strikingly real as the two are often awkward and clumsy, unable to express any level of emotion through anything but their clumsy gestures.

The novel's one real fault is in its distracting details. While many scenes are vividly and economically rendered, there are many others that are overly detailed. It becomes intrusive and can be irritating. These unnecessary details can be anything from the point a character might be staring at, to the fact that he or she is wiping the table, sloshing some tea. It reads as though the author was trying to add an extra thousand words to the manuscript.

Despite this minor qualm, Pig is a tight, well-written novel whose landscape is alone worth the investment. I was surprised by the lukewarm reviews I read on Goodreads, most emphasizing the strong writing but criticizing the lack of a linear plot. Many seem less than pleased with the comparison to J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, and I suppose that comparison, from a New York Times review, has unintentionally damaged the novel. Yes, there are elements of awakening adolescence, but the comparison is not terribly apropos.

Cowan's Pig is a surprisingly good find, and I hope that the novel finds a greater audience.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Some thoughts on Jupiter Moon (1990)

I have become addicted to Jupiter Moon.

Jupiter Moon is a UK science fiction soap opera produced in 1990 airing three times a week. It was dropped after about 150 episodes, though only 108 were initially aired. The show was set on Ilea, a space university in permanent orbit above Space City, Callisto moon, in the year 2050. The show was created and produced by William Smethurst. For a brief overview, see the wikipedia article.

I wasn't sure what to make of the first three or four episodes of the show: it was messy, awkward, and the sets and especially the costumes were just plain odd. Yet there was enough to keep me to watching, and by episode eight I was hooked. It is obvious that the writers began by tossing ideas about, as some plot-lines are abruptly dropped, and while the initial set-up appears focused on romantic elements, the love stories quickly take a back seat when the science fiction elements take over. Stuck in a massive cloud, character interactions are heightened and the show becomes quite exciting. The science is feasible (as far as I can tell) and the writing is solid, with realistic dialogue and some great one-liners. There are close to twenty characters to keep up with and the multiple story-lines, with their quick scenes, often clever and usually well delivered dialogue and character-driven action make the show a fast-paced, addictive affair.

What truly makes this show a pleasure to watch is the cast. Each actor does a fine job with their character, and the characters themselves are fascinating because they are dynamic and utterly flawed. (Okay, there is one character who simply annoys me with her repetitive whining, but the rest are fine.) Only two of the actors seem recognizable elsewhere: Anna Chancellor who portrays stunning ambitious navigator Mercedes Page, and dashing character actor Richard Lintern, who plays botanist James Bromwich. Stunning and dashing; the actors are (nearly) all quite good looking (especially the lovely Caroline Evans, the brainy post graduate physicist Chantal de Gracy), but it is a soap opera after all (though I suppose the Star Trek franchise also selected a cast based partially on looks). My personal favourite cast members are Chancellor, along with Andy Rashleigh whose performance as the washed out, pride-filled Captain Eliot Creasy if filled with stubborn principles, subtle sensitivity and a good deal of humour, and Jason Durr, the self-interested Alex Hartmann, who is so good with his strange blond hair and odd German accent that I sometimes hate to even look at him. I also quite like Carolyn Backhouse as the station's, uh, schoolmistress? Despite these personal favourites others do a fine job, and while many seemed to have fallen to acting obscurity some can be seen in other television projects.

Costumes are truly insane, especially those weird bibs some of the men wear, and those less than complimentary bodysuits. I do like that characters recycle their wardrobe, though there are some dresses I would rather not have to look at. The set is silly but part of the fun. Alcohol bottles look like medicine jugs, supply boxes are emptier that the falling boulders in the original Star Trek, and glass coffee mugs are actually colourful Bodums. There is a scene when the sneaky Harmann glues some Mars dust onto a Valentine heart using... you guessed it, a yellow glue stick. The future, with its advanced operating tools, space flight and Jupiter moon stations is still dependent on glue sticks for their arts & crafts projects.

The DVD itself is not as interesting as the show. There is a typo in the menu so that on each disc the sixth episode (the one in the bottom left) reads "Epidose #," while the blurb at the back claims that each episode is "more astronomically addictive than the next!" I believe they meant "than the last"; since the first episode is a little weak and each "next" episode is less addictive I don't anyone could possible even dream of reaching episode 150.

I do have a confession to make: After having watched Episode 21 my interest has shifted. Now that a great threat has (seemingly) passed, character relationships are being re-evaluated and I am finding myself absorbed by the love stories. Hartmann's behaviour actually has me sympathizing though he is being a real jerk, and what will happen between lovely Chantal and dashing James (the way she says "James" makes me want to change my name; why was she never a Bond girl?). She is so adorable in the way she toys with him. Perhaps the show was a cruel ploy to get men hooked onto soap operas, and I am wondering if a British station will ever launch a horror story soap opera, something set during a zombie epidemic perhaps, though I suppose if the actors keep getting eaten it would be truly short-lived.

I am digressing terribly... I will likely share more thoughts as I continue watching.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Bentley Little, The Town (2000, 1997)

Little, Bentley. The Town. New York: Signet Books, 2000

An earlier edition titled Guests was published in the UK by Headline Books, 1997. (I am not sure how or if the two editions differ, though there is a reference to The Store, which was first published in 1998.)

The Town at ISFdbThe Town at Goodreads
The Town at IBList

Rating:     5/10

It is that singleness of effect which Edgar Allan Poe wrote about that makes the short story such a potentially powerful art form. Horror fiction is best suited to the short form, as a single effect or the simplest idea can generate a thunderous impact. A horror novel, on the other hand, must employ a greater variety of effect, of mood and emotion, and certainly of suspense and mystery, in order to be successful in its medium. Along with comedy it is arguably the most difficult genre in the long form, and few lengthy novels are truly successful. It is difficult to maintain a single source of tension over two hundred and more pages as the reader will likely tire of the monotony; variety shifts the reader's attention, whether the variety is in plot or effect. It is not normally enough to populate a novel with numerous characters and stretch the singular idea through character diversity, no matter how many dimensions those characters might have. If the novel's focus of tension is left dangling from a single source idea, it will soon wear thin. This is the first failure of Bentley Little's The Town.

At 276 pages the single effect wears so thin that it becomes almost invisible, and I soon found myself gazing beyond that thin veneer of tension and thinking ahead of the next novel I wanted to read (incidentally, Andrew Cowan's Pig).

The Town is structured through a series of episodes involving a number of characters, though centred mainly around Gregory Tomasov and his family. After winning a substantial Los Angeles lottery and as a consequence feeling idle and inconsequential, Tomasov moves his family (wife, three children and practicing Molokan mother) to his childhood home town of McGuane, Arizona. We soon learn that their new home, along with the entire town, is over-run with "uninvited" spirits. The episodic structure does not suit this novel well, as the episodes are often not directly connected to the central idea, and many scenes do little in enhancing or revealing the mystery around the strange occurrences. The novel does have a clear direction, yet it has little in the way of plot, and this awkward, clunky format leaves the work uneven.

Some scenes are certainly tense, and we find ourselves climbing up a slope toward its climactic peak, while others are seemingly pointless or just plain silly, tossing a roadblock ahead of us and stunting that upward climb. In maintaining its good moments and excising the silly, The Town could have been a decent novella. There is a nice chapter involving a boy who takes a picture of the evil banya, quickly developing the film to reveal the empty and run-down bathhouse filled with the wrinkled forms of some elderly ghosts. Another good moment has Tomasov's wife volunteering at the local library, happily chatting it up with the other volunteers until she learns that each are hopelessly paranoid, believing that the government is concealing the truth about a meteor that is hurtling toward the earth and a doom-filled collision. This tense and surprising moment is shortly followed by a scene depicting a Molokan priest being attacked by his bible. I could not help but laugh and think of Bruce Campbell and the fluttering book in Army of Darkness; though silly, Campbell's escapades are at the least entertaining. Unfortunately, the strange photographs of the banya and the conspiracy theorists at the library never reappear, so that these moments have little to do with anything, making me wonder why I was made to read them.

Bentley Little seems to have had a fairly general and abstract idea, and rather than unite the small parts into a solid an cohesive whole, he simply fills 276 pages with as many creepy (or silly) scenes that fail to help ground the work. Just because something is supernatural does not mean it should not be governed by some form of logic. This is the novel's secondary flaw.

The strange events are never clearly explained and ideas are tossed about randomly, most often never followed up, characters disappear (such as the handyman Odd), so that it all becomes meaningless. Characters receive revelations "suddenly" rather than through any form of deductive process. This haphazard conceptualizing makes for a poor mystery and is not terribly fair to the reader; mysteries should be a collaboration between author and reader, with the reader being involved and taking part in the investigation. Town characters themselves do little active investigating despite the odd occurrences which I suppose makes sense since by the final page we realize there really isn't anything within these pages to investigate.

Despite these two major flaws the novel is strangely not terrible, and this is a mystery I have spent some minutes investigating. The characterization, including relationships, general interaction and internal thought processes, is quite good. There is here an unevenness as well, as some characters are inexplicably shoved to the background (not just in Odd disappearing but Tomasov's daughter Sasha is forgotten over much of the novel's middle while her two siblings are given a large amount of attention). There are some nice surprises near the end and the writing itself is competent. There is also some clunkiness provided by the publisher/printer in the unusual number of typos. The Town is the second novel by Little that I have read, and clearly The Store is a superior work.

On a side note, The Store is mentioned in passing: "There were no chain stores, no corporate gas stations... There was no Wal-Mart or The Store, no Texaco or Shell..." (20) This was a nice touch, and if other Little works are mentioned or alluded to, I was not one to pick up on them.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Classic Mysteries: A Collection of Mind-bending Masterpieces, Ed. Molly Cooper (1996)

Classic Mysteries: A Collection of Mind-bending Masterpieces. Ed. Molly Cooper, illustrated by Barbara Kiwak. New York: Barnes & Noble Books, Lowell House Juvenile, 1996.

Classic Mysteries at Goodreads
Classic Mysteries at IBList

Rating:     7/10

It is a clever though not unique method to tempt a young audience to read classic authors, such as Chekhov, Twain and Poe, by collecting together a selection of their mysteries. This would also perhaps encourage them to chase down further classic works. This trick worked well on me as a ten year-old. I was first exposed to mysteries from those Alfred Hitchcock Random House anthologies geared to young readers, starting with Spellbinders in Suspense and quickly moving onto other titles. To add to my quickly growing interest in suspense stories, my elementary school English teacher, Mrs. Wise, read aloud some of the classics, and it was from her that I first encountered W.W. Jacobs's "The Monkey's Paw." A little later, as a twelve year-old in my first high school English class, I was first exposed to the wonders of Poe with "The Tell-Tale Heart," and to Shirley Jackson's masterful "The Lottery." There was no turning back.

Classic Mysteries: A Collection of Mind-bending Mysteries collects six such works, all originally published between 1844 and 1927. The stories collected here make up an odd but interesting mix. The title is a little much, though, as really only two of the selections can be called mind-bending, and not because they are beyond reason, but because they have enough plot twists to at least bend the course of one's thoughts. These are Mark Twain's "A Curious Experience" and Anna Katharine Green's "The Ruby and the Caldron." I wonder about the choice to include the weaker Clarence Rook piece; I suppose a young female sleuth would prevent alienating female readers. In fact, most of the stories do have a strong female element, which is refreshing, and likely a conscious consideration by female editor Molly Cooper.

Each author is introduced by Cooper and each story is highlighted by a pencil sketch from Barbara Kiwak. The introductions are quite good as they include some unusual tidbits amid the standard biographical fare we encounter in countless anthologies. The drawings are from an integral point of each story and are a nice addition. Drawn simply and thankfully without modern pretensions, sticking to their time periods, with not too much detail but enough to make the image real and whole. I like Kiwak's interpretations of both the situations and the characters.

Overall the book would entertain most youths, I think, though for adult readers some of the stories are a little tame. I have always enjoyed the works of Chekhov and Twain, and the selections by both are very good, particularly Twain's piece. I was also impressed with lesser-known Anna Katharine Green piece.

The Adventure of the Veiled Lodger by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle     6/10

Strand Magazine 73, February 1927. 109-116

This story is not among Sherlock Holmes's stronger mysteries, and an unusual one in that it does not follow the standard Holmes pattern. The famous detective is called, along with Dr. Watson, to listen to a kind of confession from an unfortunately scarred woman, a confession that reveals the truth about an unsolved mystery involving a murder, a lion and a famous travelling circus. It is not a bad story though it does lack the Holmes & Watson interaction and deduction; indeed the two are but minor characters in this one. It also has one major flaw: why would a woman, desiring confession, request the audience of a detective rather than, say, a minister?

The Safety Match by Anton Chekhov     7/10
1883 (no translator is credited)

A comedic mystery with Chekhov's normally colourful characters. A satire more than a suspense story, the mystery is well wrapped up with the comedy, and the story culminates in a satisfying conclusion. There is so much ridiculousness in the character interactions, the deductions and the many clues that the messy little mystery is pure entertainment.

The Stir Outside the CafĂ© Royal by Clarence Rook     5/10
The Harmsworth Magazine, September 1898

Though it starts interestingly enough, with a young woman hopping off a carriage to follow a man she happens to notice on the street, the identities of the characters quickly become obvious, making the story the weakest among the group.

The Ruby and the Caldron by Anna Katharine Green     7/10
The Amethyst Box, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Company, April 1905

By the author of the once-popular 1878 novel The Leavenworth Case, one of the best-selling mysteries of all-time, this was a surprisingly good discovery. A fairly light mystery, I thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of it, and kept guessing as to the whereabouts of the ruby right along with sleuth Ebenezer Gryce. Told through the detective's point of view, we follow along as he is invited to a fashionable party to discover who has taken the valuable ruby that, having recently been lost, was in the midst of being returned to its owner. Along with Gryce we make the more obvious assumptions, only to be thwarted again and again.

A Curious Experience by Mark Twain     8/10
Century Illustrated Monthly Magazine, Vol. 23, No. 1, November 1881. 35

This lesser known story by Twain is among the stronger Twain stories I have encountered, and I've admired the author since an early age. This story works on many levels as it not only includes Twain's genuinely funny writing, but also offers a tght plot and good mystery, which is not always present in his short stories.

A young boy wanders into a northern garrison wishing to join the Yankee cause. The garrison colonel is faced with the task of figuring out whether the boy is a clever spy or a misunderstood youth. Openly hilarious with a tight mystery, I highly recommend this one.

(The image on the left is from the Twain piece. A soldier sent to spy on the boy hides in the barn the boy likes to frequent, and watches him place a sheet of paper beneath a haystack. It is one of the more detailed drawings, capturing the scene well and adding some nice shading. The boy's face remains mostly hidden, which adds to the mystery of his identity.)

The Oblong Box by Edgar Allan Poe     7/10
Godey's Magazine and Lady's Book, September 1844

This is a good addition and a strong conclusion to the book, offering something a little darker then the other entries. Though not Poe's best, it is among his stronger rarely collected works. Most anthologies will elect to reprint, for the upteenth time, the classic tales "The Cask of Amontillado," "The Tell-Tale Heart," "The Masque of the Red Death," "The Fall of the House of Usher," and so on, and while those selections are among his stronger works, Poe's other good stories too frequently remain undeservedly unread.

"The Oblong Box" is told through the point of view of a ship's passenger who obsesses about an acquaintance and fellow passenger who has oddly reserved an additional cabin. He boards the ship with an oblong box and an unusually unappealing bride, and not only does the bride share his own cabin, but so does the box, leaving the need for a second cabin a mystery our narrator desires to solve. Though Poe's narrator in this one is quite sane, he is nonetheless as obsessive as the madder characters we encounter in his work. While the mystery is less than shocking, the story is creepy, well paced and, as with Poe, nicely visual.

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