Kill ‘Em All: Book Review

Steven Stelfox returns in the new John Niven novel, Kill ‘Em All. It’s been twenty years since the rampage that takes place in the pages of Kill Your Friends, and if anything Stelfox is all the more sordid and bloodthirsty. Monetary success has driven him beyond excess, and to new lows at every pass. He muses that the world is, “A place where ambition still outstrips talent… Where the kind and weak are ripped apart like loaves of bread” (327). He admits early on that regardless of what’s to come he will not grow from the experience. His heart isn’t in the right place, if there’s a heart at all.

The year is 2017. Trump is taking office in the opening pages while Stelfox is presented with a job opportunity. He has settled into the luxuries of light retirement, with the occasional gig as a consultant for music industry big wigs. On this occasion a pop star is being blackmailed for his activities as a sexual predator who preys on children. With the dawning of the era of ‘fake news’ Stelfox takes control of the situation, spins it into something much darker, before he burns everything to the ground… all while making himself a profit.

I don’t want to give much away, so I won’t. Kill ‘Em All is the most wretched fun I’ve had in a long time. Niven never disappoints, and Stelfox is his most satirical creation, a modern vice figure who tells the audience just enough to keep them guessing. It’s blatantly offensive. I can’t recommend this book to everyone. It’s not for everyone. But if you’re looking for something ugly I’d start with Kill Your Friends, then move on to Kill ‘Em All.

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Beatrix and the Wooden Dagger: What’s Up With the Prop?

What’s the deal with the wooden dagger? It doesn’t appear anywhere in the text, so why is it in the title? What does it have to do with the story? The answer has to do with medieval theatre and use of props in character development. Characters in the medieval morality plays were often named for traits they were meant to embody. The vice figure was one of comic relief, meant to tempt and bring folly towards characters of virtue or other such positive traits. The vice often turns to the audience, and delivers lines by breaking the fourth wall. This brings about an inclusion so that the audience is in on the misdeeds.

They would carry a wooden dagger on stage. This prop was meant as a direct gesture to inform the audience, ‘Hey! I’m the villain.’ By the Renaissance, Shakespeare had dropped the prop, but perfected the role of vice in Richard III and Iago of Othello. These characters turned to the audience, told them of the intent, and then turned back to the story world with their malice in practice. A contemporary version of this that has resonated with audiences would be comic book antihero Deadpool, or average politician Frank Underwood in House of Cards.

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That’s my aim with Beatrix. She’s an antihero of sorts, who wants to fill you in on her thoughts and intent as she does whatever her wretched heart desires. The book consists of five stories that span over the course of her life, and plays with time. It’s framed with bits of the thriller, cultural satire, and dysfunctional family drama.

That’s the deal with the wooden dagger. I framed this character after the many vices I’ve come across, and hope to turn you off to humanity with her antics. If you’re still with me, give it a shot! 

As always, thank you for your time.

Cat’s Cradle: Book Review

Vonnegut is one of those authors I’m surprised was never assigned during my time as an English major. I did spend a good deal of time studying Renaissance drama and folklore, but I thought my time in classes that emphasized novels of the 20thcentury would’ve provided me with the likes of him and Atwood. As with Atwood, I would delve into their works after my time in the classroom.

Cat’s Cradle entertained, as I found the ride to have gone through unexpected turns. Even with science as an underlying subject I wasn’t expecting the sci-fi elements that emerged later in the book.

The juxtaposition of science fiction elements with the political/religious commentary allowed for some delightful satire. Some of my favorite passages involved the folly of American prejudice as human condition, and capitalism gone too far. One such passage reads,

“I guess Americans are hated a lot of places.”

People are hated a lot of places. Claire point out in her letter that Americans, in being hated, were simply paying the normal penalty for being people.” (98)

Another passage that caught my eye…

“The hand that stocks the drug stores rules the world. Let us start our Republic with a chain of drug stores, a chain of grocery stores, a chain of gas chambers, and a national game. After that, we can write our Constitution.” (285)

The book contains casual racism and sexism, which I’ve come to expect from male authors of that era. If you can get past that it’s a brilliant read. Much like Atwood, I’ll be reading more Vonnegut.

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Frankenstein in Baghdad: Book Review

I came across this novel while browsing in a bookstore, without any real intent to make a purchase. When I came across Frankenstein in Baghdad by Ahmed Saadawi, I was unfamiliar. The title was enough, and I read the synopsis. Then I bought it.

In 2004 a junk dealer collects body parts he finds in the street. War has decimated the community, and often people are destroyed by means of explosive violence. Our junk dealer, Hadi, creates a full corpse of miscellaneous body parts as a symbolic offering to no one in particular. The body becomes animated by supernatural means, and is burdened by the need to seek revenge on each ‘criminal’ responsible for each individual body part that makes up the monster. The premise is morbid, but powerful and thought provoking.

Saadawi offers a vivid community composed of those burdened by the war, and those taking advantage of it. There’s a full page that lists the cast of characters at the start of the narrative. An elderly woman of Christian faith believes the monster to be her son, having finally returned home after leaving for war twenty years prior. The junk dealer is an alcoholic storyteller, so the detailed confessions to his audience are received with entertained dismissal. A real estate agent takes advantage of people abandoning their properties, as the chaos of war makes it easy to claim their assets. There’s a full society in the cast, showing the beautiful and wretched range of human dynamics, burdened by the anxieties of war. He writes a universal truth with lines like, “the tragedies we’re seeing stem from one thing-fear” (123).

The monster is complex, and changes over time. It speaks well, and in tones that change. In the beginning the monster believes in a purpose, for, “He was a composite of victims seeking to avenge their deaths so they could rest in peace. He was created to obtain revenge on their behalf” (130). The monster states that, “there is a moral and humanitarian obligation… to bring about justice in this world, which has been totally ravaged by greed, ambition, megalomania, and insatiable bloodlust” (143). As the monster attains justice, or exacts revenge, the body part that corresponds with the deed decays at an accelerated rate. In order to maintain the self and momentum, the monster replenishes the body parts with other body parts, placing itself into a violent loop. The monster becomes conflicted, and is concerned about each new part; are they innocent enough to merit revenge? The answer doesn’t matter, as the monster continues to do what it does.

The monster is deemed a criminal, and all sides vilify the other as the source. Authorities make chase, but even with mystical astrologists, the monster remains elusive. The chase is compromised from the start, as the cost of ego cheapens life.

I enjoyed this book. Dark themes, and social commentary on a place that is not my home offers insight to the plight of others, set to a backdrop of the wretched and fantastic. Frankenstein in Baghdad is worth the read, if you can stomach it.

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Book Review: A Glitch in the World

I read ‘A Glitch in the World’ on a whim. Alex Drozd offers questions regarding the human condition through the scope of science fiction, and on the surface his vision of the future feels incredibly real.

Debate is used in ways that reflect upon contemporary issues with a futuristic spin. One of my favorites centered on the topic of music production. Computers and AI produce music, as there’s no human element in the popular songwriting process. One character prefers this, while another expresses a nostalgic longing for the days when people made music on computers. It reminds me of a conversation I had with my father when I was a child where he described the virtue of music produced without computers, whereas I have a taste for music made on computers.

Another question the book proposes revolves around the worth of an individual. Motorized vehicles are 100% automated and with AI responsible for driving, the value of a person is brought into the equation when it comes to the occasional accident. People are quantified based on a number of variables, and the computer does everything possible to spare the more valuable entity, even if it includes killing the lesser person. I feel the value of a person could be considered controversial if corrupt powers have any sort of influence, but Drozd did not venture there.

What we get is a story about a teenager full of angst, and the complications that arise after a friend commits suicide. There are beings from a parallel universe that only appear to our protagonist, and my only gripe is that their motives seem bigger than the end result. Even still, the ending offers a twist of sorts that is great fun.

The book was well edited in terms of proper grammar, but I feel some of the phrasing throughout could’ve used a little more tweaking. Drozd offers readers a fantastic effort in his debut.

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The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye: A Book Review

David Lagercrantz does excellent work. ‘The Girl Who Takes An Eye For An Eye’ is his second contribution to the Millennium Series, and it’s a stronger piece of fiction than his first. He has mastered the characters and their motives to such a degree that I’m no longer aware of a disparity between the writing of Lagercrantz and Larsson.

The narrative begins with Lisbeth Salander serving a prison sentence for crimes committed in the previous book. An innocent inmate is the target of gross abuse by a most guilty inmate, while the guards look the other way. Salander takes an interest, and intervenes with violent results, and takes it upon herself to correct the record. Thus begins a revenge thriller that captures the essence of Larsson’s characters and story world. It’s a wild ride that’s worth the price of admission.

In order to not give anything away I’m going to keep this review short and sweet. I take delight in these novels, and will continue reading further installments of ‘The Millennium Series’ while Lagercrantz writes them. His additions compliment the original trilogy with equal quality.

 

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The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison: Book Review

A few years back I watched a video where black children were presented with baby dolls. One doll had a black skin tone, and the other white. The children were then asked questions that sought to have them pass judgment as it appealed to their preferences. Across the board, when they were asked which was the ‘good’ or ‘pretty’ doll, their answers indicated the white doll met that criterion. When asked which doll was ‘bad’ or ‘ugly’ the black children consistently decided upon the black doll.

I’m white, and that video was painful to watch. Their answers suggested a deep-rooted self-loathing/hatred that’s socially programmed at an age too early to repair. My heart sank with their honest opinion based answers.

When I came upon The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison, I was somewhat familiar with the premise; the story of a black girl named Pecola Breedlove who abhors her blackness, and desires the white traits of what she believes constitutes beauty. She covets the likeness of Shirley Temple, damaging any hope of finding self-love in her blackness. But what complicates Pecola is not grounded in isolation. There’s a passage that reminded me of the video on doll preference. When a few black boys begin to bully Pecola, Morrison’s narrator observes,

“It was their contempt for their own blackness that gave the first insult its teeth. They seemed to have taken all of their smoothly cultivated ignorance, their exquisitely learned self-hatred, their elaborately designed hopelessness and sucked it all up into a fiery cone of scorn that had burned for ages in the hollows of their minds-cooled-and spilled over lips of outrage,” (65)

What makes Morrison’s work so intriguing (aside from a style of prose that hooks) is her ability to create backstories for a larger community. Morrison creates a bigger picture, before zeroing in on her focus. She’ll use entire chapters to establish other characters, bringing their obscure silhouettes to the forefront. Pauline Breedlove is the mother of Pecola, and as her past is brought up to speed we’re left to reflect, “So she became, and her process of becoming was like most of ours: she developed a hatred for things that mystified or obstructed her; acquired virtues that were easy to maintain; assigned herself a role in the scheme of things; and harked back to simpler times for gratification” (126).

The Bluest Eye examines race, gender, and class with tragic elements in such a masterful way as to stimulate empathy and arouse social questions. Why do we permit such injustice? Why do we hurt ourselves and/or the ones we’re supposed to love? The prose is an examination of trauma and living in its aftermath. I will be reading more of Toni Morrison, as her literary quality is top shelf material.

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